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

by Stephen Tall on March 15, 2011

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