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Parting Shot - Martin Salter

7 min read

There’s nothing as an ex as an ex-MP, says Martin Salter. Here, he gives his advice on how and when to quit and make the most of life outside SW1

It was a few days before my re-election as the Labour MP for Reading West that I knew that, even if successful, I was heading into my last Parliamentary term. 

It was the spring of 2005 and we had completed the final canvass session in a campaign dominated by Tony Blair’s decision to go to war in Iraq. I had to spend a lot of time and energy convincing reluctant Labour voters to acknowledge the government’s other achievements and my own opposition to the war in order to secure their support. I was knackered and so was my canvassing team. As we trudged wearily back to our cars, I muttered under my breath, “I’m not sure I’ve got another one of these left in the tank”. Glancing up, I was relieved to see that no one had heard me as announcing a parliamentary retirement five years in advance and three days before polling is unwise to say the least, and a tad demotivating for the party workers and voters. So for those considering hanging up your parliamentary passes and returning to ‘civvy street’, remember – timing is everything.

So, when does an MP actually announce that his or her time is up?

The marginality of one’s seat is a huge factor. We had overturned a 14,000 Tory majority in the 1997 landslide to secure a surprising, but narrow, win for Labour. My job was to build on that. By 2001, the Labour lead was close to 9000 but had been reduced by half in 2005 in the aftermath of Iraq. Any further shift in the polls would put the seat back in enemy hands and without the benefit of an incumbent MP, the task for my party would be made even harder.

But that’s possibly the worst of all reasons for staying. In any seat, being an MP is a demanding job and you can double that in a closely contested marginal where it’s constant hand-to-hand fighting to secure tomorrow’s headlines and public recognition. The numbers say I was good at it but I’m old fashioned enough to believe that you’ve got to be able to deliver your best for the people who put you there and you’ll know when the fire dims and it’s time to go. 

The next question is when to announce. Too early and it’s a slap in the face to the electorate; too late and the party has no time to select another candidate and get them known by the punters. In my case, there was stuff I wanted to do in my final term and dragging around a ‘dead man walking’ moniker was hardly likely to be useful. In the end, I held a great big party to celebrate 25 years in public life, at which my friend Feargal Sharkey sang Teenage Kicks and Reading Football Club kindly gave me the No 25 shirt signed by the players, before announcing the following week that I was swapping Westminster for the river bank. That gave my successor around 18 months to get embedded and enabled me to plan a gentle glide path back to normality.

Having reminded the public of Reading that I had other priorities in life, and I had been at their beck and call for a quarter of a century, I wasn’t overly bothered about the inevitable ‘running scared’ jibes from political opponents. I saw my job in that final year to carry on holding surgeries and representing my constituents right up until the final whistle while helping my successor get a profile in the constituency and understand the key local issues. For me, it was important to leave on a positive note, having put in a full shift. You have to feel good about your decision – for just as becoming an MP turns your life upside down, believe me, the converse is true at the end of your time.

I knew that, on coming back to England, there would still be a mortgage to pay

Then there is the little issue of paying the bills. Back in 2010, the resettlement package was a lot more generous enabling me to follow my hard-working wife on an 18 month sabbatical to Australia where I made lots of new friends, learnt some interesting swear words and caught some of those giant fish of boyhood dreams. However, I knew that, on coming back to England, there would still be a mortgage to pay, and I wasn’t sure that after the comparative freedom of parliamentary life, I’d ever be able to settle back into a 9 to 5 regime working for a single employer.

Some of my colleagues who left the Commons simply picked up their former careers as teachers or scientists. Others tried to make a living in the murky world of political consultancy or corporate board membership, but plenty failed as it’s a crowded market and too many parliamentarians have an inflated notion of the value of either their skills or contacts. Most tragic of all, in my book, were those who went back to being the councillors they were before being elected to Westminster. There is more to life than being a politician and leaving parliament gives you an opportunity to embrace it. For me, it was relatively easy. There was a new national governing body covering the country’s two million anglers – the Angling Trust – who were keen to have someone head up their environmental campaigning and I was asked if I’d do the job when I returned from Australia. So you’ve landed a new job – how do you adjust to ‘Civvy Street’? 

I still live in Reading and have no plans to move anytime soon. But convincing my former electors that I’m no longer public property turned out to be harder than expected. Eight years after standing down, I had an argument with a guy in a supermarket who was demanding to know when my next surgery was as he was adamant I was still his MP. So, be prepared for slow learners out there. And then there is your own head. Ideally, the best way to adjust is to bugger off somewhere for a while and let life carry on without you. You really are an ex-MP, so embrace it. No longer do you have to smile at any unwanted approach in the local high street or have a view on today’s news or the latest government or council cock up. By all means engage but on your terms. I presented a local radio show for a while, would occasionally comment publicly on issues, but tried to limit my output to my specific areas of interest rather than the usual ‘rent a quote’ persona that had been my style in the old job.

I really tried hard not to meddle. The Tory Alok Sharma won my old seat and, while I did my bit at election time to (unsuccessfully) help Labour win it back, I wasn’t about to be snapping at his heels like a jilted lover. I did come fully out of retirement to campaign with Sharma and my friend and neighbour Richard Benyon for Remain at the 2016 referendum but that was it. I’d had my time and was grateful for it.

My final bit of advice is not to trash your own legacy. Politics is a rough trade but it’s one you chose and it’s how we resolve our differences and select and dispense with those we want to govern us. And while the 2009 expenses scandal and the corruption of Boris Johnson and his cronies have deepened public cynicism, it’s incumbent on us to remind folk that to serve in public life for the right reasons is still a noble calling. I have no hesitation in saying that the best MPs I knew were some of the hardest working people I’ve ever met.

I still give talks to sixth formers and college students and my counter to the inevitable cynicism about politics and politicians is to remind them that when politics fails, ‘men with guns take over and the outcome of that is seldom good.’

Embrace your new life as you never know if the best is yet to come. 

Martin Salter was Labour MP for Reading West (1997 - 2010)

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