I met the Blairite twinks at a launch for Ken Livingstone’s final, failed run for London Mayor in 2012. We gravitated together as obvious 20-something queers, with the surface level of these similarities becoming clear over several flimsy plastic cups of free wine. Their chic attire and impeccably bobo comportment left me feeling like a shabby, unkempt leftist. They seemed exasperated by their candidate, picking over policies distastefully, one rolling his eyes as he asked rhetorically: ‘Where’s the money coming from, Ken?’ Intrigued, I made no secret of my own commitments, but fell quiet as they expressed an erotic fixation with Peter Mandelson, and saw the notion of identifying as a socialist laughable. Their gossip ranged from a bad faith defence of ASBOs that one of them had penned to impress a Progress superior, to a debauched-sounding Labour LGBT trip to the Med, to a party operative who was praised both for his hardnosed electoralism and ability to ‘fuck all night’. Towards the end of the evening, one of them proudly confided that: ‘When The Sun had a front page saying the Labour Party was run by a gay mafia we told everyone that was homophobic. But it’s not homophobic, it’s just true.’ Given how little I’d done to impress the pair of them, I was sure that this glib claim had passed this cocksure party reptile’s mouth hundreds of times.
Having personally encountered the real life phenomenon Red Tory: My Corbyn Chemsex Hell satirises, I’m aware that its promiscuous anti-hero Tom Buckle is more than a creation of perverse fantasy. The Blairite twink is well known within the Labour Party, but has largely escaped wider attention. His distinctive mixture of metropolitan gay culture and ruthless appeals to political expediency clearly wholly belongs to the scene, and to New Labour’s capture of British liberalism. Clearly at once formed by the objective victories of gay liberation and a pointed rejection of its radical values, they are a near impossible intra-cultural niche for any heterosexual writer to get to grips with. Huw Lemmey is uniquely well placed for this delicate and daring task. As an art critic for Tribune and co-host of the Bad Gays podcast (which examines the lengthy and tangled history of right wing homosexuals). Lemmey had already explored the insection of gay culture and party politics with his debut novel Chubz: the Demonisation of My Working Arse, like Red Tory published under the pseudonym ‘Spitzenprodukte‘. Chubz straddled the borders of political commentary and slash fanfic about Owen Jones. Red Tory is a clear successor in both form and content.
Lemmey’s setting of the book in the British capital’s chemsex scene provides the necessary decadence to convey the apocalyptic crisis that engulfed the worldview of British centrism in the mid-’10s. The pornographic novel captures a self-contained ecosystem, that was in those years being tested to its limits by an insurgent leftism that it could neither respond to adequately, nor even begin to understand. Our protagonist Tom is motivated primarily by an unabashed love for the world of centrist politics — Lemmey shows restraint in avoiding the iconic figure of Mandelson himself, instead giving Tom a diva-crush on ultra-Blairite Liz Kendall — and a prodigious horniness that sees the narrator repeatedly use his erection as a tension barometer. As the gay Bildungsroman continues we see Tom pass from a hopeful teenager, to a cynical party functionary, to a burnout engaging in more anonymous sex than he can easily keep track of.
While this might make Tom seem an oddball figure, across the book’s earlier chapters Lemmey succinctly shows that he exists as one aspirant clambering the greasy pole, within a circle of likeminded youth:
‘They’d had their share of blackouts and breakdowns on train platforms whilst sending their last texts of night bus assaults, of poor decisions and of humiliations in the Student Union bar. They’d been interns, they knew but had never themselves been sex workers, they’d gone viral once or twice, they’d worked their way, they’d regretted Uber rides, they’d complained to customer service accounts on Twitter, dot-atted, sucked straight dick, got bad tattoos, skirted around their own self-esteem, shafted a colleague, fixed their friend to get their internship, chirpsed on a 16-year old, earned every penny, dollar and euro of their public esteem.’
As the novel continues, this tidily debauched world comes to be shaken to its core by a succession of scandals that rock first the Labour Party, and then the whole country. Beginning with the 2015 Labour leadership elections, the novel comes to its fantastical climax shortly after Brexit. For his part, Tom responds extravagantly to the success of Jeremy Corbyn over the faction represented by his beloved Kendall, delving into a chemsex scene that comes to be increasingly fuelled by the (fictional) mystery drug MMT, that exacerbates the prevailing sense of aroused unreality.
Tom also strikes up an erotically charged bond with his social circle’s outsider, a far-leftist Berliner named Otto. Ignoring the relatively mature Otto’s warnings to avoid further experimentation with MMT, Tom at first plunges deeper and deeper into decadent dissociation. As Tom immerses himself in hallucinogenic fugues, bizarre contortions of public life blend with his relentless embrace of personal vice, in dingy flats owned by pitiable middle aged men. For him the turning point for the British establishment of David Cameron being exposed as a ‘pig fucker’ immediately follows a threesome known on the gay scene as ‘pig sex’, which in his drugged up state takes an all-too-literal turn.
Red Tory blends together turns of events that are factual and unbelievable — a bizarre spat around Corbyn refusing to accept sponsorship from McDonald’s for the Labour Party conference, or Farage’s vainglorious nationalist Thames flotilla — and outright fantasy, where Corbynistas are recast as ‘Falafelists’, bombarding the party establishment with croissants and chanting partisan slogans promoting quinoa and Islington nationalism.
The combination of dream sequences, flashbacks, hyper-real descriptions of urban landscapes and sordid, drug-fuelled binges allows plenty of opportunities for the blatantly pornographic to be introduced smoothly (if never tastefully), as fantasy mingles with furtive reality. A sense conveyed by this medley of styles is the loosening grip on reality, both redolent of centrists’ experience of the era Red Tory focuses on, and the typical progression of those delving into the chemsex sub-culture.
For instance the following passage, where Tom enjoys a threesome with his budding SpAd mentor Giles, and anarchist squeeze Otto, appears in a dream sequence:
‘Buckling down, he grabbed a firm handful of head hair from the New Labour nympho and began pushing from his hips. Spit roasted, gagged, Tom began to writhe with pleasure, hearing both the Oxbridge Posho and the Kreuzberg Fuckpig pound happily away at his holes’.
Red Tory is unabashedly gratuitous: more than once Lemmey recounts Tom’s difficulties avoiding reaching an untimely climax, that would demotivate him from pursuing further pleasures. Through this explicit lens, the story captures a peculiar moment in British cultural life: the excess of gay male-only spaces have competition in the outer limits of scarcely imaginable depravity, with the cataclysmic exposure of the country’s heterosexual Prime Minister as a dead pig fucker.
The plight experienced in these years by Tom, and those like him is one where, having been encouraged to sell out their every vestigial socialist principle in the hope of securing a role as a parliamentary researcher (and from there, Parliament), the party’s aspirational centrist twink faction found to their horror that the party leadership was seized by those holding totally alien values. The ‘realists’ had no means to grasp this new reality. At first the success of the Labour left did not permeate the party machinery, but more recently the Momentum faction has consolidated control, with bastion of Blairism Labour Students recently finding itself disaffiliated after a move by Corbyn’s right-hand man, Jon Lansman. In interviews Lemmey has been quite explicit about his intentions for the book:
I was interested not so much in the Chuka Umunnas of the world, but the generation below: those who had worked their way through the managerial career path of political power, waiting their turn at the wheel, only for the system to collapse beneath them. I was curious as to the human cost and effect of that collapse…I wondered which of them might cut their losses, and why, and what they’d do next.
Tom serves Red Tory as a perfectly realised bastard. A striver, Tom has been forced to claw his way into the outskirts of the establishment. He is at once tacitly ashamed of his sexuality (and brims with repressed envy towards the much more liberated Otto), while lacking any other mode of sociality to twittering dinner party homosexuality. From a mundane and provincial working class background, Tom is at once eager to move on to refined urbane living, while lacking the full-blown self-loathing required to be a gay Conservative (who he associates primarily with ‘halitosis’.) As the arc takes a redemptive turn towards the book’s third section, and prolonged exposure to red-tinted hallucinogens and his communist crush Otto begin to sway him away from conventional party politics, it’s a surprising disappointment.
The novel is not without its failings: capturing Tom so comprehensively perhaps demanded sacrifices from the characterisation of the supporting cast. Otto’s characterisation is light on the eccentricities that characterise the German left — from the fraught relationship to ornate theory, to the anxious apologia for Zionism. With this said, Tom’s anarchist foil does allow for the sheer cluelessness of most Blairites when weighing up those to their left — Tom at one point describes Otto as a ‘liberal’, resulting in genuine bafflement from his unlikely new lover.
Lemmey is at his best in capturing well known but largely unspoken underbellies in vivid detail. In one monologue Giles delivers to Tom, the compelling blend of hardnosed pragmatism and personal libertinism that attracts young aspirationals into their wing of the party is captured concisely:
‘It’s all part of growing that, indeed, such principles absolutely inform the Party—a socialist party after all — but the fact is, Tom, the fact is, the electorate have moved on from socialism itself, and so must we, in order to meet them, to meet their needs, to serve them, and is that bottle empty? Oh, smashing.’
In the same vein, Tom’s turning point experience sees him quaffing the hallucinogen MMT, provided by an Italian who refers to himself with an imperialist twist as ‘The Roman’. Skillfully, Lemmey allows the encounter to sprawl across three chapters, and several rounds of drug fuelled sex, rest, and yet more sex. The formal choice to let this section of the narrative run captures the distinctive extensions and contractions of time that define a ‘chill’, with inhibitions ebbing and distending along with consciousness. The sense of entire weekends dissolving into loops of debauchery and fleeting intimacy are captured repeatedly across the book: from Tom’s dawning realisations that he is no longer the young meat on offer, to an intense moment of relief when The Roman clarifies that he is only interested in semi-regular sex with Tom, rather than a full-blown relationship. Although the primary aim of Red Tory was to take the piss out of a loathsome wing of the Labour Party, those who have any experience of the heavier end of London’s queer nightlife will doubtless find much that resonates here. And those who’ve never sampled these delights will find Lemmey neither a euphemistic, nor moralising guide.
Red Tory’s outlandish plot allows Lemmey to let his barbed whimsy run free: from an apparition of Otto appearing formed out of Tom’s freshly spilled cum, to a sex scene between a wasted Tom and two red queens which then reappears recounted as a derisory gossip column, to a sequence where Tom and his new Party mentor Samantha come under attack from Islington terrorists, while innocently dining in a McDonald’s. But the novel is precise when it takes turns to realism, and unsparing when the communists it implicitly supports come into view: one of the few chapters that follows Otto sees him pass through the almost entirely automated process of fast food dining in Vienna, his theoretical training falling flat in the face of a seamless process that requires so little effort to critique.
And for all its lurid moments, the most incisive episodes are also the most plausible: when the twink-centrist scene’s breakdown of basic solidarity between gay men is made clear as Tom’s friend Max refuses to nurse him through a harsh MMT comedown. Max’s mocking admonition echoes both the ‘law and order’ agenda of the Party right, and Blairism’s distinctively hackneyed aesthetics: ‘Don’t do the crime unless you can do the time, Tom.’ Or a teenaged Tom’s oedipal confrontation with his Old Labour father, who he astonishes with his amoral policy positioning, and then easily wrong-foots with his Oxford Labour Students training.
Red Tory is a work of British satire that goes a long way to vindicate the genre itself. In recent years, this form has ranged from tepid (with This Week pattering on as background noise, and Private Eye long since reduced to rote formulas), to the outright collaborationist (it’s hard to imagine Boris Johnson having had so smooth a road to succession without Have I Got News For You repeatedly offering him opportunities over the years to polish his blustering comedic persona). The book succeeds at neither losing sight of the world it so ruthlessly depicts, nor making any secret of the visionary agenda of a ‘Third Summer of Love’ its author clearly at once ironically and earnestly longs for. It’s no easy task to make party politics sexy, but Lemmey succeeds in a way which brings into view the grime and gossip that makes up political life — not as an incidental feature, but as its murky lifeblood.