Politics and Dreams

I really have trouble understanding people who think of politics as a dry topic, or who view it as all wonkery and triangulation. Politics is completely insane and weirdly emotional (did you know Peter Mandelson once phoned Gordon Brown to tell him, “I love you, but I can destroy you”?) and it leaches into the lives of activists on all fronts. It’s the piles of leaflets in small cardboard boxes by your front door, it’s those USDAW bags filling up your wardrobe until you have nowhere to put your shoes, it’s where you meet your friends and your partners, it’s how you spend your Sunday mornings. It’s perhaps not wildly surprising, then, that in the general election campaign politics seemed to conquer yet another frontier in the lives of the various hacks, aides and activists with whom I surround myself: dreams. 

In some ways this makes sense: if you live your life in the Labour Party, why not live your dreams there too? It’s widely acknowledged, says Margaret Bowater in her article “Dreams and Politics: How Dreams May Influence Political Decisions”, that our dreams reflect whatever  “emotionally relevant issues” might be on our minds. The election was, to everyone out tramping the streets, fairly emotionally relevant. As such, “we should then expect that people in the midst of political, economic, or military turmoil [to be having] disturbing dreams or nightmares”.  

“Disturbing dreams or nightmares”; the first campaign dream I can recall having was one that’s probably quite easy to read, if you’re so inclined. A friend had cooked a lovely dinner for a group of us, only for Ken Livingstone to arrive and ruin the evening. A few weeks later, midway through the campaign, I had a nightmare – a real, vivid, proper nightmare – that Boris Johnson tried to murder me in an abandoned hotel. My campaign dreams became more and more frequent as we came ever closer to polling day, and I found out I was not the only one. I started casting about for campaigning dreams.

People reported, variously: a notable increase in dreams about their teeth falling out (according to Alice Robb’s “Why We Dream”, this is generally seen as a sign of high stress and anxiety); interminable dreams about folding leaflets; nightmares about canvassing teams being picked off one by one by faceless monsters; dreams of losing the election; dreams about sleeping straight through polling day like the protagonist of an unusually electorally-focused fairy tale only to wake a week later and find Chris Leslie leading a national unity government; dreams about Labour candidates dramatically blanking at hustings; about yelling at Jeremy Corbyn; about finding that your house has become a polling station; and, in the case of one MP’s aide, being continually jolted awake by a very distinctive recurring dream about failing to provide their boss with adequate water proof gear for a rural canvassing session only to be overcome with a sense of all-consuming guilt.

Possibly my favourite campaign dream, for the sheer embarrassing level of immersion it displays, was one activist’s dream about watching the exit poll come out – complete with specific figures for each of the three main parties. Arguably, the real nightmare here is that, even in what the dreamer clearly labelled as a “horrible anxiety dream”, Labour still managed to clock in with 20 more seats than they did in the actual exit poll. But let’s not dwell on that right now. 

According to the fairly limited studies to have examined the politics of dreaming, left wing people are allegedly more likely to have “disturbed sleep and more detailed dreams with more fantastical elements” – such as their house turning into a polling station, a senior politician trying to murder them, or Labour on more than 200 seats in the exit poll. On the other hand, our Conservative counterparts are apparently sleeping better and having duller, more mundane dreams (I don’t know what to tell that person who kept dreaming of folding leaflets; they must be a secret Tory).  The left is also, apparently, better at remembering their dreams; this is a trait that is thought to be associated with greater openness to experience. I’m unsure about this kind of generalisation: I just have a faint feeling that someone who feels they can measure people’s political persuasions by how detailed their dreams are is probably quite likely (not madly likely, not guaranteed, only quite likely, but quite is more than enough) to ask if they can measure my skull.  

Me writing this, you reading this – we probably don’t take our dreams very seriously. I don’t think Boris Johnson is actually trying to murder me; there is little to pick over in dreams about losing elections bar, well, fear of losing elections. This is hopefully one of the many things that you and I do not share in common with Saddam Hussein, who features on the list of politicians and leaders to make decisions based on dreams – in Saddam’s case, the decision to invade Kuwait. Harriet Tubman, Gandhi and Osama Bin Laden were all also noted for taking inspiration (and some direction) from their dreams.

You may or may not want to start doing this; on one hand our dreams are apparently where we do a lot of our problem solving, but on the other hand they are very often completely unhinged. I dreamed the other night that someone tried to assassinate Greta Thunberg by baking her into a giant pie. However, I’m not sure keeping track of your dreams – who shows up and how often, what you do and why – is such a terrible means of keeping half an eye on the “emotionally relevant issues” that your waking mind might consider imprudent or difficult or ostensibly unimportant. For all of us wading in the comradely swamp that is the Labour Party, many of those issues will involve politics. If you haven’t decided who to vote for in the leadership race yet – well, perhaps you should sleep on it.