Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Why I’ve left the Labour Party

Ever since the age of 16, politics has been a constant in my life.  But late last year I realised - party politics just isn’t me.  Maybe that’s something I should have realised earlier.  I’ve been a member of the Conservative Party, the Labour Party (twice), and have voted for the Lib Dems and Greens at various elections. Maybe I was just a swing voter all along.  All I knew was, I loved politics, and I wanted to be involved.

But that wasn’t, and isn’t, enough.
My membership of the Conservative Party coincided with a spell as an intern at their HQ. I was told membership was a condition of working there. What interning for the Tories did do was convince me that I definitely wasn’t a true blue, even though I had views on crime and education that would chime with theirs.

I was a Labour activist in Bristol for a time in the 2000s (the exact period escapes me) until I cancelled my membership before moving abroad for three years in 2009. I rejoined the party in the summer of 2012. I cancelled my membership (or more accurately I simply halted my direct debit payments) for the second time in December. The third and perhaps last time I join a political party.
Even as a member I could never quite muster the ‘we’ bit. ‘We’ must be tougher on immigration, ‘we’ must make our policies clearer to the public. We must do this, we must challenge ‘them’ doing that. The intense tribalism of politics is what galvanises some people. The feeling not of merely trying to win, but also of kicking one’s opponents into the dirt. It has the very opposite effect on me.

As a Labour member and activist (and when not one) I have never subscribed to the view that ‘all Tories are scum,’ that the ‘Lib Dems are scum’ for going into coalition with them. I never ‘hated’ my opponents. I may have disagreed with some of their politics (some, not all), but I didn’t wish them ill.  Sometimes they even came up with ideas that I thought merited dialogue, and even – God forbid – a modicum of praise.  Some of the fierce tribalism on display would make a hardened football supporter blush. It’s amazing how many activists are unable to accept that others have different opinions to them. It doesn’t mean they’re bad people.
It was after my most recent stint as a Labour member that I decided I was done with this nonsense. And it is nonsense. Supporting a party through thick and thin, voting for the same party at every election your whole life come what may, is faintly absurd. Because the party you voted for in the 1970s is certainly not the same party you voted for this decade.

Party policies change. Regularly. Public opinion shifts, attitudes harden or soften, and so do party attitudes. To keep backing that same party, or to put it another way, to not entertain the possibility of voting for another party, is a little foolish.
Failing to get selected as a candidate at this year’s local elections in Bristol (I’d been a candidate once before, in 2007, and enjoyed the experience) was what finally did it for me. But if you think this is simply a tale of sour grapes by a snubbed and bitter activist, you don’t know your local politics that well.

Throughout my most recent time as a Labour activist I was witness to almost everything that puts most (sane) people off party politics: the nastiness, the witch-hunts, the online campaigns of character assassination, the rudeness and the factions. Bear in mind all this is within the same party. It also meant inhabiting the same space as some of the most unpleasant people I have ever come across. With ‘comrades’ like these....
The thing I find hilarious about political parties is that they all preach loyalty and stress the importance of working together for a common cause. The reality is loyalty works one way. They get what they can from you and when they’re done they spit you out and move on to the next gullible sod.  And if you dare to challenge their way of doing things, in the interests of diversity and finding a better way, well....

During my interview last year to try and become a council candidate my occasionally less than favourable tweets about the Labour hierarchy were seized upon as a liability. Anyone wishing to question the performance of the shadow cabinet should do so in private, preferably in a darkened room, alone.
It’s blind loyalty that gets you places in politics, not ability or creativity. And certainly not charisma. People with personalities are essentially loose cannons. Parties hate unpredictability. They fear mavericks.

Local politics is simply a microcosm of what happens nationally, but a lot pettier, and with people who think they’re a lot more important than they really are. And, when it comes to local politics, these people are the ones who tend to run the show. Falling foul of the favoured faction pretty much means you’re not going to get anywhere.
Whilst I was waiting for the bus home on rejection evening, admiring the garishly blue Christmas decorations and thinking how lucky I am to live in a city as wonderful as Bristol, I chuckled to myself at how faintly ridiculous so much of politics is. Organisations that have been described as rotten to the core like FIFA or the IOC would be proud at how little transparency and openness is on display when crucial processes such as selecting potentially future parliamentarians take place. Chuckling at how ridiculous (and astonishing) it is that our system allows us to preside over such a closed way of doing democracy.

My rejection was the final nail in the coffin, the final reason in a catalogue of reasons for quitting Labour. In truth I was never really part of them. I never cared as much about ‘we.’ I met some lovely people on the way, mainly older activists (I wonder if that’s significant), but on the whole I won’t miss it. And I have after all only left a political party. None of this diminishes how I feel about politics.
Politics in Britain, probably everywhere, is a strange thing. Something that affects every facet of our lives inhabited by people so ordinary. When I look around all the parties in England I struggle to pick out the people who will inspire me. I struggle to recall that great speech that got everyone talking.

In Ed Miliband I see a good, decent man, but not a future prime minister. As I found out in Bristol, the party wants willing, subservient and unquestioning foot soldiers. Miliband has surrounded himself with much the same. It is this (and a number of other reasons) which will do for him. The dissenters have been confined to grumbling in the media.
Miliband, Cameron, Clegg, it’s not their fault. They’re part of a system. One which hoovers up those who follow the inevitable path of one of either private education, Oxbridge, or a healthy dollop of nepotism. Ideally all three. There are so few personalities in politics, so few people to look up to, and so few bright ideas, because there are so few people who don’t look and sound the same in it. They may as well assign them numbers, it’s that hard to tell them apart.

Being a party activist is ultimately about going along to meetings (where little of worth will be said or achieved), door knocking and leafleting in all weathers, in the knowledge that the people around you all want the same thing: your party in power at all costs. My chastening time in local politics has naturally clouded my views, but even before then I failed at the first hurdle. I didn’t want the same thing as everybody else. Or at least not forever.  And in politics that makes you an outsider.

This post first appeared on Speaker's Chair on Tuesday 14th January 2014

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