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Paper presented to the BPS Occupational Psychology
Conference, January 1999 (11). Page updated 14 June 2001.

Parliament in transition:
Review of the effects of the 1997 UK election landslide

Dai Williams, Chartered Occupational Psychologist
[See also: Introduction & Index I Part 1 - After the honeymoon I Part 2 - From crisis to recovery ]

This paper reviews the application of Hopson's transition model (refs 1, 2) to anticipate effects of change in the UK Parliament after the 1997 General Election. Transition psychology suggested a potential crisis for MPs, ex-MPs, families and the two major parties in late autumn 1997 - the Landslide Syndrome - followed by recovery into stable government and a new era.

This hypothesis was used to suggest practical transition management approaches for party leaders, organisers, and individuals. It was an independent analysis of psychological processes, offered for the health and welfare of MPs of all parties.

Part 1 outlines the hypothesis and forecasts made in September and updated in December 1997. It compares them with reported events.

Part 2 summarises transition management interventions offered to MPs and party leaders between October 1997 and February 1998, with conclusions for transition theory and managing organisation change.

The Conclusions cover theoretical implications for transition analysts and 11 practical implications for managing change in political and other strategic organisations. The Appendix includes recovery scenarios, management of change issues and the key events used to track psychological climate through crisis and recovery in 1997-98.
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Part 1: Parliament in Transition
- hypothesis, forecast and events

The 1997 UK Election Landslide

On 1 May 1997 the Labour Party won 419 of the 659 seats in the UK Parliament, the biggest majority in 62 years. This result affected 872 MPs: 260 new MPs, 236 re-elected Labour MPs promoted to Government, 124 Conservative MPs relegated to Opposition, 117 who retired and 135 who lost their seats. Only 39 MPs (4%) retained their former roles and status.

The transition hypothesis and forecast

The possibility that a mass transition might affect the new Parliament occurred to me in September 1997. Since 96% of old and new MPs experienced radical work role changes on the same day this was likely to trigger a transition period for many individuals and their party organisations. The Government was still in its honeymoon period. But what happens after the honeymoon?

The Hopson transition model was applied to the Election timetable, see Figure 1. For career counselling clients a crisis phase often develops about 6 months after a significant career change or other major life event. If this theory applied to Parliament a potential crisis period was imminent for many individuals, the Opposition and the new Government.

In September the honeymoon phase was continuing for the new Government having just won devolution referenda for Scotland and Wales. The Opposition was subdued. Party conferences had just finished. New MPs were still on a 3 month summer recess. Even the press were in shock from the death of Princess Diana. The landslide Parliament appeared stable.

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Figure 1: The transition hypothesis on the cover of After the Honeymoon - potential effects of the post-election transition on the health of UK Members of Parliament, 7/10/97

Post-election transition forecast from cover of After the Honeymoon

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Work with clients has shown the transition process to be an important factor in career crisis and change (see ref 3). It can affect people for up to a year after a major career change and other life events, good or bad. Transitions seem to be a natural evolutionary process that enables individuals to adapt to radical change in their life or environment. The crisis phase is due to inner conflicts between a person's former identity, values and expectations and their new situation. These can lead to distress and inner crisis, resulting in impaired judgement and severe strain on work and relationships. These hazards raise mental health and social welfare issues with serious implications for work and organisation performance.

The crisis is resolved by letting go of obsolete beliefs - like creatures that shed their skins to grow. Recovery offers major opportunities for personal and organisation development if managed effectively (ref 4). This could apply to winning and losing parties and individual MPs and ex-MPs. The hypothesis was checked with two leading authors on transition, a doctor and historian.

Observations: critical events and psychological indicators

My primary concern was to offer fast and practical advice to individuals potentially at risk, see Part 2. I had no opportunity to survey ministers or MPs. But their events and behaviour were monitored through daily media coverage. This was real-time data despite tight restrictions on MPs by party 'spin-doctors' (staff employed by Government and political parties to control media interviews and statements by MPs). Media reports focused on senior politicians, only covering extreme events for others. These may have been the tip of an iceberg.

Media analysis is usually based on political, economic or historical criteria. I was looking for indications of psychological well-being and performance. Symptoms of crisis become evident in inappropriate behaviour, loss of strategic vision, and quitting roles or relationships. Groups and organisations in crisis display over-control, conflict, rebellion and scapegoating. Transitions cross the life~work boundary so personal life events affecting individual MPs or their families were also considered.

Indications of the recovery phase include willingness to question established principles, new insights, co-operation (group synergy) and successful resolution of complex issues. In time these may generate a major transformation for the organisation or community concerned.

Transition events for the new Government and Opposition

Weinberg et al (ref 5) monitored the well being of new MPs before and soon after the election. Key events for the two main parties are shown in Figure 2, plus events that indicated crises and recovery points for individuals.

Figure 2: Post-election transition events for the first year of the new UK Parliament Election(see Figure 4 for press headlines and Appendix for the key events used to compile this chart)

chart of psychological climate in UK Parliament 1997-98
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Crisis, rebellion and recovery for the Opposition, Oct. 97 - Spring 98

After the election itself the main crisis for the Conservative Opposition was the European policy rebellion in the last week of October. Leadership disagreements with ex-ministers, and problems for ex-MPs, continued in November but family time was valued. The Leader's defining moment was probably his marriage in December. A gradual recovery began from that time, reconstructing internal party rules and valuing ex-MPs. Family crises had affected at least 2 MPs. Outcomes for ex-MPs are not known but two MPs who left in the autumn made significant personal recoveries soon after.

Crisis, rebellion and recovery for the Government, Nov. 97 - Spring 98

Serious problems began in mid-November with the Formula 1 and Robinson affairs, scapegoating weaker ministers and growing backbench concern over rigid adherence to manifesto commitments and budgets. The deepest crisis for the Government was 10 December when the Cabinet forced a loyalty vote on lone parent benefit cuts. 47 rebelled, 5 junior ministers resigned.

From December to early February there was an extended crisis and power struggle in the Cabinet. Family problems affected at least 2 ministers. But events handled with dignity and integrity became defining moments for the ministers concerned. Each recovered rapidly with renewed respect for their actions and policies. Their defining actions eg Mo Mowlam's visit to the Maze prison, seem to have started the Government's recovery phase.

Two senior ministers had multiple transitions from emotional traumas 5-6 months earlier. They sought military action against Iraq, together with President Clinton who was also in an emotional crisis period. In 1991 Freeman6 warned about the state of mind of world leaders before international conflicts. The potential conflict was defused by other world leaders. But the war vote was a defining moment for Government recovery.

Political analysts and historians may find parallels for the effects of transitions in other political events eg after the 1992 UK election and the 1997 Norwegian election. The effects of stress and change on politicians need more care as for other high stress/responsibility roles eg. airline pilots (ref.6).
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Part 2: Transition management interventions

Seeing an organisation entering a transition crisis is like watching civilians walking into a minefield. The predicted transition crisis and advice on how to manage it was published on 7 October in a booklet called After the Honeymoon: Potential effects of the post-election transition on the health of UK Members of Parliament (ref 7). It explained how to survive and thrive through the transition process, hazards of stress, opportunities for change, individual coping strategies and groups at risk.

It offered 12 recommendations for Parliament, parties, individuals and supporting health professionals. These included transition and stress awareness; GP, occupational health and counselling support; review of health policy and working practices; alert to party organisers and whips; valuing former achievements; media privacy; potential post-election transition effects in the public sector and possible effects of Diana's death.

It was sent to Chief Whips on the advice of two local MPs, to Leaders of all parties and to Dr Peel, Occupational Physician for Parliament. He replied:
"the composition of Parliament is much more disparate than your graph describes. Some members have already completed your cycle, and others may be entering your recovery phase, but many will not."

After 2 weeks none of the parties had acknowledged these 'government health warnings' so I contacted the Press. On 26/10 The Telegraph reported 'MPs facing Landslide Syndrome'. The same day the Opposition's Euro crisis started. On 31/10 BBC Newsnight used After the Honeymoon to explain the Opposition crisis. But commentators and two Labour MPs (one a GP) lampooned the possibility that the new Government could be affected.

When the Government entered its crisis period this raised the question 'how to get out of the minefield?' The transition process, current events, party reaction and criticisms were re-analysed suggesting 5 issues:

  1. Individual MPs needed direct evidence and practical advice. I adapted the Lifeline exercise and Career First Aid tips used with private clients.
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  2. The mention of mental health issues touches a taboo subject. Advice needed to be re-positioned as Career Management Issues.
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  3. A key issue was how individuals could break out of the crisis phase. The Opposition rebellion led to the notion of a defining moment mechanism:
    "Few people appreciate the anger, pain or fear it takes to speak out in public to question your party, or to re-define your past beliefs or allegiances. You may be putting your career on the line. History suggests this is a hallmark of integrity. At some point you will have to make a crucial decision, privately or publicly, about what your new life has become - your defining action. When you act this is your defining moment." (ref 8).
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  4. Parties needed ways to manage crisis and recovery. Criticisms had highlighted differing vulnerability. This suggested identifying different outcomes from the crisis phase. Six transition scenarios were identified: 1) no transition, 2) deferred transition, 3) quitting, 4) extended crisis with delayed recovery, 5) frustrated recovery and 6) optimum recovery.
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  5. Leadership styles suited for elections (tight focus, high control) seemed to exacerbate crisis and inhibit recovery. The need for management style and culture shift was considered for leadership in the recovery phase.
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These ideas and suggestions were added as a new Part 2 to the original briefing paper. It was re-titled Parliament in Transition: Honeymoon, Crisis and Recovery (ref 8) and distributed as before on 8/12, two days before the lone parent vote. The scenarios suggested that a loyalty test could force rebels into frustrated recovery, and those who compromised their integrity for loyalty into extended crisis. A free vote would respect all members and might have liberated many into recovery. There was no risk of losing the vote. This was faxed to a minister and broadcast on Radio 4 and Sky News but a 3-line whip was imposed. The resulting rebellion is described above.

Figure 3: Cover of Parliament in Transition, Dec 97 - amended from After the honeymoon for extended crisis scenarios

Cover of Parliament in transition, Dec 97

From October to February copies were sent to individual ministers and MPs reported to be in crisis. Several acknowledged the new edition. Parties did not circulate it. Madam Speaker shared the concerns for the welfare of MPs. With three exceptions it is not known whether the 'survival guide for MPs' was read, or whether it was of any help to parties or MPs. The Times researched the transition hypothesis with four psychologists in February. Since no Government MP was willing to be quoted they dropped the story.

Figure 4: UK press headlines during the proposed transition crisis and recovery period

Press headlines during the 1997-98 post-election transition

Conclusions

This review suggests that many MPs, some families and both major parties went through a transition process. Effects appeared more severe on party leaders and ministers, and less on backbenchers than expected. Management styles inadvertently exacerbated the crisis phase. Defining moments seemed to trigger recovery with powerful benefits for parties.

Implications for transition theory

  1. Mass transitions arise from the sum of individual transitions, but amplified by group processes. Predictable hazards, opportunities and time-scales offer a basis for transition management.
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  2. Natural mechanisms may enable psychological reconstruction and the break out from crisis to recovery sometimes through defining moments.
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  3. Transition models for organisation change need to include multiple outcome and recovery scenarios for individuals and groups.
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  4. Schlossberg's 4 S model - situation, support, self, strategies - (ref 9) offers a wider framework for transition management to compliment the stages of Hopson's model and multiple outcomes suggested here.
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Practical implications for organisations

  1. The 97 Election transition illustrates that winners as well as losers, survivors as well as redundant staff, and senior managers as well as staff are susceptible to the transition process after major change events.
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  2. Un-managed transitions in organisations risk many hazards in the crisis period and miss opportunities for transformation during recovery.
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  3. Differing vulnerability of individuals affects the severity, timing and duration of crisis periods. Factors include multiple transitions (work and personal events), job insecurity, and group support or hostility.
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  4. Transition management awareness and skills are essential to optimise individual and group adjustment to major changes in organisations.
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  5. Strategic management decisions may be seriously impaired during the crisis phase. Leaders need to monitor their own transitions, sharing workload and responsibility. Loyalty tests endanger the organisation.
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  6. Leaders and managers may be vulnerable to predatory influences which offer support during the crisis phase. Highly stressed teams or groups need to support each other against scapegoating or dismissal.
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  7. Individual expectations and corporate agendas for change (e.g. manifestos) cannot fully anticipate the new reality. They need to be continuously monitored and open to review during crisis and recovery.
  8. Management style needs to adapt at each stage of a mass transition process to minimise the crisis phase and harness the recovery phase. Over-control reduces confidence, trust, participation and wastes talent (ref 10).
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  9. Disciplinary and dismissal procedures should be used with extreme caution during transitions. Key staff may quit, be disciplined, demoted or dismissed when they are about to be most valuable to the organisation. Rebels may have a more accurate perception of the new environment and defective agendas than leaders or managers in crisis.
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  10. Individual transitions affect total identity and transcend life~work boundaries. Organisation and career changes affect personal and family life and vice versa. Families and ex-employees may also go through transition. Personal life and time boundaries must be respected.
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  11. Mental and organisational health are strategic issues for organisation performance, especially during rapid change. Denial of the transition process in the UK Parliament reflects strong taboos about emotions and mental health in UK culture and organisations (by contrast with Scandinavia). Emotional and organisational literacy are strategic issues for Parliament and the country.


References

  1. Hopson & Adams (1976) Transition: understanding and managing personal change.
  2. Hopson & Scally (1981) Lifeskills teaching.
  3. Williams D (1998) Life events and career change: transition psychology in practice
  4. Sugarman (1986) Lifespan Development. Methuen
  5. Weinberg A, Cooper C, and Weinberg A (1998) A Government health warning for MPs The House Magazine 9/2/98
  6. Freeman H (1991) The human brain and political behaviour. Brit. J. Psychiatry, 159
  7. Williams D. (Oct 1997) After the Honeymoon: Potential effects of the post-election transition on the health of UK Members of Parliament. Eos
  8. Williams D. (Dec 1997) Parliament in transition - Honeymoon Crisis and Recovery. Eos
  9. Schlossberg, Waters & Goodman (1995) Counselling adults in transition. Springer
  10. Herriot P, Hirsh W and Reilly P (1997) Trust and Transition. Wiley
  11. Williams D. Human responses to change - report of the symposium in which this paper was presented, in the journal Futures (Aug 1999) see the Elsevier website at http://www.elsevier.com/locate/futures .

Appendix

The Prime Minister faced immense pressures and tragedy during his first year with the added load of the EU Presidency in January. His survival is a tribute to his commitment, courage and resilience. But his charismatic leadership style tended to presidential over-control through the crisis period until late January. The Budget and Irish agreement reflected his hard earned recovery. But the party's control culture still inhibits transformation. The following extracts are taken from Part 2 of Parliament in Transition - From crisis to recovery:

Recovery scenarios

The six transition scenarios in the new Parliament took account of individual differences in timing and severity of the crisis phase. These variations were outlined in Part 1 but took account of Dr Peel's comments and an article by Dr Stoate MP in Fabian News rejecting the transition theory for Labour MPs. The six scenarios were:

  1. No transition - the null hypothesis. Most likely for re-elected MPs in smaller parties with minimal role change. Possible for motivated and secure new MPs.
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  2. Deferred transition (for new MPs eased by the 3 month summer recess)
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  3. Quitting (resigning from a post of responsibility, from a party or the House)
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  4. Extended crisis / delayed recovery (for those unable or not permitted to resolve inner conflicts, or coping with multiple transitions)
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  5. Frustrated recovery - for those who asserted or redefined their principles against suppression by party policy and organisers
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  6. Optimum recovery - for those able to make a defining moment change without censorship by their party.

It repeated warnings of the effects of multiple transitions, potential crises for families and support workers and the need for continuing support for ex-MPs.

Management of change

Leadership in the recovery phase suggested that "it seems likely that the management style and organisation culture of parties will need to change during the transition period." In particular this would require tolerance and support for MPs still in the crisis period, and open minded, democratic and adaptable to tap the rising tide of new insights and energy expected from MPs in the recovery phase.

On 10 November the Home Secretary published an article The honeymoon has only just begun (Guardian) rejecting the hypothesis as a Tory plot.

Parliament in transition was published on 6 December 1997. On 8 December Dr Stoate published another critique of the first edition It's a Members' life in Parliament's House magazine. "No dont be sorry for MPs - we dont need special psychological papers to help us cope with the terrible strain of being in the House." He said that it described nothing new, common sense, some sensible conclusions but "nothing that my grandmother could not have told them."

On 17 December the second edition was acknowledged by the Speaker of the House who "shares your concern for the welfare of Members of Parliament while at work" and recommended sending it to chief whips. In January it was acknowledged by 4 senior ministers. Neither edition was acknowledged by the Prime Minister's office.

Key Events 1997-98

a) Significant macro events in the UK and overseas 97/98
UK election, Hong Kong Independence, death of Princess Diana, referenda in Wales & Scotland, Far East financial crisis, North Ireland negotiations, EU presidency and integration, Clinton affair in USA, Middle East affairs.

b) Key issues and events for political parties in the first year
(these provide the basis for events indicated in Figure 2)
Conservative Opposition election loss, new leader (6/97), MP resigns (9/97), European policy crisis and resignations (10/97), interventions from ex-MPs (10-11/97), reunion for ex-MPs (1/98), new party rules and reconstruction (Spring 98). New Labour Government: form new administration, election commitments drive agenda, decisions to maintain Tory budget limits and deregulate interest rates, more MPs than expected, long summer recess, devolution referenda results (9/97), foreign policy embarrassment (9/97), decision on EMU policy (10/97), influence of spindoctors and powerful commercial figures (10-12/97), Formula 1 tobacco advertising affair (11/97), Lone Parent and Disability benefit cuts and rebellion (12/97), leaked attacks on ministers (12/97), Cabinet conflict (11/97-1/98), Treasury control (1/98), potential Iraq war (1-2/98), Irish negotiations, agreement and referendum, budget and loosening financial policy (Spring 98). c)

c) Critical events for individual ministers, MPs, ex-MPs and relatives
These included separation (7/97), suicide (7/97), bereavement (8/97), public indiscretions (9/97), resignations (9-12/97), party change (11/97), ex-MPs seeking re-election (11/97), accusations of malpractice (11/97), rebellion (12/97), crises for partners and children (9/97, 12/97, 1/98), scapegoating weaker ministers (11/97-1/98), leadership tensions (1/98), and policy achievements (2-5/98).


The Review edition of Parliament in Transition (Sept 1999) includes the original briefing After the Honeymoon (Oct 97) as Part 1, the update with suggestions for moving from crisis to recovery as Part 2, and this Paper as Part 3. Available by mail from Eos price £6 plus postage. Order by Email see below.

For other papers on transition psychology see Community Projects and Life-work themes on the Eos website at: http://www.eoslifework.co.uk

© Eos Career Services 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 on these issues are welcome on the Eos Life-Work Forum or by Email to Dai Williams at eosuk@btinternet.com

Page updated 14 June 2001.


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