In this week’s New Statesman: Obama’s Second Chance

Will Obama deliver this time around? Or will he just keep hanging on? PLUS: Lynton Crosby, the Tories’ savior, Douglas Alexander on Obama’s ground game, and Kate Mossman on Thriller at 30.

“Although there was no repeat of the euphoria that greeted his victory four years ago, the world still has good reason to be grateful for the re-election of Barack Obama” say this week’s leader. But with a divided congress and a looming “fiscal cliff” ($607bn worth of tax rises and spending cuts due to come into effect on 1 January, 2013), will the President be able to achieve all he promises in this second term?

“On the economy, as in other areas, Mr Obama must hope that the Republicans, no longer preoccupied with defeating him, will instead seek to work with him. Should they prove willing to do so, there is potential for the president to make progress in those areas where he disappointed during his first term.”

Douglas Alexander: Obama’s ground game, avoiding the fiscal cliff and thoughts of President Gore

In The Notebook, shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander writes from America in the waning days of the race towards the US election. He reflects on the message and methods behind the president’s 2012 campaign. He also considers possible directions for Barack Obama’s foreign policy, the “fiscal cliff”, and Labour’s relations with the Democrats:

Sure, the economy has been tough, but despite that the Democrats were widely judged to have had a better convention than the Republicans and left Charlotte, North Carolina, with a clear poll bounce. Yet this contest went right down to the wire. How did that happen?

Apart from a weak first presidential debate, most Democrats are blaming the lack of a clear campaign message. This weakness seems strange, not least because Obama demonstrated four years ago what a powerful communicator he could be, something we glimpsed again in his victory speech on the morning of Wednesday 7 November . . .

Anyone who thinks Obama’s re-election has no real influence on British politics should ask themselves this: how different would Tony Blair’s premiership have been if Al Gore and not George W Bush had won the White House as well as the vote in 2000? There is relief – and pride – about the result in Labour ranks, especially about the countless Labour activists who went as volunteers to learn and contribute. Mitcham and Morden CLP alone took 31 volunteers to help in Ohio.

Back in 2002, Bill Clinton told the Labour conference, “It is fun to be in a place where our crowd is still in office.” “Our crowd” gets back together next week when Clinton visits London. I’m hoping he might even hint at the name of the 2016 Democratic nominee.

 

Boris Johnson: Do “whatever it takes” to get Lynton Crosby on the Tory campaign

In this week’s NS Profile, Andrew Gimson takes a look at Lynton Crosby, the “rough-tongued” Australian campaign manager who pulled Boris Johnson from the brink, and who the Mayor says must be put at the helm of the Tory 2015 campaign at any cost. It’s one of the few things on which the Prime Minister and the Mayor of London seem to agree. “A close observer”, Andrew Gimson writes, “compared No 10 to a country house where everyone is very friendly and polite but no one knows who is in charge . . . Almost everyone is fed up with this situation. The Tories want to be told what they need to do to win the next general election, and they think Crosby can tell them.”

So what is it about this still largely unknown strategist that so appeals? Gimson explains:

He is a witty, foul-mouthed, workaholic election addict, with deep insights into political strategy and a ruthless eye for the other side’s vulnerabilities: he likes nothing better than to peel voters away from opponents by forcing them to defend positions that will be unpopular with their own supporters. His appearance may be that of a nondescript man in his mid-fifties, but his talents have made him one of the most successful behind-the-scenes political operators of recent times.

Johnson credits Crosby and his bullish strategy with winning him his first London mayoral race. He tells Gimson that, despite doubts by some in the party, the Tories should get Crosby on board for 2015:

He was “an absolutely brilliant campaign manager”, Johnson said. “I’ve never known anyone so good at motivating a campaign.” He had “a thing called the pink cardigan”, and “all these hordes of young people working for him”. At the end of each day, he would throw the pink cardigan to someone who had “monstered the Labour Party or done something particularly distinguished”.

Johnson recalled how, one evening, “I tottered to the end of a gruelling encounter with some Tory London councillors. I tried feebly to motivate them on various themes, and I was leaving them at about 9.30 at night, feeling rather wan about things, and I got a text from Lynton which said: ‘Crap speech, mate.’ ”

. . . Johnson told me the Tories should do “whatever it takes” to hire Crosby to run the 2015 campaign: “Push the boat out, break the piggy bank, kill the fatted calf.”

 

ELSEWHERE IN THE MAGAZINE

 

Michael Newton: The assassin’s creed

Historians and newsmen often grant a macabre fame to political assassins and depict them as figures who have changed the course of world events. From Vera Zasulich in Russia in the 19th century to the murderers of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and John F Kennedy, Michael Newton’s sweeping NS Essay examines the psychology of the “archetypal assassin” and considers the role of ego in their deeds:

None of the young conspirators imagined that the assassination [of Franz Ferdinand] would provoke immediate war between Serbia and Austria; as for their deed sparking a worldwide conflict, it was beyond their powers to conceive such an outcome . . . They had aimed at
a symbol, the embodiment of all their frustrations. They were too young and too naive to grasp fully the potential consequences of their actions; they were in love with the heroic deed, and their bloodily rose-tinted imaginations could not picture anything beyond that fair vision: at the trial, [Nedeljko] Cabrinovic remarked, “We thought that only noble characters are capable of committing assassinations.” Their most pressing motive in murdering the archduke and his wife was the desire to share in that nobility . . .

The assassins of the past 200 years were besotted with action, the power of deeds. It was part of the thrill of such action that no one could foresee to what it would lead . . . The assassin worked in a spirit of vanity or anomie: either conceited by an impression of their own potency or buoyed by the awareness of their own insignificance. The assassin embraced their victim’s death and their own, and both inspirited them with the weightless emancipation from the burden of having to live at all.

 

Terry Eagleton: Is God an Englishman?

In this week’s lead books feature, Terry Eagleton reviews Our Church, the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton’s personal history of the Church of England. “Scruton is homesick for the medieval England of Piers Plowman,” he writes. “He seems not to know that it was . . . a place of filth, fanaticism and excruciating torture.” Eagleton argues that Scruton has succumbed to Romantic prejudice and that “one suspects that this maverick intellectual is as fervent as he is about belonging because he will never really be able to”.

Eagleton adds:

The Anglican church, according to Scruton, is “a part of England, and an immortal projection of England beyond space and time”. God himself is an Englishman, a Daily Telegraph-reading deity, “uncomfortable in the presence of enthusiasm, reluctant to make a fuss, but trapped into making public speeches”. It’s surprising he didn’t send his son to Eton, rather than dump him among a lot of Palestinian fishermen.

For Scruton, Christianity is a mixture of purity, patriotism, Romantic nostalgia and a patrician flight from the everyday . . . His dewy-eyed history of England is more scrubbed and sanitised than a modern surgeon’s knuckles . . . For many years, Scruton was far smarter than his own extravagant Romantic prejudices. Now he has succumbed to
them wholesale.

 

Kate Mossman: The boy in the bubble

Our Critic at Large this week is Kate Mossman who looks at Thriller, the album that changed the world of pop as we knew it. It’s been 30 years since Michael Jackson released the album and began his assault on the white pop establishment. “The album exits in a bubble,” Mossman writes, so dazzling that Jackson’s later deterioration “next never enters your head”. She writes:

No one knew quite what to say when Jacko died in 2009 at the age of 50. Some saidthey “saw that coming”, which is also what they said about Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse. It seemed disingenuous – if anything, all three had been conveniently, temporarily forgotten like the madwoman in the attic. Perhaps the world is now ready to accept, all over again, that Jackson was the greatest pop star who ever lived. He broke the race barrier, redefined the pop video and forged a sound so pervasive that it can be heard in the songs of Justin Bieber, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj and a whole host of twentysomethings who were not even born during his glory years . . . The record that achieved all these things was Thriller . . .

One of the reasons Thriller still sounds so brilliant today is that what came next never enters your head. The record exists in a bubble – it remains a Technicolor, transformative experience that seems to come from a more distant age in entertainment, when the product mattered more than all the lives that went into it. You can watch any of those great Hollywood movies without thinking about Joan Crawford’s coat hangers, or Charlie Chaplin’s taste for teens, or the real-life madness of Vivien Leigh.

 

Also in the Critics

In Books: William Cook on an edition of Mary Whitehouse’s letters of complaint to broadcasters in the 1960s and 1970s; Emma Hogan reviews John Batchelor’s biography of Alfred Tennyson; Anita Sethi on Ali Smith’s essay collection-cum-novel Artful; the philosopher Simon Blackburn reviews Mind and Cosmos by Thomas Nagel and finds the author giving succour to creationists and fans of intelligent design; the BBC’s environmental analyst Roger Harrabin on The Carbon Crunch by Dieter Helm; and Toby Litt raves about Julian Cope’s Copendium.

Elsewhere: Alexandra Coghlan on the pianist Ben Grosvenor at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London; the NS theatre critic Andrew Billen on Damned by Despair, This House and The River; Rachel Cooke on the BBC’s Dickens update for television Nick Nickleby; Antonia Quirke on the sacking of Danny Baker from BBC London 94.9; Ryan Gilbey on Ben Affleck’s thriller Argo; Thomas Calvocoressi visits a new gallery in the Parisian banlieue; and Will Self investigates “giraffes” for Real Meals.

 

Purchase a copy of this week's New Statesman in newsstands today, or online at: subscribe.newstatesman.com

 

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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“I'm very much out on my ear”: what it's like becoming an ex-MP

Returning to normal life isn't that simple.

The week after June's snap election, Theresa May faced the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs. Her eagerness to appease those angered by the loss of the party's majority worked wonders, with Boris Johnson describing her performance as “stonking”.

It helped that she acknowledged the personal cost of the election for MPs who had lost their seats. The Guardian quotes one MP as saying: “The party is going to help them, some of them are in dire financial situations. She did say sorry, several times. She apologised for colleagues losing their seats, for making the call about the early election.”

Elections are based on numbers: swing; votes; majority; seats – but there is a human toll to losing. Jobless overnight, often without experience directly applicable to another career, many ex-MPs struggle in the weeks following defeat.

While May was referring to her Conservative peers, losing a seat is an experience also familiar to Liberal Democrat Sarah Olney. The former MP for Richmond Park made headlines by overturning Zac Goldsmith’s 23,015 majority in the December 2016 by-election – only to lose the seat by 45 votes six months later.

“I don't get any money at all,” she says. “I got paid up to 8 June and then nothing. I don't qualify for loss of office allowance or statutory redundancy because I wasn't there for long enough. You have to have been there for at least two years.”

Olney, who intends to look for a new job after the summer holidays, describes herself as a “little bit cheated” by the snap election. “I was expecting – especially when we had a Fixed-term Parliaments Act – that parliament was going to last until 2020. So to suddenly find that it's changed means that you don't qualify for anything.”

Even if her situation isn’t “dire” as was alluded to by May and the 1922 Committee, she still finds herself without financial security.

“For me personally, it does mean being without any money at all,” says Olney, who left her job in accountancy to stand as an MP. “I have a mortgage to pay and children to feed and I'm lucky that I've got my husband and he's earning and we've got savings to live off, but I'm very much out on my ear unexpectedly. It's not quite the terms you sign up to, but equally you have to accept that it's not a normal employment either.”

Returning to “normal employment” is not always a painless process. Dr Edmund Marshall, Labour MP for Goole from 1971 until the seat’s abolition in 1983, describes a “widespread suspicion” from potential employers that ex-MPs would be seeking to re-enter parliament at the earliest opportunity.

He also bemoans the nature of the career change itself. “An ex-MP has, in the nature of that role, been a generalist – especially if he or she had long service in parliament – and so is in a weak position when applying for any specialised job, for which there will usually be many other applicants with more up-to-date relevant experience,” says Dr Marshall, who went into lecturing and Church of England policy after leaving parliament.

Another downside for Olney is that the legitimate scrutiny MPs are exposed to will continue even after leaving the Commons. “Every single thing I've done has been under scrutiny and has been reported negatively, even though there's very little to say,” she says. “I'm pretty squeaky clean – I have no skeletons in my closet. Anything people could use, they would. So anything I do from now on would be treated the same. It's one thing to be under that scrutiny when you're running for public office, but it's entirely another when you're just trying to earn a living.”

Most of the “relentless” criticism that she has faced on Twitter has faded, but she remains sceptical of the reaction to a new position. “It might well be that I could take a job and people just won't notice or care,” she says, “but it's been my experience ever since I got selected that anything I did was criticised, so I would expect that to continue I guess.”

When it comes to jobs, Olney remains unsure of her direction, describing herself as being at a “crossroads”. “I'm conscious I might face criticism for anything I might do that uses my political experience,” she explains. “Given that I'm now just a private individual trying to earn a salary, I don't want to have to answer for that.” She laughs: “But I think equally my political experience sits rather strangely on my accountant's CV.”

Olney’s defeat on 8 June left more than just one career affected. She describes the “frustration” of having to lay off her newly appointed staff. “I think one of the things I didn't realise – and I wonder if most people don't realise about being an MP – is you're pretty much almost like a sole trader, and you have to set up everything from scratch,” she says. “You have to hire your own staff and you have to find your own office premises. There's a lot of work involved in doing all of that, and I was only just getting to the end of that set-up phase.

“And then all of a sudden, a general election comes along and having just hired all these staff, the next thing I'm doing is sending them all redundancy letters.

“So that for me was a huge frustration that we never really got started, never really got going, never really got to do all the things that I would have liked to get done.”

Despite saying that there was a lack of support for the transition period after her by-election win, Olney says that, from her experience, the infrastructure for leaving parliament is “pretty good”.

Yet as Olney has experienced, the financial support from the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) has been cut back following the expenses scandal of 2009. Many MPs, if they have not served long enough to receive a pension, rely on IPSA’s payout to tide them over until re-employment. In 2015, this was capped at £33,530, made up of one month’s pay for every year in parliament. Now, the figure is capped at £29,340, and is calculated from both the number of years served and the former MP’s age.

And then there's actually finding a new job. Keith Best, the Conservative MP for Anglesey (renamed Ynys Môn in 1983) between 1979 to 1987, claims to have made “over 400 applications” after a conviction for fraud forced him to leave parliament.

Dr Marshall recalls a similar, if less extreme, application process. “In 1983, it took me six months to find good, alternative employment,” he says. “I made an application for 56 specific, advertised jobs, and was interviewed for 14 of them. In the end I was offered two good posts, so at least at that stage I was able to make a choice!

“I think the good rate of getting interviews, 25 per cent, was because the selectors were curious to see what an ex-MP looked like. So that curiosity factor is a small advantage that the ex-MP has.”

Meanwhile, Michael Meadowcroft, Liberal MP for Leeds from 1983 to 1987, describes having “survived through journalism”, writing for a number of different outlets before eventually chairing the Electoral Reform Committee.

While the experience of former MPs appears largely consistent across party lines, two former Labour MPs argue that Conservative politicians face advantages when it comes to gaining re-employment. Tony McWalter held Hemel Hempstead for Labour from the seat’s creation in 1997 until 2005. He cites “two advantages” for former Tory MPs.

“On the one hand,” he says, “their party thinks that to be an MP is not a full-time job, so frequently they keep paid positions while they are MPs without incurring the wrath of their constituency members. This makes the transition to being a former MP much smoother.

“Secondly, many Conservative MPs have close friendships with those who run companies, and that in turn means there are likely to be people in positions of considerable [influence] to whom they can turn when the electoral axe falls.”

Dr Marshall agrees it is easier for Conservatives, but attributes this to political bias rather than connections. “All ex-MPs, when job-hunting, are likely to encounter some party political prejudice among the selectorate,” he says, “but I think this poses particular difficulty for Labour ex-MPs, because the Tories probably have a majority among the selectorate. For instance, it appears easier for ex-Tory MPs to land positions on boards of directors.”

Keith Best and his 400 unsuccessful applications may disagree.

Yet losing a seat is not all doom and gloom. Sir Hugh Bayley, the former Labour MP for York Central, writes of the personal and professional opportunities afforded by stepping down in 2015 after 23 years’ service. “My wife, Fenella Jeffers, had had enough of a spouse who was rarely at home, and focused mainly on politics even when there,” he explains. 

“Fenella was born abroad, in Nevis in the Caribbean, and said she was going home, to live there much of the time. We decided it was her turn to set the ground rules for our lives.

“I now spend a few months a year in Nevis. I draw a parliamentary pension but work (pro bono) as a member of the UK/Europe Board of the International Rescue Committee (the New York-based humanitarian NGO led by David Miliband), and (paid, part-time) as a lay member of the Nursing and Midwifery Council.

“Fenella spends a few months a year in the UK so we spend roughly half our time together, which is far more than we did when I was an MP, and it is allowing us to rebuild the relationship which nearly collapsed because of the pressure of all those years when I was in Parliament.”

Olney echoes those sentiments. Speaking over the phone before going to play football with her son, she says: “The up-side of only having been there six months is that I had a normal life before, and it's been an opportunity to reconnect with that normal life, so spending more time with my children.

“It's been an opportunity to catch up with people and rediscover some of the other things I used to do before I became an MP.”

And yet, the call to the Commons is persistent. When asked if it was in her plans to re-stand for election, Olney was emphatic. “Yes. Yes, absolutely it is. It definitely is.” Referring to Goldsmith, she says: “He had a majority of 23,000 two years ago and now he's got a majority of 45. That's just the momentum that we've got going on here locally and I don't want to spoil that, I want to get over the line next time.

“For me, it's not so much personal. I am now out of work, but I will find another job reasonably easily and I will get back the life I had before. I just don't feel Zac Goldsmith is the best person to represent this constituency and I'm just really annoyed he's our MP again.”

Olney’s point that being an MP is no “normal employment” was also part of the appeal for her predecessors. “It is an absolutely marvellous job,” writes McWalter over email, emphasis his own. “You might be able to help, not dozens of people who are victims of injustice or callous indifference, but thousands of them.

“You will get opportunities to expand your knowledge to be able to do the job, and I found my placements with police service and with the Royal Navy during my time in parliament of extraordinary value.

“You will find the job has dazzling variety, so you need to become knowledgeable about a huge range of matters – from war to warts, and you have to employ the knowledge so gained to improve the lot sometimes of people throughout the country.

“Just to serve on a select committee, [as] I did [on] Northern Ireland at a crucial time, and then science and technology, is to be faced with challenges every bit as demanding as those faced by those who stay in the academic world.

“Most people who have been Members of Parliament have found the experience wonderful. It is sad, however, that the skills you acquire are redundant the moment you lose your seat. Those who seek to get into Parliament are often rational and altruistic, for they are applying for one of the best jobs you could do. But it would be a service to our democracy if their offer to serve were to be put into proper context."

McWalter does realise that not every aspect of the job, and the consequences of losing it, are positive. “Some have to pay for their time of service by having a quality of life a lot worse than they had before they were successful in an election,” he says. “That is the price to be paid by many, and the subsequent strains on mental health, on marriage, and on financial security, are sometimes such that those who are the family and friends of former MPs wish they had never been elected.”

Best concluded on a similar note: “Being an MP these days is so risky that I fear that it will deter many, if not in their own interests at least in those of their families.”

Nevertheless, for many MPs, working in the Commons is not a career that can be simply left behind. For them, the price of entry – and exit – is worth it.