Almost 60 MPs have announced their intention to stand down at the general election. It has been claimed the turnover of parliamentarians is a worrying reflection of the state of British politics. This is partly true. But it's also a sign that our democracy is working well. Here's why.
Yes, dozens of MPs are now making alternative career plans, yet the current tally is down from the peak of 149 prior to the 2010 election, when the expenses scandal led many to reconsider their election bids. These departing MPs take with them thousands of hours of experience as lawmakers. But the replacement of old lawmakers with new ones is one of the main principles of representative democracy. Where we may spot signs of trouble though is when we ask who exactly is heading for the exit?
Younger women more likely to be relatively new to parliament are among those calling time on their political careers. As a result, there is a risk parliament falls prey to a ‘double-whammy’ of continually losing fresh faces at the same time the old blood sticks around.
Yet data on those MPs who are taking their leave of the Commons for good ahead of polling day shows that their average tenure is around 18 years and six months; over half were elected for the first time in 2001 or before, making them relatively old hands.
There is also no evidence of a disproportionate number of women standing down. Indeed, the proportion of women quitting is almost identical to their overall proportion in the Commons.
That said, examining who these women are is more illuminating than the raw numbers, especially on the Conservative benches.
Sunder Katwala’s analysis shows the average parliamentary tenure of the nine Conservative women who are standing down as MPs is just ten years. This means most of them entered the Commons during David Cameron’s time as party leader. This is significant given that David Cameron explicitly sought to ‘feminise’ a Conservative party that had previously been perceived to be unwelcoming to women candidates. These efforts bore fruit and the numbers of women MPs on the Conservative benches rose over the following decade. There is a danger that these premature retirements of prominent Tory women might be indicative of a turning back of the clock on this issue.
Many MPs’ decision to stand down will be the result of ‘push’ factors – things in parliament or political life that they want to get away from or avoid. Traditionally push factors have been almost exclusively political judgements, cases where MPs felt that they were unlikely to win re-election and that going through the whole process was probably not worth it.
Although something like this calculation still underpins the choices of many MPs, the 2019 General Election has seen some new push factors come into play. One is Brexit, where the votes around the desirability of No Deal gave MPs multiple on the record opportunities to acutely irritate their party leadership, constituency parties and voters.
Another is the online and offline harassment and abuse faced by MPs from all parties. Although it is not the case that MPs have previously been able to go about their work free from criticism (and nor should they be), there is evidence that the intensity and frequency of the abuse they face is higher than ever before. Given the prominence of both of these issues in the statements of departing MPs, it is perhaps surprising their number is not greater.
A final thing worth reminding ourselves of is that MPs are humans and will respond to changing circumstances in the same way that the rest of us do. Their workplace is parliament and their political parties and they go to work in these places on a daily basis.
For many, the culture, purpose, and general feel of that workplace has now shifted significantly. Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine you go into work tomorrow and your boss is now somebody who dislikes you (the feeling is mutual), that your prospects for promotion or advancement are looking bleak and that the aims of the organisation now focus on a series of things you don’t agree with or believe in. Would you want to carry on working there? I suspect not.
Peter Allen is Reader (Associate Professor) in Comparative Politics at the University of Bath and author of The Political Class: Why It Matters Who Our Politicians Are