A recent spate of defections and expulsions have changed the landscape of Westminster and the unspoken norms of tribalism and loyalty within British politics. Despite frequent disagreements within parties, defections have been relatively uncommon in recent years — it’s easier to start your own faction with a few bottles of prosecco at a conference bar than it is to leave a party and start your own.
The fraught divisions triggered by Brexit have changed this, with people leaving parties and defecting left, right and centre. But what actually happens when you leave a political party? As someone who has left a political party (the Liberal Democrats), it’s rather like going through a bad break-up (except you don’t have to go back to his to get your stuff back).
Joining a political party and getting involved enough to become an MP is not just a side hobby, it requires a huge amount of time and emotional commitment. If you have a day job and want a work-life balance, the party becomes your life. Leafleting and canvassing with your party colleagues becomes your primary evening and weekend activity, and your fellow members become your social circle. Alternatively, politics becomes your work instead so that you can have a life with friends (but career politicians are not very popular).
Conferences become more than just a mediocre trip to a faded seaside town which has seen better days, there are discos and karaoke — it becomes a combination of a family reunion and a romantic mini-break. Not only do you spend your time discussing convoluted strategies for combating deadly low-level letterboxes, you also get to see councillor Egbert from Shiteshire, that overfamiliar uncle you always get a strange vibe from, but who is considered a valued cultural institution by your weird cult-like political family.
The only thing you have in common with these people is a shared belief system, and as you get deeper into the structure in search of a winnable seat, this mutates into a tribal loyalty based on a combined core objective of defeating “the other guys”. When you get so immersed in a political party that these boundaries blur, leaving a party becomes more than just giving up a hobby or leaving a job. It ends up being a break-up and no one ever leaves a political party on good terms. When I left a party, within hours I lost roughly 30 Facebook friends, people with whom I had thought I had close friendships immediately cut off ties.
If you leave a political party when you’re in too deep, it’s as if you’ve left your partner and your mutual friends have chosen to side with your ex without explaining why. Numerous people in this situation describe the same feeling: you realise quite abruptly and unexpectedly who stays in touch because you are actually friends, and who was only your friend because of a combined loyalty to an inanimate ideological entity.
It’s very easy to see the spate of defections and expulsions through a careerist lens but for some this is likely to be so much more. The loyalty and dependency forged through party structures leads to underappreciated levels of emotional turmoil.
On the Conservative Instagram feed, it is striking that there are no photos of this country’s former chancellor, Philip Hammond. In fact, search the feed, and it’s difficult to spot any one of the 21 expelled MPs. There is one photo of Justine Greening, but the caption doesn’t mention her at all, she just happens to be in the photo with David Mundell MP, the focus of the caption. Deleting photos of your ex off Instagram is a Year Nine level of pettiness — and that’s the stage we’re at.
Defecting to another party is one level worse than merely leaving. Such is the enmity towards political rivals that if you choose to join them you’ve committed adultery. To everyone on the outside, it was obvious that Change UK was a pointless vanity exercise that would eventually be absorbed by the Lib Dems. But going through with a defection after years in a dependent relationship is tough: the break-up goes from Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears levels, to Brad Pitt leaving Jennifer Anniston for Angelina Jolie levels.
Political parties create social dependencies among their members not unlike cults. It becomes difficult to leave what might be a bad relationship for fear of losing all your social circles. Once you make the leap, your fears of abandonment tend to come true.
While we watch the 21 Tory rebels and Labour defectors through the gleeful lens of the banter timeline, bear in mind what they’re going during conference season. While their ex parties with their friends and family at conference discos, they’re left behind with the political equivalent of a microwave meal for one.
Kavya Kaushik is a former Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate and a freelance journalist