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Parliament in transition
Part 1: After the honeymoon

Potential effects of the post-election transition on the health of UK Members of Parliament

Dai Williams, Chartered Occupational Psychologist

Post-election transition forecast from cover of After the Honeymoon
The post-election transition forecast on the cover of After the Honeymoon, 7 October 1997

1. Objectives
2. The post-election transition
3. Adult life events and the transition cycle
4. Hazards and opportunities during transitions
5. Surviving and thriving: managing personal change
6. Differing challenges for specific groups
7. Potential impact of other major events
8. Recommendations
9. Conclusions

This is an Internet version of After the honeymoon first published on 7 October 1997 - the original proposition that MPs and political parties in the UK Parliament might be affected by a post-election election transition cycle after the dramatic landslide result of the May 1997 General Election.

The second edition published on 8 December 1997 was retitled Parliament in transition with a new Part 2 - From crisis to recovery. These forecasts were compared with actual events in the Review , September 1998.

See also: Introduction & Index I Part 2 - from crisis to recovery I Part 3 - Review

1. Objectives

2. The post-election transition

A mixed blessing of the UK electoral system is that Parliament and other elected bodies can have a complete change of management and staff appointments overnight after an election. This happened in May 1997 triggering off a post-election transition period.

In most organisations this rate of change would disrupt corporate performance and create major stress for staff. So who monitors the health, career prospects and performance of Ministers and MPs? What are the hazards for individuals and how can these be reduced? And what are the wider implications for parliamentary processes?

After the Honeymoon

The 'honeymoon period' and 'the first 100 days' after an election are closely studied by political commentators and the press. But what happens next?

There is no commonly used term for the next stage. It depends on the individual's perspective of the change. Winners feel optimistic, losers feel dismayed. The term honeymoon is not appropriate for individual MPs and parties who lost power, or lost their seats. They were more likely to have suffered shock and disbelief during their first 100 days.

In UK culture most people assume that individuals go back to normal after the honeymoon is over. But in psychological terms the real changes are just beginning.

Each new Government has its own agenda and plans initially based on its election manifesto. These carry hopes, fears and expectations in Parliament and outside. But Parliament and its constituent political parties have to work through their own inner changes before they can be fully effective in legislating for changes in the country.

Some psychologists specialise in personal and organisational change. So perhaps we can offer a contribution as well as the civil servants, political analysts, economists and historians who are involved in ongoing processes of government.

Transitions and life events

Organisations are made up of individual people, and are as strong as their weakest leak. From a career counsellor's perspective the honeymoon period is only the first phase of an extended period of psychological change known as a transition which follows most major life events. After the honeymoon individuals typically go through phases of confusion, depression and crisis before recovery. The whole process usually takes 6-12 months to work through, much longer than most individuals or organisations realise.

The process of coping with transitions and change is a fundamental lifeskill for adults. It is also a crucial issue for employers, families and health professionals. It is best known by those providing bereavement or redundancy counselling support. I use it to brief every client starting a new job or coping with organisation change. These notes are based on career counselling programmes helping 500 adults to cope with career crisis or change. Their experiences show that any major life or career event is likely to start a period of personal transition.

Good changes can be just as de-stabilising as traumas. So the new Government is as vulnerable in this phase as the opposition parties are. But all changes, including bad ones, can open up opportunities for personal growth and career development in their later stages.

Who is likely to be affected?

The 1997 General Election directly affected about 800 MPs or ex-MPs and their families including:

For all these people the 1997 General Election was likely to be a radical, life changing event. But the effects of the post-election transition will vary significantly in timing and impact between these groups. So they may need different coping and support strategies

3. Adult life events and the transition cycle

The concept of a transition cycle after major life events was identified in the early 70's. It was first used to explain problems like the culture shock experienced by volunteers working overseas, extended stages of bereavement, and adjustment by coal miners to long term unemployment. It was described by Hopson and Adams in 1976 (ref 1).

Figure 1: The Transition Cycle adapted from Hopson 1976/81 The transition cycle
Adapted from Hopson and Adams (1976) Transition: understanding and managing personal change

These are some key features of transitions:

4. Hazards and opportunities during transitions

Potentially serious consequences

If underlying transition issues are not dealt with they can have moderate to serious consequences for the individual or others. These range from a short period of stress related illness or depression to major errors of judgement, and quitting jobs or relationships.

Impaired judgement

During the crisis phase of a transition an individual is likely to experience chronic stress. This can be physically and mentally exhausting. During this phase an individual's judgement is likely to be seriously impaired eg affected by lack of concentration, short temper, poor memory, tunnel vision and short term thinking.

Individuals and organisations need to be aware of the symptoms of stress impaired performance and to adjust tasks and expectations accordingly. It is prudent to expect mistakes and double check important career and personal decisions with someone not involved.

Differing vulnerability

Individuals differ in their vulnerability to the stages of transition. Factors like previous experience of similar changes, emotional support and physical fitness enhance an individual's ability to adjust. High personal motivation and certain types of personality may also enhance an individual's ability to adjust to change.

The new parliament has significantly more women MPs (now 120). They may face additional adjustment issues e.g. family commitments. But they also bring new attitudes and coping strategies.

If an individual is also coping with recent traumas or change affecting work, health, relationships or social life they may face intolerable pressures. Their health, work and family life may be at risk. Compassion, tolerance and support is essential for MPs and ex-MPs coping with multiple transitions.

Opportunity for growth

If a transition is completed successfully it can be a major opportunity for personal growth and development. Most people experience I0 - 20 major life events during their working life. The ensuing transitions are probably essential to adult development. They require us to periodically review our understanding of the world and adapt to changing conditions.

Metamorphosis, not mental illness

The transition cycle is not a mental illness. It is a normal, developmental experience of adult life - a period of metamorphosis. However it usually involves a period of significant stress lasting several weeks or months. Normal symptoms of this stress range from sleep or eating problems to reactive depression, nervous exhaustion, anxiety states or panic attacks.

A key problem is that because these reactions are usually delayed 4-6 months after the original event even the individual does not always understand their cause. They usually pass in a few weeks. They are stress not mental illness. But in some situations prolonged distress can lead to conditions which do need medical assistance.

Natural coping strategies

Natural coping strategies like regular exercise and talking through concerns with trusted friends are usually sufficient to reduce stress and resolve underlying problems. Accept that it takes time to come to terms with change. Keeping a journal (a great parliamentary tradition) through a transition period helps to identify underlying issues.

Asking for help

If an individual experiences significant and prolonged distress after a major life event it is OK to seek counselling or medical advice. This is not a sign of weakness. Transition counselling can be very helpful. Medication is useful for acute distress but preferably as a second level of support, or to stabilise the situation to give more time for counselling.

5. Surviving and thriving - the challenge of coping with change

The underlying psychological challenge of any transition period is coming to terms with the new order. Our minds are like the walls of a house (see Figure 2). The foundation stones are our values and deeply held beliefs. On these psychological foundations are built layers of skills, knowledge, attitudes, and expectations all closely inter-linked. The bricks at the top of the wall are how we behave day to day.

Figure 2: Our minds are like the walls of a house. Walls fractured by change need to be re-built.
Stages of transition - brick wall analogy

Phase 1: First Shock

The immediate impact of a life event depends on whether it was expected and whether it is good or bad. A traumatic change or loss hits our house like an earthquake. It overwhelms our ability to cope. The mind protects itself by going into shock, tripping our emotional fuses to prevent overload. It leaves us emotionally numb, stunned, yet able to carry out essential survival tasks. A positive change starts with elation, but is followed by frequent mood swings between excitement and panic. Unless well prepared this period is also a shock.

The shock phase only lasts a few weeks. Immediate tasks are to adapt our day to day behaviour to the new situation. MPs sit in different places. New MPs have to find accommodation and office facilities. Ex-MPs have to find a new routine. Psychologically these are superficial changes - re-arranging the bricks at the top of the wall.

Phase 2: Provisional adjustment - honeymoon or disbelief

In the second phase people adjust to new routines and may think they have coped with the change. Winners feel positive and motivated - the honeymoon phase. After traumatic change individuals tend to minimise the defeat or loss. Continuing shock can involve disbelief or denying that the change will make much difference.

During this stage most individuals are still living in the new world by their old rules (e.g. MPs who forgot they had changed sides of the House). The honeymoon or minimising phase is a welcome release after pre-election stress. But it can also be a false dawn.

Phase 3: Inner contradictions and disillusionment

It usually takes 3 - 4 months before the full impact of the change touches more deeply held beliefs, possibly longer in view of the long summer recess. Then some beliefs once taken for granted as basic truths prove unviable in the new situation. Expectations for the new era prove unrealistic. Once a deeply held value or belief comes under strain, or is violated, it is like a brick cracking deep down in the wall.

These strains may have as much to do with domestic arrangements (e.g. living away from the daily emotional support of a partner) - as with political beliefs (e.g. conflicts between party policy and personal beliefs, or hopes to remedy poverty or injustice without sufficient resources).

The dangerous phase begins as these underlying contradictions between our old view of the world and the new reality begin to emerge. Early signs are irritability and growing unease. The causes are usually too subconscious to identify, unless an individual is highly self-aware and keeps a daily journal of impressions and concerns. Part of this problem is cognitive dissonance (brain strain) where our mind is wrestling to resolve these contradictions. Once one brick in the wall is cracked the cracks begin to run up the wall. What other values, attitudes or beliefs relied on the one that has been broken?

"And now that I have come to doubt all that I once held as true
I stand alone without belief, the only truth I know is you." Paul Simon.

As the cracks run up the wall more and more features of the new world create problems. Old ways of coping don't work anymore. This leads to a period of growing confusion, stress and anxiety. The individual feels they are losing control of their life. This results in varying degrees of anxiety or depression. The situation gets worse as sleep is affected and chronic tiredness further reduces thinking ability.

In group situations these high stress levels often lead to bullying or scapegoating weaker members, trying to find some outlet for stress.

Phase 4: Inner Crisis and letting go

In the crisis phase the individual's world seems to be coming apart. The wall is tottering. One minor incident may push it over. There is a strong urge to escape or quit. But often escape is from the wrong cause. This is the phase where individuals may quit relationships or resign their seat.

Don't give up. Such escapes rarely solve the problem unless a better option is chosen. They tend to cause other traumas and start another transition period. Entering a new transition in an already distressed condition is perilous. These people will need maximum support.

Sometimes quitting is not an option (as in bereavement or redundancy). If an individual is unable to come to terms with the change they can become trapped in the crisis phase, unwilling to let go of their old world. Or they may only partially recover keeping many cracked bricks in the wall. This can lead to an extended period of distress and depression lasting months or years. This can be overcome but really needs counselling and compassionate support. Partial or delayed recovery can be released by a new transition.

How can we cope with a transition crisis, or help others to? The challenge of change is to let go of old beliefs or expectations that have become unviable in the new situation - to take out the cracked bricks and rebuild the wall. (see Figure 2, stage 4) This takes courage. It means dismantling the wall, cleaning off the cracked cement, and rebuilding it with old and new bricks to a new design. In practice this means rethinking your policy commitments and future role in your party.

Fortunately our minds have a remarkable capacity for healing. Most of our old beliefs (bricks) are still good. Grief or loss often hides past joys and achievements. These need to be valued so that they can be kept (saving old bricks in the wall). For example former ministers can take a pride in what they did well before the election. They need to be valued at this stage - by individuals, families and friends. This restores pride and self-respect. Then it is safer to let go of the lost dreams. Writing memoirs is a classic valuing process.

Phase 5: Reconstruction and recovery

Once an individual has valued their life before the change they can begin to move forward and start to accept the new reality. We don't have to agree with the new order or deny our old beliefs. But we need to be open to some new ideas (new bricks). Some symbolic gesture of change can be the breakthrough point eg a public statement- your defining moment. This letting go is cathartic. Once released our minds automatically begin to reconstruct our new view of the world.

The recovery phase is an amazing process. It can occur within a few weeks once the individual has let go and accepted the need to change. It is a rare opportunity to explore new ideas and possibilities, a learning process. It liberates our potential to grow as a person, in all aspects of our life. This growth involves testing out the new ideas and re-constructing our wall using the best of the old bricks and the new. It can be difficult with days of optimism followed by frustrations as some bricks don't fit. But recovery is accompanied with restored energy and each successful move increases our confidence.

This restless questing can be confusing and trying for people around us, and scary for party organisers. It can be greatly enhanced with mutual support from colleagues and friends who share our quest to understand the new reality. It can be disrupted by criticism or being forced to accept new ideas, rather than letting them evolve naturally. Time for debate not edict. But we gain inner strength through change.

One spin off of the transition process is the opportunity not only to come to terms with the current change, but sometimes to resolve unfinished business from the past. Some traumas leave long term problems - cracked bricks left in the wall. When our mind is loosened up in the process of change this may give opportunities to sort out some old 'cracked bricks'. For example difficulties about confidence in relationships may sorted out during a transition caused by a career change and vice versa. In this way career development and personal development can be harmonised during the recovery stage of a transition, even though in the crisis phase career and personal life issues may seem in deep conflict.

Organisations in transition

In a group or organisation individuals will reach the recovery stage at different times. This puts some responsibility for those who recover first to support colleagues, with patience for those who take longer to come through the crisis phase. Otherwise there is a danger of getting "ahead of the pack" and becoming isolated.

In a group the recovery phase liberates tremendous potential for growth. But it is crucial to value the insights and suggestions of individuals. New ideas need testing, not rejecting. They are likely to be more appropriate to the new reality than old dogmas. It takes courage for leaders to allow this phase of growth to happen. But the prize is a re-vitalised organisation with high synergy, well adapted to its role in the new era.

6. Differing challenges for specific groups

The post-election transition is likely to present differing challenges to MPs depending on their situation e.g.

Individual party organisations may be best placed to identify specific support needs for each of these groups. General recommendations are offered in Section 8.

[Note added in 2nd edition: Parties are evidently pre-occupied with parliamentary business. Individuals may prefer to organise informal self-help groups as some ex-MPs have done, or use existing networks to discuss transition issues. This could be fun to discuss new insights during the recovery phase, a time to find real friends and mentors and build new career networks e.g. as the SDP did after the 1979 post-election transition].

7. Potential impact of other major events

The process of adjustment during periods of transition can be enhanced or complicated by other significant life or career events. In private life these may include positive events like marriage, birth of a child or a new house, or difficult events like family health concerns, children leaving home, accidents or bereavements.

If you have had other significant life or career events in the past year keep them in mind when understanding how you feel about your career transition. You may find a new balance between career and personal life commitments during the recovery phase.

The most significant trauma likely to affect many Members of Parliament and the House of Lords since the General Election was the tragic death of Princess Diana. Most deeply affected are the Royal Family who also suffered the traumatic death of Earl Mountbatten in 1979. Many of the concerns and support issues described above for MPs are likely to apply to the Royal Family over the coming year.

The impact of Princess Diana's death on Members of Parliament who knew her personally, or who related to her experiences, may be even greater than the post-election transition. For some it may have triggered the inner changes needed to start their post-election recovery. But for most it is likely to represent a new trauma starting a multiple transition, with similar phases but starting from September instead of May. This may extend the effects of the post-election transition period by several months into spring 1998. It may also have an incalculable effect as a transition for the nation.

Other significant events may affect specific groups of MPs positively or negatively eg the results of the devolution referenda and progress on the Irish talks, major events for regional MPs. The Party conferences may have helped individuals discuss their changes. National or world events eg in world money markets, may cause other opportunities or traumas.

In some cases profoundly important events may cause overload and an extended crisis period for individuals. In other situations they may be cathartic and accelerate personal change and recovery.

8. Recommendations

1. Need for information about coping with change
The greatest problem about coping with life and career change is a widespread lack of understanding of the processes involved. Many of the symptoms of distress are similar to those thought of as mental illness. Mental illness is a taboo subject in the UK hence many people are reluctant to admit to problems or to seek medical or counselling advice. All parties appear afraid to discuss this.

This paper offers practical advice about coping with career change and aims to increase awareness of hazards and opportunities during the post-election transition. Understanding the transition cycle does not stop it occurring. Indeed it is an essential process for individuals to adjust to their new roles and the new order in Parliament. But knowledge and open discussion can reduce anxiety and lead to successful coping and support strategies.

2. Self awareness and coping with stress
Individuals are encouraged to monitor their own mental fitness and recognise signs of stress and the stress they may put on others. Late night sittings will exacerbate health problems. Stress impaired decision making in Parliament is obvious to the media. It is wiser to manage stress, or get advice before making mistakes in public.

Physical fitness radically increases stress tolerance. Regular health checks are recommended for people over 40 in high stress roles. Exercise facilities in the House, and encouragement to use them daily are a top priority. Short, undisturbed breaks to restore inner calm are also important and need to be respected by others

3. Transition briefing sessions
The post-election transition is likely to affect all Members of Parliament, from the new Cabinet to members who left the House after the election. Briefing sessions for coping with change and stress are recommended for the various groups affected, and can be provided on video or tape. Several organisations can offer this support where it is not already provided by parties.

4. Alert to GP's and Occupational Health services
Health professionals are familiar with symptoms of stress related problems among people in high stress occupations. The delayed distress associated with transitions is not easy to distinguish from chronic or acute pressures. But it has the brighter prospect of spontaneous recovery within a few weeks of its most acute phase.

5. Confidential counselling support
Confidential referral via GP's for transition counselling can help individuals to cope with the crisis phase and move forward to recovery and growth. This may also be helpful for MPs who left the House after the election, and for immediate family members.

6. Occupational health monitoring
It is not known whether MPs are regarded as employees subject to normal Health and Safety legislation, health risk assessments and occupational health monitoring. It would be helpful for Parliament to have an ongoing stress and health monitoring programme to identify trends in the occupational health of members, guaranteeing individual confidentiality.

7. Health policy and working practices for MPs
Occupational health monitoring would enable members to review their working practices and effects of health on performance. It could be useful to clarify whether the responsibility for members' health lies with parties, Parliament or both. Is there a policy?

8. Alert to party organisers and whips
Awareness of the transition cycle and associated periods of stress have significant implications for party organisers. It would be prudent to reduce the normal load on ministers and check major decisions during the transition period. Whips should be cautious of placing additional stress on members, and advise them to seek advice if their behaviour causes concern. Constituency parties can help with additional support for MPs and their families. Dissent takes courage, a sign of new insights, to be respected not rejected.

9. Valuing former achievements
A crucial task for all people in transition is to value their past achievements. This is helpful to restore self-confidence during the crisis period and to move into the recovery stage. The party conferences have been good for this. Other forms of recognition, especially for former MPs of all parties, will also help this valuing process eg. involvement in consultation processes and committees.

10. Media coverage, privacy and support
The media is in the early stages of its own transition following Princess Diana's death, a time to re-appraise its values. There must be greater respect for the privacy and distress of all public figures in coming months. There is a difference between public interest and voyeurism, and between criticism and harassment.

11. Impact of transitions in public sector organisations
First hand experience of the post-election transition process may encourage MPs to be more aware of occupational health issues for organisations throughout the UK. Occupational stress is a widespread problem in the UK, particularly in the public sector e.g. in Health, Education and the Police. Stressed organisations have minimal capacity to support staff who are coping with personal life events and transitions. Government policy changes can create mass transition problems and distress unless carefully planned, and allowing for personal transitions.

12. Impact of major events on the public
In some situations the transition cycle may help to understand or anticipate public attitude changes at community, regional or national level. These may follow any major or traumatic event which affects many people eg the death of Princess Diana, the Election and Referenda. Commentators, historians and social researchers are better placed to evaluate this possibility.

9. Conclusions

The concept of an extended transition period following major life events is very important in understanding an individual's response to career and personal life changes. When large groups like MPs are simultaneously affected by a major event the problems of individual stress, and changing expectations are multiplied. The health and performance of the organisation concerned is at risk. This could apply to individual parties and Parliament as a whole.

The transition theory suggests that many Members of Parliament are likely to be in, or entering the most difficult phase of the post-election transition during the next 2-3 months. We hope these notes will help them and their families to move to the recovery and growth phases with more confidence and good support. Others may already be in recovery mode.

This paper is about surviving and thriving through a career transition. It suggests ways of anticipating and surviving potential hazards in the crisis phase. And it highlights the opportunities to grow and thrive through the recovery phase, to liberate talent, confidence and vision. Seeing a person come through a career transition into a new life phase is like watching a flower open.

The recovery phase of the post-election transition also offers all political parties the opportunity to build a new level of confidence, commitment and cohesion among their members. But this relies on valuing and adapting to the new perceptions of MPs and party members themselves. Leadership in this phase may be more about enabling the growth of new ideas than prescribing them.

These could be vital messages of encouragement for those still working through personal doubts and career changes. The darkest hour is just before dawn. 1998 could be a special year for Parliament and ex-MPs as long as everyone is respected during the post-election transition.

Dai Williams, M.Sc C.Psychol
7 October 1997

APPENDIX: References and sources of help

The concept of the transition cycle and aspects of coping with stress and change have been adapted from the following:

  1. Hopson B. & Adams J. (1976) Transition: understanding and managing personal change. London, Martin Robertson.
  2. Hopson B. & Scally M (1981) Lifeskills teaching. London, McGraw Hill
  3. Sugarman L. (1986) Lifespan Development. London, Methuen

Sources of help and advice
Confidential advice is available from occupational health services and GPs who can usually recommend or refer people to counselling services. Relate and the Samaritans offer local support.

Professional organisations (e.g. The British Psychological Society, British Association for Counselling and Association for Counselling at Work) do not recommend specific practitioners. But they publish directories of chartered psychologists, registered counsellors etc. who can offer confidential advice or group briefing sessions. Several university departments and private consultancies have specialists in organisational health, work place stress or transition counselling.

Follow up - Part 2 and Review

After the Honeymoon was published on 7 October 1997 and sent to all party leaders and whips in Westminister. It was first reported in the Daily Telegraph on Monday 27 October 1997. The Opposition crisis started the same day with reports of internal disputes over their policies on Europe. 3 days later there were major conflicts within the party.

Headlines during the Opposition's crisis

The next day BBC TV's Newsnight programme used After the Honeymoon to analyse the Opposition's crisis on Friday 31 October, the end of the 6th month after the May election. Commentors thought it might apply to the Opposition but thought that the new Government's famous "Honeymoon" would not be affected. The Government's crisis began to develop 2 weeks later with the Formula 1 tobacco advertising issue.

The Government's crisis began to develop in November 1997

This first paper warned of potential crises with its main focus on the occupational health and welfare of individual MPs and their families. As crises developed for both major parties organizational issues became more important. A Government and Parliament in crisis was a hazardous prospect. The rapid recovery anticipated in the original forecast may have happened for the Liberal Democrats after they won a disputed election but it seemed evident that the Opposition and Government were going into extended crisis periods.

The new Government faced rebellions too in Dec 97.How could individual MPs and political parties manage these crises? This was explored over the next five weeks and written up as Part 2: From crisis to recovery, published on 8th December, three days before the Government's Lone Parent rebellion. The document was renamed Parliament in Transition with the focus shifted to Transition Management Issues.

The Governments crisis continued from November 1997 until Parliament voted to support military action against Saddam Hussein in February 1998 though individual ministers began to recover in 'defining moments' from January onwards e.g. Mo Mowlam's visit to The Maze prison that opened up the Irish Peace talks.

However the Government's recovery accelerated through March and April 1998 leading to major policy achievements including a budget that was popular with the City and peace talks leading to the Good Friday Agreement in April.

First signs of the Government's recovery period.

Actual events and the hypothesis involved were reviewed in September 1998 as a paper for the 1999 Occupational Psychology Conference. This review was written up in Parliament in Transition: effects of the 1997 UK election landslide, the third and final part of this project.

The concept of a post-election transition cycle with crisis and recovery periods may apply to elections in any country that involve a major change of power for leaders and political parties. The most recent Eos project - Power or peace: trauma and change in national and international relations in 2001 - applies the same model to outlooks for the new Governments in Israel and the USA, though allowing for longer crisis periods.

For other papers on transition psychology see the Community Projects Index and Life-work themes section of the Eos website at:

© Eos Career Services 1997-2001
This paper may be copied for discussion, non-profit making organisations and research purposes provided Eos copyright is acknowledged. Brief extracts may be quoted for media review. Eos copyright is reserved. No part of this document or its illustrations may be used for commercial purposes or publication without prior agreement and agreed licence fee from the author.

Comments welcome on the Eos Life-Work Forum or by Email to Dai Williams at

Page updated 14 June 2001.

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