The Bearable Lightness of Leaving Labour

Leaving Labour

Three weeks ago I left the Labour Party.  When the split that formed The Independent Group was announced, I looked in my heart and knew it was time to go.

I’ve been involved in the Labour party all my adult life and the party has been the central pillar of my political identity.  In July last year I ran for candidacy in my ward for the local elections in May this year. I’ve previously run as a Labour candidate n Brighton and Hove, back in 2007, and the difference in the experience of the process this time was significant. On what I suppose must be on the positive side, the pool of candidates was larger, and the electorate of ward members much, much larger. However, the experience also confirmed for me that the party in the city has been taken over by Momentum, with an aggressively anti-pluralist culture, and a disregard for ethics and comradely behaviour even in internal campaigning.

Although saddened and bruised by this encounter with the party’s new normal, I remained. I saw little alternative but to wait for change, to wait for the cycle to play itself out in the company of the many decent members still in the party.

When The Independent Group formed I was forced to re-evaluate.  Two things had changed: firstly, I realised there were options, staying in the party was not inevitable. Secondly, their statements and the response within the party made it transparently clear that the party has become so rotten that I could not remain and retain my integrity.

(I want to be clear here, I know this is a personal evaluation and I am in no way attacking the many good people I still know in the party who have a different view and have stayed.  I hope they are right and the party can be saved.  I just don’t believe it anymore.)

It took me a long time to press send on my resignation email.  Longer than it took to write, as once I’d started, I realised I’d known for some time exactly why I had to leave.

This was no trivial matter to me. Initially I felt slightly nauseous, and I felt heavily the time, effort and emotional investment I’d made in the party over the years.  Fairly rapidly though, this was replaced by a joyous lightness.

I was no longer associated with the anti-Semitism, the Brexit mis-direction and lies, the basic incompetence of a third-rate front bench.  I would no longer have to endure the sheer stupidity of so much I saw in processes and heard in meetings.

Just over a decade ago I got divorced. The feeling then was of relief, a similar lightness, but shot through with regret.  I still liked, even loved, my ex-wife.  I knew she was a good person, and I was truly sorry we hadn’t made it work.

This time there has been no regret.  The lightness has grown over time as each new idiocy or nastiness has emerged and I realise I no longer have to care too much or feel it reflects on me. The putridity has spread even beyond Brexit and anti-Semitism, to incorporate nepotism and electoral breaches, and evidence that the leadership will brazenly lie.  Staggeringly there has even been an accommodation of Islamic homophobia that makes Houellebecq’s Submission feel uncomfortably plausible.

Many of my complaints and reasons for leaving will be familiar from the many, many others who have also recently chosen to leave so I won’t dwell on them.  What might be more interesting is the significance of the feeling of lightness in the context of the current political scene, and to consider that it might be more than just a mere feeling of relief and contain real political meaning.  

A Bearable Lightness

Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being had a big effect on me when I read it at college; though I’m not alone in finding the specifics difficult to remember.   What stayed with me was the core philosophical underpinning of taking life as either heavy or light.  Kundera uses the concept of eternal recurrence to set up this opposition.  On one side the heaviness of every move being freighted with the weight of eternity – of every decision made recurring eternally.   On the other the lightness of a life without this anchoring and inherent meaning, a life that occurs only once like this being unbearable in its freedom and ultimate insignificance.

Though still interesting, I now don’t think either side is really valid, but there is a sense in which the Labour split, and preceding demands for unity and discipline owe a debt to an understanding based on this heaviness of recurrence. Instantly the split was announced it was condemned by Labour using the historical analogy of the SDP costing them the 1983 election (a dubious claim even psephologically).  For those that stayed, and all those unhappy throughout Corbyn’s leadership, the analogy was to the ultimately successful repulsion of the entryism of Militant in 1970s and 80s, giving a responsibility to ‘stay and fight’.  I have felt this myself; it feels irresponsible to leave when doing so is framed by the endless repeating cycles of Tory vs. Labour war.

This is a wearying, awful, soul-crushing heaviness.  When everything takes on an eternally fixed meaning it stops one from believing things to be impermanent, even fleeting and maybe changing in value as time passes.  We get a sense of a rejection of this heaviness, and its disciplining effect in Jess Phillips’ interview in the Times this last Saturday, in which she said “it [Labour] doesn’t own me. It’s nothing more than a logo if it doesn’t stand for something that I actually care about – it’s just a f***ing rose”,  and the furious reaction from Corbynite members (non-paywall comment from Chuka Umunna on it here).

The effect of the split and the creation of The Independent Group has been the creation of lightness in a political context overwhelmed by heaviness – the combination of MPs disciplined by the eternally recurring binary battle into supporting incoherent and weak party positions, while also feeling the weight of history’s prospective judgment of them for their decisions on Brexit.

The Independent Group may prove fleeting and worthless – they may prove to be only the chrysalis for something else – but no mind.   Outside of weighing everything down with eternal significance, that is fine.
There is always something suspect about lightness – it feels frivolous and irresponsible – we are afraid of seeming to take things too lightly.  Often this is the case but it creates an environment where everything is heavy   It is surely apparent that this heaviness is part of the problem, that we have been suffering from a form of paralysis induced by over-weighting everything with historical significance.

Perhaps I am just extrapolating from my own feeling of a welcome lightness and freedom of spirit and mind.  However, it does seem to me that in rejecting the inevitability of the fate of the SDP recurring, The Independent Group have given a gift to those MPs still in the big two parties – they have options and freedom now. There is a lighter political milieu in which there is felt to be the possibility of things being made anew.  This lightness is what we need right now.