Vile Bodies and Fantasy Politics: On Brexit Labour Offers an Equal Chaos

When commentators claimed that 313,000 Labour members and affiliates were holding British politics hostage, they meant that so long as they sustained their support for Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, British politics would remain a one-party game. It turned out differently.

In fact, it turned out worse. Labour are not holding British politics hostage, they are keeping it in a fantasy land.

Two simultaneous events occurred on Monday night. BBC Two screened The Summer That Changed Everything, a documentary clearly commissioned with Labour’s demise in mind. The film turned out to be a moment when Corbynistas could relive their moments of vindication when the pundits called it wrong.

The other happening was that John McDonnell and the Labour frontbench whipped their MPs into the Tory lobbies against a backbench Labour ammendment in favour of staying in the Customs Union and Single Market.

One event is more important than the other. That one did not trend on Twitter.

a “Jobs First Brexit” means nothing if you vote against the institutions that protects trade, workers’ rights and jobs

Labour supporters call out the shambolic mess that the Tories are making of Brexit. They are right. It is a bloody mess. Their solution - to install Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister - is fantasy politics.

In fact, its hyper tribal politics shows the same blinkered thinking as the hardest of Brexiters.

Labour’s party conference posited that the reason the country was in a mess was because the Tories wanted it this way. They like the poor to suffer. They like the rich to get richer. Because Labour do not like these things, when they get in government the poor will not suffer and the rich will not get richer. Simple.

In the same sense, those who see in Corbyn a saviour from the Brexit chaos follow a similar logic. A Labour Brexit, just by definition, is better than a Tory one. 

Brexit is going badly not because it is the Tories who are doing it, but because it is a fundamentally badly-conceived idea. Mary Poppins could be leading negotiations. They would still end in a mess.

Few people are privy to the thinking of the EU negotiators. But Labour’s policy is the same as the Tory party’s. They are pledged to vote against any tailored deal that does not replicate the exact same benefits for Britain as Single Market membership. Corbyn has spoken against the Single Market. He has voted against it. This is the same policy as the one being pursued by the government.

It seems unlikely that just because nice Mr Corbyn and charming Mr Starmer smile for the camera that the EU will ignore that their demands are just as unrealistic as Conservative demands. This is magical thinking.

Brexit will be painful because politically the EU cannot give a special advantages for Britain. To do so would not be in the interests of the EU. Labour supporters who think that Labour can negotiate a deal that is not economically punishing for Britain are as myopic in their thinking as John Redwood or Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Nobody denies that Brexit presents complicated problems for Jeremy Corbyn. However, he has had eighteen months to formulate a policy that protects British jobs. Instead, he came up with a soundbite. But saying Labour wants a “Jobs First Brexit” means nothing if you vote against the institutions that protects trade, workers’ rights and jobs.

He could have reached out and said he would find a compromise that would involve listening to both sides. Instead, he maintained a position that is only rhetorically distinguishable from his opponents’.

Even the only caveat - that Labour is committed to avoiding a “no deal” scenario - is no guarantee. Labour’s impossibilism may force that event anyway. Under its current leadership, Labour’s negotiating position is just as fantastic as the Tory one.

Brexit is not a dishonourable policy but the pretence that it is costless is. At some stage, this fantasy politics has to stop. A country cannot continue being governed divorced from reality. It may come during negotiations. It may come in an economic downturn. It may come as voters look across the Channel and see economies outperforming their own.

Corbyn is actively preventing an end to this fantasy politics. It seems as if the party is quite happy to sustain this false pretence.

avoiding reality is impossible

They may not like the comparison but they are reminiscient the bright young things of Evelyn Waugh’s satire Vile Bodies: war looms but the smart set are lost in hedonism. Failed by authority, reality is too unbearable.

In place of parties and cocaine, Labour supporters lose themselves in dreams of nationalisation and a Universal Basic Income. What they are ignoring is that the Brexit their party leader is facilitating makes all that less likely if not impossible. And if he is complicit, they are too. If he is not holding this government to account, they are not holding him to account.

As in the novel, avoiding reality is impossible. And when it hits, all they will be is memories of wasted futile dreams and the discovery that there is no redemption. Even in fiction, there is no happy ending.

BBC Two allowed Labour to crow once more about its glorious defeat. However, it is no good getting the politics right if the policies are just fantasy.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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