Surveying former MPs is a developing cottage industry, and I took part in a study shortly after standing down from the Commons in 2010. The academic who was conducting it told me that those she interviews take leaving Parliament in two different ways. Those who leave voluntarily tend to swim. Those who leave under compulsion – in other words, who are thrown out by the voters – are in danger of sinking.
This rang true to my experience of speaking to and dealing with MPs who have been ejected from their seats – and the aftermath of last month’s elections, in which a few Conservative incumbents were beaten, has done nothing to change my mind.
To many former Parliamentarians, losing their seats has the force of marriage breakdown – of rejection by those to whom they have committed themselves in front of the eyes of the world. This is irrational. In most cases, the former MP has been defeated because his Party was less popular than the one that won, at least in his seat.
Furthermore, constituents have every right to change their representative. Indeed, it’s a good thing that they do: to be unable to throw out those who govern you is the mark of dictatorship. There’s no point crying over spilt votes. Then again, the stuff of emotions is irrational, and that this is so makes them no less real.
This morning, the Westminster Village is paying tribute to Charles Kennedy. My only dealings with him were as a fellow Associate Editor of the House Magazine, towards the end of my time in the Commons, in which capacity we met about once a month.
He was likeable, observant and witty – especially about Menzies Campbell, who was not exactly his favourite party colleague. A conversation once began about who Sir Menzies’s companions would have been in his youth, during which he competed for his country in the Olympics. “Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman?” Kennedy said, raising an eyebrow.
The tributes will soon be completed and the media will move swiftly to his alcoholism. It is a sad story, and connections will inevitably be drawn between it and his early death, rightly or wrongly. Amidst what is written, the loss of his seat last month may get a bit overlooked.
Alastair Campbell, who was a friend of Kennedy’s, writes this morning that he took defeat well: “He said in some ways he was glad to be out of it, ” writes Campbell, before adding “I am not totally sure I believed him”. Five years ago, Ross, Skye and Lochaber seemed to be Kennedy’s for life. To have been swept away by Hurricane SNP will have been a heartache for him.