Can politicians ever aspire to a real work/life balance?

Last night, Nick Radford — who stood for the Lib Dems in Salisbury at the 2010 general election — announced on his blog he would not be standing again, that he ‘finally felt comfortable describing myself as a “ex-politician”‘.

Before the media gets in too much of a lather (I can already see the headlines: “Top Lib Dem quits”, “Fresh blow to Clegg”, etc, yawn), Nick’s reasons are personal and varied — and as it happens, disagreements with the Coalition are the least of his issues: ‘this isn’t because of the disastrous press that the party has received since May. I actually agree with 80% of what the coalition is doing.’

Partly, I think it’s fair to say (though I don’t know him personally), Nick has changed. More important to his decision, though, is his feeling that politics was changing him in a way he grew actively to dislike, that the daily argy-bargy was starting to eat away at him:

… it was never the “cut and thrust” of the politics that stimulated me, in fact I really didn’t like that side of it. … In all the 5 years that I was in politics, I never met a single person involved who came across as content, peaceful and happy in life. Everyone in politics is strained. I just don’t think it is an occupation which puts you at peace. There is constant conflict, drama, hyperbole and everyone is always in a rush. You’re always being attacked or attacking someone – it’s just not good karma. It leaves you nervous, paranoid, hollow. There was no time for the simple things in life. These days I feel like a different person. I have a quiet, wholesome happiness right at my core. I know it sounds cliched but I have an “inner peace” which I never had at any point in the last 5 years. I get to read books, go for runs, make good food, research obscure topics that interest me, spend time with my family and with Eeva, dream and make plans for the future – it’s like a whole new lease of life.

Some will dismiss Nick’s blunt honesty, take it as evidence that he was unsuited to politics — if you can’t stand the heat, etc. It is of course true that to do any tough job (and standing for parliament for the Lib Dems is a tough job) you need resilience.

A couple of years ago, I put together a series for Lib Dem Voice, The PPC Files, based on a survey I’d undertaken with a dozen prospective Lib Dem parliamentary candidates.

It was very clear from the results quite how challenging they felt their role to be: a drain on their finances, their family and friends, and their career. For a party like the Lib Dems, with scarce financial and human resources, we rely so much on the activism of our volunteers, probably too much (though I don’t pretend to have an alternative).

But do we ask to much of our candidates? After all, we talk about greater diversity in Parliament — more women, ethnic communities, and so on — but does any of that matter if you end up with the same ‘type’: driven people who will have little in common with those they represent because their lives have become so distorted by what they’ve had to do to get elected?

And if so, what can we (party and public) do to try and make political life more appealing to those who have much to offer, but aren’t prepared to sacrifice their happiness to a possible political career?

* You can catch-up with our 2008 ‘PPC Files‘ series using the links, below…

The PPC Files (1): What are the three worst things about being a Lib Dem PPC?
The PPC Files (2): What do you wish you’d known before you became a Lib Dem parliamentary candidate?
The PPC Files (3): What do your family and friends think about your decision to run for Parliament?
The PPC Files (4): What’s different about being a Lib Dem PPC compared to being a Labour/Tory PPC?
The PPC Files (5): How has becoming a PPC affected your career?
The PPC Files (6): the 3 best things about being a Lib Dem parliamentary candidate

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24 Comments

  • Jenni Clutten 15th Mar '11 - 5:05pm

    I have been contemplating writing a similar piece for some time about the difficulty of anyone ‘different’ wanting to go in to politics and the impact standing for office has on life in general. Despite yet becoming a PPC I personally find myself in a constant battle between my aspirations for changing things for the better and brutal assault on myself that this would involve were I to stand.

    I am yet to come to a conclusion about what the answer is, or even if there is one. I think we can all agree that Politics shouldn’t have the impact on people that Nick describes above, but is it possible? Should we accept it as part of the process? I’m sure Nick thought long and hard about whether or not he could make a difference fighting against becoming a person like all the others and for him the right decision was to step away from it all. I’m certain this wasn’t as easy as selecting the easiest option and walking away from the challenge as he must have cared deeply to put in so much work.

    I hope that we don’t just accept the situation as it is and that we can work to find a solution that refocuses Politics for the better. So many people, myself included are so frustrated with the way it is at the moment, its not acceptable to say that it cant be changed.

  • What I find most worrying is the financial commitment that’s apparently expected. A PPC will have to take time out of their job – months, perhaps a year, perhaps more. Of course they have to continue paying their bills while they won’t be earning money, or earning significantly less than usual. There will be quite a few professions where taking time out for politics won’t be possible at all, which narrows the range of available people very considerably.

    Then, even worse, perhaps, it seems that many also bankroll their own campaign to a significant degree – and that at a toime when they are likely to earn significantly less money than usual.

    That simply HAS to be extremely prohibitive to diversity.

    I don’t know what the answer is, particularly in these straightened times for the party, but this really has to be looked at, I think.

    The reason why this worries me most is that disposable wealth does not seem to be the best criterion for being a really good politician. I think all the other factors – the dedication, the drive, the resilience and so forth – are all crucial not just for getting elected but also for doing the job – so we have to select candidates for those qualities. But as long as we keep selecting for wealth first and foremost (not explicitly, but implicitly through the way campaigning works for the LibDems), we won’t see as much diversity as we really should have – and perhaps we also won’t see the best candidates we might have.

  • Tony Greaves 15th Mar '11 - 7:27pm

    One or two thoughts.

    We don’t win many elections in Hackney.
    If you want to make a lot of money you need to be a driven person. You won’t read a lot of novels or play much football. (or do much politics).
    If you want to rise to the top in teaching, or the civil service, or as a social worker, or as a cricketer, (or most other things) you need to be a driven person.
    I am not sure that politics is much different except for a lot of people it has to be on top of their money making or their career. And for women (in most cases) bringing up kids.
    It’s a lot harder now than it was 40 years ago.

    I read books (not enough), I take long holidays, I go out on my bike, I go into the mountains (not enough now). But I’m only a part-time playboy sort of politician nowadays and I was only a serious PPC/candidate for about two months in 1974.

    To be active over a long period of your life you have to be able to mould your political activities to the other rhythms of your life as well as vice versa. And you have to have colleagues who understand this and help to ease you through the difficult patches.

    Tony Greaves

  • John Fraser 15th Mar '11 - 7:33pm

    Excellant artticle and fully agree with Marias comments the Lib dems perhaps have always relied too much in over committing volunteers . I was lucky when I stood for parliament that I had a natural gap betwen jobs . Would certainly not have been good for the well being otherwise (and that was in an unwinnable seat) .

    It is tricky as the lib dems have few resouces but what you tend to get is people haevily involved for a few years and dsiapearing never to be seen again . This is why the parliamentary party is particularly undiverse – and agruably does not any longer reflect the views of ordinary members .

  • greg Tattersall 15th Mar '11 - 9:51pm

    I stood as a council candidate a few years ago.It was very stressful.The canvassing,party meetings,casework does take up a lot of time.Plus holding down a full time job and family made the whole thing a very stressful slog.
    I did not win my seat but I did not wish to stand again.With very little backup both human and money the council candidate’s lot is not a happy one.

  • Steven Tall – well done for telling it like it is.

    This is the age of the obsessive specialist. Oh for the return of the dilletante.

  • As a LD Cllr (and recent PC) in a met, I must confess I long for this peace:

    “These days I feel like a different person. I have a quiet, wholesome happiness right at my core. I know it sounds cliched but I have an “inner peace” which I never had at any point in the last 5 years. I get to read books, go for runs, make good food, research obscure topics that interest me… dream and make plans for the future – it’s like a whole new lease of life.”

    I’ve spent 5 years on the “front line” of politics, and after a while, it does get you down – especially when you’re constantly at the sharp end. You just get to a stage where you need a break to rediscover yourself – find out who the hell you are again. I have so much admiration for Nick for putting up with all the shit that get’s thrown at him – he’s a legend.

  • There is an irony here in that it is the Liberal Party/Liberal Democrats who have made it more necessary for politicians and aspiring politicians to work hard to win the support of the electorate. The Labour MP in the leaflet Mark illustrated earlier would have won the election on that one leaflet every five years, plus some public meetings and a lot of sitting around in smoke-filled rooms with trades unionists. We changed the rules in the 1960s – I remember Ivor Stanbrook, the Tory who took the Orpington seat back off Eric Lubbock in 1970, saying, “I am not going to be the best councillor Orpington has ever seen”, or sarcastic words to that effect. No MP from any party could say something like that today because their opponents would beat them with it unmercifully – Caroline Noakes, the Romsey MP, will never be allowed to forget her email (I hope) saying that she was ‘bored to death’ by a debate in the Commons a matter of weeks after she was elected. Community politics supplanted class-based politics, and we are struggling with the consequences. We had, as a party, actually begun to build a new constituency of support, amongst young people, the intelligensia, and those who wanted serious reform that Labour seemed incapable of delivering: Nick Clegg managed to destroy that at a stroke.

  • An interesting thought, and one which I had been thinking about earlier.

    I’ve been a councillor for four years, with my elections next May. For a number of reasons, I’m not standing again after only one term – and I’m seriously considering following Nick into “retirement” (at least until I have more time & money to do things better!)

    Part of the problem is the Party’s desire to find “campaigners” to do everything. That’s fine if you’ve got the energy and campaigning nous of someone like Tim Farron, or the time and money to be able to do nothing else for three or four years. Back in the real world, though, we have to earn a living, and even despite the best efforts of the Government the economy still isn’t strong enough to move around jobs to find one which we are able to do. It also means, I believe, that we’re maybe missing out on people who aren’t instinctive campaigners but who have the intellect and analytical ability to be an excellent MP/MSP/Councillor (this would certainly apply to a number of our longer-standing MPs!)

  • This is very sad news. Nick was a quite brilliant PPC: hugely charismatic, very personable, and a fabulous campaigner. It is a great loss to the party that he has decided not to stand again.

    He poured heart and soul into the General Election campaign – and it must be a very traumatic experience to give so much, and end up on the defeated side. Part of the “game” is that PPCs have to declare undying devotion to their constituency, which would make it harder for someone of Nick’s calibre to try elsewhere in a more promising seat – as his words from 2010 would be thrown back at him. Let’s be honest, the Lib Dems have done the same to other party candidates.

    I hope he will change his mind in due course – and when he is an MP in 5, 10, or 15 yrs time he will look back on that blog entry and laugh. But if not, then I am sure he will put his talents and commitment to public service to great effect in another walk of life.

    Good luck Nick.

  • Grammar Police 16th Mar '11 - 1:06pm

    I think there are some very valid points above – and I think it’s worth pointing out that it’s not just PPCs. We expect huge amounts from our leading campaigners, and our target ward activists (especially in seats with little infrastructure).

  • @Paul – so, so true. The problem is that it’s often requests from people you’d consider as friends (or at least good acquaintances) and being the nice Lib Dem people we are it’s very difficult to say no, even when in you’re head you’re saying “where the hell am I going to find the time to do this!”

  • I’d like to echo Duncan’s comments. Nick was a great colleague in the election last year in Wiltshire and his retirement from politics is a great loss for the party. After the election, all of us who were unsuccessful candidates, particularly those like Nick and I who were the main challengers, needed time to recharge and reflect on what we wanted to do next. I’ve decided to await the outcome of the AV referendum and the boundary review before making my decision on running for Parliament again. I hope others who feel like Nick will decide to do the same. In the meantime, I’m running for local government again after a five year gap to reground myself politically and hopefully to work for local residents as their councillor.

    There’s no doubt being a parliamentary candidate in a key seat or where we are challenging to win takes a huge amount of effort, drive and commitment and it has a major impact on the rest of your life. That’s why anyone contemplating standing needs to think very carefully about it. As a party, we need to recognise that more and provide support and advice to our PPCs.

  • Matthew Harris 16th Mar '11 - 3:40pm

    A very good, sensitive article. I’ve always believed that being a politician must be a conscious decision, i.e. if it’s going to absorb your life, make sure that you’ve decided to that you want that to happen, rather than letting it happen by default! This is fascinating. If I said that I wanted to write a screenplay and get it produced commercially, we’d presumably agree that I was (a) attempting something very difficult; (b) doing something that would become all-consuming; (c) doing something that required me to be, as Stephen Tall puts it, “driven”. I think that the same is perhaps true of the effort that is required to become an MP. Does that mean that the people who do it will be atypical in a way that is damaging? Instinctively, I would suggest not.

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