Why breaking up is so hard to do

Jeremy Corbyn addressing a mass rally.

Suzanne Gannon writes about leaving the Labour Party: It’s now been four days since Kier Starmer raised the bar in the right-wing’s campaign to purge the Labour Party of all vestiges of socialists by suspending Jeremy Corbyn. And the angst amongst my friends over how to best respond is increasing, not calming down as some are calling on us to do. Many are weighing up whether they should resign outright, or at least stop paying their subs. Some are keeping very quiet, hoping not to get caught up in the ongoing dragnet. There are many factors that will feed into a decision to withdraw or leave an organisation like the Labour Party: questions of principles, ideology, pragmatics, timing. This article is an attempt to look at what might be personally motivating comrades to decide whether to stay or leave in relationships and organisations that have become abusive.

The Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs continue to call out for comrades to remain members so that they can “stay and fight”, presumably alongside them. But the reality is that the SCG aren’t fighting; they aren’t standing up as one in solidarity with Corbyn and repeating the truth he spoke; they aren’t attacking the lie that underpins all that Starmer and the media are using as their weapons of choice. Rather, they are encouraging comrades to tip-toe around the issue, and remain on the defensive, rather than go on the offensive; exhorting us to apologise for what clearly needs no apology; to “remain calm” and stay stationary on the beach in the face of a tsunami.

I’ve seen comrades argue that choosing to remain in the Labour Party as a socialist at this point is akin to remaining in an abusive relationship. While this analogy may be more than appropriate, I fortunately have no experience of that to compare with this present situation. What I do have experience of is why someone decides to stay or leave within what are sometimes referred to as cults. In 2014 I completed a PhD that explored the process of exiting what sociologists call “total institutions”. My research included some of the more cult-like new religious movements of the sixties as well as some left political groups of that same period. Several of the key elements that these total institutions have can also, to some degree, be considered as defining characteristics of the Labour Party.

And while the Labour Party itself does not fit into the definition of a total institution, we can at least say that in that area of life where people are “doing politics”, the Labour Party, for them, is the totality of the frame of that politics, even if it does not encompass their whole life.

The Labour Party as a “total” political institution

Most of the total institutions I examined held world transformational views (either spiritually or politically, or sometimes both), which generated a collective endeavour by members who were keen to bring about their envisioned societal change. Thus, members of these institutions had a sense that they were saving the world, or at least re-visioning how society could work in the future. The Labour Party many of us joined (either decades ago, or more recently when Corbyn became leader) had a radical vision for how to refashion society to work in the interests of the many rather than the few.

The Labour Party, at least as it was construed under Corbyn’s leadership, certainly had him as a charismatic figurehead. To the left’s detriment, the middle management and regional structures were kept as they had been since the Blair years, and were dominated by the right-wing. Even if some staunch socialists held positions in their CLPs, they could be (and often were) neutered by regional decisions. Similarly, total institutions typically have a strong authoritarian structure, generally with a charismatic leader at the top, a middle-level group directly responsible to the leader, and a larger membership of low-status “ordinary” followers.

In total institutions, information and power flows from the top downwards, and grassroots members have very little ability to influence direction or priorities. The intermediary authorities determine most of the day-to-day activities of members, engaging them in full-time organisational tasks meant to further “the cause”. While this may be somewhat watered down in the Labour Party, still the NEC or region can dictate what candidates stand for office, and thus who we, the rank and file, are to campaign on behalf of. And, despite attempts at reform, ordinary members have very little imput into setting policy.

There are institutional rules and regulations within total institutions that members agree to obey, with transgressions usually leading to ostracisation. Total institutions try to minimise any institutional damage that vocal internal critics may cause with a variety of punitive reactions, including surveillance, intimidation, isolation, reduction in rights or privileges, lowered status and expulsion. Similarly, the Labour Party has its own rule book, which is interpreted and enforced by those holding power. We all know too well how the rules are arbitrarily abused to suspend and expel and generally silence members, as they have been used recently against Jeremy Corbyn. Fearing these repercussions, some comrades do not voice their concerns at all or are extremely careful in how and where they parse their grievances.

Members often become dependent on a total institution for their friendships, and sometimes for their livelihood. A total institution impacts on, and is practically the everything, for members: their social environment, work, friendships, faith, and for some, family. The same probably does not hold true for members of the Labour Party, although for some of its activists, membership of it and participation in its activities may be close to their political “everything”.

Moreover, once someone joins a total institution, their mind-set is that they will never be leaving its folds; by joining they were making a lifelong commitment. This appears to be how some members view their affiliation with the Labour Party: they cite how they have been members since their teens and can’t conceive of ever not being a member or not voting for Labour.

So, while the Labour Party might have some of the characteristics of a total institution to varying degrees, I want to stress that it most definitely is *not* one. However, the way in which some of my comrades are reacting to the possibility (or actuality) of some of us (and possibly them) leaving the party, has given me cause to reflect on what my PhD research revealed about the difficulties members have in disaffiliating themselves from a total institution.

Beginning the process of disaffiliation

Disengaging from any environment that has been such a central part of our life and identity is always an inherently difficult emotional process. While being a member of the Labour Party may not be as all-encompassing as membership of a total institution, still, many of us who looked to the Labour Party as a vehicle for bringing about socialism were intent on dedicating much of our lives to its goals, and at times may have even subjugated our own needs and preferences to its demands. Many have made life-long friends (or even partners) in the Labour Party, and some have carved careers in it. So it is not surprising that a decision to disaffiliate from the Labour Party is not being made lightly – at least not for comrades who worked hard as activists within it.

The decision to leave something so all-encompassing rarely happens overnight with a damascene moment; it usually results from a protracted building up of dissatisfaction that only later, after much provocation, actually ends up with an exit. And there are several “stages” that a member goes through as they exit a total institution. I am witnessing some of these stages of disaffiliation evidenced in the current discourse amongst comrades. Let me explain how I their thinking goes and where it is likely to lead them.

A comrade begins their leave-taking journey from the Labour Party when something happens that causes them to become disillusioned. There were certainly many things to disillusion us throughout Corbyn’s tenure as leader, but I would venture that a tipping point for many socialists happened when the 2017 general election was such a close possibility, lost only because many Labour right-wingers would rather have had a Tory government than one led by a socialist. The leaked Labour Report confirmed this, and the 2019 leadership election made it clear that the right-wing had cemented their hold. And now, with the suspension and threatened expulsion of Corbyn, we have yet another “thing” to contribute to that growing disillusionment. Perhaps this action by the current leadership is something many believed would never happen, a step too far, the final straw. Or perhaps not yet.

These cumulative events (among other, more local or personal ones) undoubtedly has led many good comrades to very consciously weaken their ties to the party over the last few months, as well as to lessen their personal commitment to more general Labour Party goals, certainly to the new leadership. Many comrades may have also stopped attending meetings at this point (although Covid has been instrumental here as well); some will have reduced the time they had previously been giving to Labour Party endeavours or have resigned positions of responsibility. For many comrades, this retreat from participation has been done while still ostensibly remaining a paid-up member. These kinds of actions are generally taken by members at the first stages of disaffiliation, where they are daring to entertain thoughts about their level of commitment, and reflecting on the possibility of separation – but are not yet ready to take concrete steps towards the exit.

Moving to the next stage in the exit process

However, maintaining such a position (of being unhappy with the direction of travel of the Labour Party, while remaining within it but distant) is not really sustainable. A comrade can only stay in such a situation if they feel that the cost-benefit ratio is tipped (even mildly) in favour of their continued membership. What is happening in these situations is that as our commitment to the Labour Party becomes more and more eroded, we weigh up what we perceive as the “negative costs” that might be involved were we to leave. That way we are gauging whether continued membership and participation is still commensurate with our investment and the personal sacrifice of time and resources. In this tally, a comrade generally considers how much they have already invested in their role within the party, against what kind of alternatives appear to be available, as well as considering the value that is possible to be gained from their efforts in the future.

If, in this measuring up, a comrade determines that they are not ready to chuck their membership in just yet, or fears that if they do so it will negate all the perceived gains made so far, they will tends towards a denial (or partial denial) of the severity of the institutional problems. This denial can continue for a prolonged time, as it is often difficult to accept and deal with the dissonance that undoubtedly exists.

This sort of denial can be seen in some of the reasons given by comrades why no one should be leaving at this point. The idea that by winning “control” of the NEC (or at least getting one or two left-leaning comrades elected on to it) or supporting the Socialist Campaign Group (whatever that actually means) or by electing left-wing delegates to the conference floor (should we ever see a conference again) that we are bringing socialism closer are all appealing aspirations to comrades at this stage of disaffiliation. To believe otherwise will feel to a member at this stage of disaffiliation as if they are admitting defeat before all other possible avenues have been completely explored.

Comrades at this stage aren’t ready to consider leaving the Labour Party as one of their options. Instead, they take on the role of an internal reformer, hoping that their actions will help to remedy some of the more egregious wrongs or at least mitigate some of the effects of decisions being taken by the leadership. They launch campaigns such as “Stay and Fight”; they exhort others to “play the long game”; they might go so far as to propose motions in their CLPs, but they don’t confront and don’t rock the boat. And, critically, at this point they still believe that they can use the internal party mechanisms to bring about the changes that are needed.

Predictably, their attempts to reform the institution will come up against hard walls; the problems will intensify, will recur more frequently, or even may impact on them personally. Some still won’t give up, claiming that they are remaining as a show of solidarity for those elected socialist representatives still in the party, including Jeremy Corbyn himself. Others will justify remaining because “leaving is what the right-wing want”. Or that by staying they will somehow be making a stand to prove the right-wing wrong

However, comrades at this stage of disaffiliation from the Labour Party find it difficult to clarify precisely what sort of “support” our elected socialist representatives (the SCG MPs, comrades on the NEC and in CLPs) actually need from ordinary members, or what the rank and file can productively do to bring about these reforms. Instead, what ends up happening is amplified outrage at each new assault on the left by this new Labour regime, more petitions and open letters for us to sign, more fruitless motions to try and pass in our CLPs, more campaigns and crowd funding to fight against the very predictable unfair suspensions and expulsions of good socialists.

Taking the plunge – or not

In terms of the process of disaffiliation from total institutions, this stage is generally followed by one in which participation is no longer tenable, forcing the member to re-evaluate their involvement. Similarly, in the Labour Party, I would posit that there comes a point when a socialist who has been holding their nose, but staying in the organisation “for a greater good”, finally decides that their dedication and loyalty has reached its limit. They finally acknowledge that the party no longer fits them ideologically or morally, and that it is unable to be reformed in their lifetime (or at least in the foreseeable future). At this point, they may stop paying their subs, while they consider their options.

Why don’t they just, at this point, rip up their membership card and send a scathing email as their resignation? For some, the reason might be what sociologists call “continuance commitment”. What that means is that these members have invested too much to just walk away from the organisation; abandoning the Labour Party may feel as if they are relinquishing the entire fabric of their political life. For some comrades being a member of the Labour Party is almost how they define their societal (or at least political) role and identity; separation from this (especially moving into an unknown) is a difficult step to take. This is particularly true for someone who has spent decades as an activist, and even more so if they have made sacrifices to become an elected official, what to speak of those who may now be a Member of Parliament.

This is probably the point in the process of exiting that is most closely aligned with the accusation that comrades are staying within an abusive relationship. Many people in such a relationship are genuinely faced with the choice of walking away from everything they have been and have known into what might look to be an abyss. It is a scary prospect indeed.

In order to justify not taking this next step in the process of disaffiliation, comrades are voicing several reasons why they (and by extension, the rest of us) have a moral obligation to remain within the folds of the Labour Party, despite all evidence pointing to it being incapable of reform (at least within most of our lifetimes). One of the reasons given is that there are still some good socialists in the Labour Party as elected officials (including Jeremy Corbyn himself, who despite being maligned and suspended is not indicating that he is going to voluntarily leave anytime soon), and there is the possibility of a few more getting on the NEC. Therefore, every other socialist who was/is in the Labour Party should remain as a show of solidarity and support to them.

Another reason being voiced is that because the left worked very hard to achieve whatever we now perceive as gains over these last 5-6 years, leaving the Labour Party will mean it was all for nought. And there is an eternal optimism that we still might win the odd concession or two or be able to mitigate some nasty things in the future.

And yet another reason exhorts that no comrade should abandon the Labour Party until every socialist decides to leave, and certainly not until we are all clear what alternative we will be leaving to join up with. Look at the failures of the SDP and ChangeUK, they say; any new electoral party created will never be able to gain power. So, in this scenario, there is nothing better on offer than the Labour Party. This is a kind of pessimism that accepts that what has gone before will always happen again; that there is no room for other possibilities arising.

The weakest of these “reasons”, I think, is when comrades tell us that leaving is what the right-wing want us to do. By this reasoning, to spite the right-wing, we should stay and be a thorn in their sides. Personally, I think all these are very poor reasons for remaining in any organisation that no longer seems to be able to meet the goals and aspirations you once had for it. Why any socialist would want to remain within, much less work for, a Labour Party that is no longer even making a pretence of being anything but an establishment liberal party is abhorrent to me. However, I understand that comrades who voice these concerns are simply at a different stage of disengagement from the organisation than I have reached.

Going on the offensive

If there are socialist comrades who choose for whatever reasons to remain working within the Labour Party, surely we can support them and show solidarity even from outside the party structures. The reality of the situation at present is that there is nothing to support: the SCG and other leaders are telling the rank and file members to “stay and tone-down your words and actions”, not “join us in the struggle”. They are too cowered by the threat of suspension (or worse) to do anything more than this. The forlorn hope in this injunction is that we will only have to police our words until everything gets sorted out amicably; then, presumably, the “fight” can begin. But I doubt there will ever be a time in the near future when enough changes to make this possible. Nevertheless, for comrades in this stage of disaffiliation, it is understandable that they place their faith still in the organisation’s ability to do the right thing under their “pressure” and “demands”.

In fact, I think it is those who profess to be socialists within the PLP, the so-called Socialist Campaign Group, who should have been giving much more vocal and visible support to the ordinary members over these last few years as comrades have been traduced and kicked out. Yet, despite appeals to them for mere statements of solidarity, they would not even raise their voices in support of Chris Williamson, much less others not as high profile. And today they are doing the same in keeping their distance from Corbyn, while ostensibly saying that they “support” him and denounce his suspension.

If the SCG were to grow a backbone and launch a vigorous offensive campaign to reclaim the Labour Party, then I’m sure both members and ex-members would enthusiastically support them. But this would require them to not be afraid to repeat verbatim the statement that Corbyn is going to be required to retract, accepting that one outcome might be to for all of them to have the whip removed. And it would require them to show genuine solidarity by sticking up for and speaking out in defence of each comrade as they get picked off. But, perhaps, as they are weighing up their own personal cost-benefit analysis of staying or leaving, they have reckoned that it’s not yet tipped enough in the direction of a negative return for them to risk their careers. Their current carefully crafted and vague statements of support, and demands for the odd appeasement or easing of the innumerable injustices that are being proffered so far, are as far as they are willing to stick their necks out.

So, with the SCG not willing to take the lead on this fightback; instead, counselling the rest of us to keep our words in check, keep calm and carry on lest we, god forbid, incite a civil war within the party. For many of us, who are perhaps further along in our realisation that the Labour Party is unviable as a socialist endeavour, we feel that we are already in a civil war. What we hear in their rallying calls to us is a plea to offer passive support for the actions of Labour’s right-wing. We mourn that despite the best chance in our lifetime with Corbyn, we were unable to be successful, and that it does not look as if those we hoped we had elected to help us achieve this will actually stand up and be counted. These last six years has made it clear to many of us that a purely electoral route will not bring about socialism, and neither will the establishment allow it to come about through electoralism.

Being politically homeless

In response to the worry expressed by many comrades that they have nowhere else to go politically other than the Labour Party, I would ask whether we actually need an electoral vehicle in order to bring about socialist change in society. While I’d love for that to happen, I don’t believe it’s an absolute necessity. But I’m going to leave that argument to one side for the sake of this article. What I will say is that the current left (and indeed, the recent historical left) is extremely fragmented and sectarian. (We can’t even agree a left slate!) No existing left group can honestly claim to have the holy grail of “an alternative”. That is not to say that one will not arise at some point, perhaps being sparked by that “civil war” or other grassroots endeavours.

Comrades who espouse this fear as their justification for staying within the Labour Party are akin to someone in an abusive relationship not daring to leave it, even risking their own or their children’s death by staying, because they do not have complete assurance of another relationship or supportive environment. But to wait until all the pieces are neatly in place before jumping ship just keeps the toxic ship afloat. Let it sink; and let us work in our communities and dialogue with each other and support whatever endeavours we feel might help the cause. Then, if another electoral vehicle is to be created (even if it has very little chance of gaining any seats under the FPTP system), it has the possibility of gaining some traction. But to wait until all the “good socialists” in the PLP decide to grow a backbone, or wait for some pie-in-the-sky leadership challenge (which will inevitably fail, and even if another “Corbyn” gets in place, the right-wing controls all the party machinery and regions and has definitely learnt from this past experience), is wasting time.

Determining when is “the right time” to leave

With this mentality, there will never be a “right” time to leave. At the present, I hear many of my friends saying that they are staying “until the NEC elections”. Earlier in the year many said they were waiting for the response to the leaked Labour Report (which has not *yet* been released and may never be) before making their decision. Yet, I would bet that these same comrades will be repeating this same “now is not the time” mantra, even if a few on the left do get elected to the NEC, for then they will plan to stay until Corbyn gets reinstated (or not), or until after the local elections, or until next year’s conference, or after some other milestone yet to be determined. I accept that for them, perhaps, despite being dissatisfied with the Labour Party, they will remain a member, active or not. They may continue with their quiet disenchantment and perhaps grieve at the loss of what they had hoped would be possible. Their process of disaffiliation will not conclude with an exit.

For me, however, the question is, if now is not the time to leave, then when was it?


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6 responses to “Why breaking up is so hard to do”

  1. A (excuse my language) forensic dissection not the left’s dilemma which will aid all socialist to clinically assess to stay or not to stay under Starmer.
    it does not touch on the next step, what to do once the (inevitable) decision has been taken.
    Leaving Labour is not enough; never voting Labour again is not enough. Socialists support socialist voices and oppose anti-socialist — what ever the colour of their rosette or the lies they tell.
    If fascists can form damaging and even influential election machines, seemingly at the drop of a hat, it should not be beyond the socialist disporia, to adapt a word.

  2. Dave Hansell says:

    It seems reasonable to observe that the key issues here are around means and ends.

    – What are the ends?
    – Is it possible to achieve those ends via the means?

    A third, possible contextual question also presents:

    – Have the means become the ends?

    Responses to these questions need to be made explicit rather than relying on stock one liners such as “Socialism” – which often means whatever any particular respondent wants it to mean at any specific time.

    The reason being that – whether the meat on this bone consists of the Green New Deal; ethical foreign policy/end to imperial resource theft; clean energy; human centred economics; tackling human induced climate change; LETS or whatever – consideration of such aims and goals (ends) forces a rather obvious further question.

    A question framed not by ideology but by the physical and biological practicalities of real life natural systems. Practicalities which in many cases are often time dependent.

    A feature and a factor not amenable to being placed to one side for some indeterminable future date whilst some “fight” occurs over control of the means.

    In this case a “fight” which has been taking place in the Labour Party since well before I was born (and I’ve been retired six years) and which on all the available evidence is likely to continue until long after I’ve been pushing up daisy’s for longer than I’ve been alive. Not that we have that amount of time available on the present trajectory in which the biggest debt mountain in human history is coinciding with natural systemic limits around climate, resources, pollution etc etc.

    That question being: “Is there any evidence that the practical aims and goals (ends) necessary to ensure a reasonable likelihood of survival can ever be achieved in time via the means chosen – i.e the Labour Party via a system which is not capable of tackling such challenges?”*

    * As an aside: the traditional question of a “Parliamentary road to Socialism” has long been overtaken by the question of “a Parliamentary road to Democracy” (The English Parliamentary system being based on the cobbled together narrow democratic fiction of Sovereignty based only on Parliament; compared to, say, the different philosophical approach in Scotland where the ultimate authority is the Sovereignty of the People).

    Although on present trends the question of a “Parliamentary road to Democracy” may well itself be replaced by the question of a “Parliamentary road to survival?”

    If the answer is negative than a rational approach has to conclude that some other means is required. Continuing to spend time attempting to achieve ends, many of which are on the available evidence now time sensitive, via means in which it is not possible to achieve those ends is as futile as it is irrational.

    Indeed, such a position suggests a mindset in which the means itself has become the end. Putting the cart before the horse. A position in which not only is the means, along with those involved in sustaining that means, considered to be a monopoly position** through which the ends can only ever be pursued but is also its own self-referential means of determining what the ends are and whether they are achievable.

    ** This operates at a number of levels within the Parliamentary System. Whilst the Labour Party is considered to be the “Loyal Opposition” – a ‘second eleven’ existing to ensure a continuation of the Parliamentary Monopoly on Sovereignty should the “natural” Establishment Party of the Administration of the British State occasionally, and temporarily, run out of steam – the same ‘Gatekeeping’ structure exists within the Labour Party. Where one ‘left’ and one ‘right’ wing grouping form a monopoly of ‘their’ particular lower level version of Governing Group and Opposition with the depressingly same outcomes in terms of structures and processes.

    Ultimately the issue boils down to a decision on whether it is the organisation (means) which is of vital importance to whoever is making the decision or whether what is important is doing the business (achieving the necessary, vital and practical ends)?

    Whilst there are no easy and simple bespoke off the shelf options , what other means can be utilised to achieve the ends needs to be attempted.

    In the immediate term there is likely to be a response which Trade Unionists of over a century ago would have recognised as a “go canny” response. Where those volunteers who did ALL the donkey work of knocking on doors, leafleting, canvassing, campaigning, phonebanking etc (i.e those derided as on the “left” within the Labour Party) vote with their feet and down tools rather than continue as though they were suffering from Stockholm Syndrome.

    Followed by mass abstentions from voting in elections – local and national. Something which happened previously between 1997-2005 when the Labour Party lost some five million votes in the aftermath of the illegal wars.

    What is undeniable is that the parasitic managerialist class which have been injected into the organisation over several generations have deliberately set out to duplicate the “nowhere else to go” approach they have taken with the Party’s traditional working class voter base by extending it to the membership.

    With these people it is our way or no way. They would rather not only destroy the Party to avoid implementing any of the necessary ends they would also rather bring down civilisation, society and life itself, such is their arrogance and stupidity.

    An attitude which results in the kind of outcomes detailed here:


    and here:


    Whether it is accepted or not the choice has already been made. In reality there is now a form of Tontine in operation where the only question is which member with a working conscience becomes the last one to be forcibly ejected from an organisation which is now no longer neither a functioning political entity or a realistic practical answer to any meaningful question.

  3. Jenny Twist says:

    Brilliant article.
    Please put Facebook and Twitter buttons on the page.

  4. Peter Dwyer says:

    This is the most thoughtful article by far I have read on the topic.

  5. Michael Lacey says:

    I recognise the truth of every word. I was in “Militant” (now the “Socialist Party”) during the 70s. My tipping point was after a meeting of the “caucus” of “our” members in the Electricians and Plumbers Union (EETPU) when decisions we made were overruled by the “Industrial Organiser” of the Central Committee (Who, I think, had no industrial experience whatsoever). The net result of this diktat was the total loss of their members in EETPU, including a nationally known figure. I raised this at my ceremonial defrocking “Reducing to a sympathiser” (i.e. expulsion by another name) when I dared to criticise “centralism”. Their case against me centred around my refusal to donate a bequest of £1,000 that I could use myself – it occurred to me that the much vaunted “theory” had been able to be flexed at branch discussions to attract new recruits so that the organisation’s income could be increased.

    • Suzanne Gannon says:

      Michael, interestingly your experience matches very neatly the experiences described by some of the organisations I covered in my research. It’s almost as if there is a playbook by which total organisations are run (there isn’t, but for some reason they gravitate towards similar models).

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