Howling Laud Hope, the Loony leader. Photo: Getty
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What are the Monster Raving Loony Party’s election plans?

Has the Official Monster Raving Loony Party maintained its identity following the loss of its iconic leader, Screaming Lord Sutch, and how will it approach the general election?

The first time I came into contact with the Official Monster Raving Loony Party was during the early hours of a Friday morning last month in a chilly sportshall. Norman “Hairy Norm” Davidson came storming into the Rochester and Strood by-election count in a purple top hat speckled with novelty badges, surrounded by an entourage, which included Mad Mike Young (wielding a giant pencil to draw “the political bigger picture”), and a dazed-looking man in a fez.

A running joke at otherwise wearisome by-election battles since the Eighties, the Loonies have long been fielding candidates like Hairy Norm to lampoon the sweaty and suited automatons from warring Westminster parties who battle for first place.

But since the suicide of their iconic founder and leader, Screaming Lord Sutch, in 1999, what is their place in modern politics other than providing grateful journalists with a dash of colour – and, in last month’s case, some bananas for energy? “‘Ave a banaaaana” is hardly the anarchic satire for which they received so much love and attention in previous decades.

Their tagline – “Vote for insanity: you know it makes sense” – used to be a harbinger of doom for some candidates from rival parties during the party’s heyday. Sutch, who contested 41 parliamentary seats in his lifetime, essentially destroyed the SDP when, in a 1990 by-election, he beat the party’s candidate by 263 votes in the Merseyside constituency of Bootle.

As eccentrics from fringe parties seem to be gaining ground in British politics today, could this spell a renaissance for the Loonies? The Lib Dem candidate only won 198 more votes than Hairy Norm in Rochester, and the party still has a handful of councillors nationwide.

 

Splitting the Loony vote

Comparisons to Ukip are tempting. Top Loony party figures are generally elderly, white and male with a penchant for flamboyant blazers and lurid ties, and some of the policies in their “manicfesto” echo the bizarre twists and turns of Ukip’s early attempts at election promises.

Cult Loony policies include introducing a 99p coin and banning greyhound racing to “stop the country going to the dogs”. Ukip has previously posited making the London Underground’s Circle Line run in a circle again, and a return to “proper dress” at the theatre and restaurants.

“They’re pinching our votes!” the Loony leader Alan “Howling Laud” Hope tells me when I go to meet him in his home town of Fleet, Hampshire. We settle, rather appropriately, in a pub. Loonies always base themselves in the local pub during elections – another trait that Ukip has pinched. Hope tells me that he’s been to over 400 branches of Wetherspoons up and down the country.

Everyone in the Prince Arthur greets him warmly as he shuffles in, wearing his distinctive leather hat coated in colourful pins and brooches, and blue and grey houndstooth waistcoat. There is a beer on tap called “The Winning Co-ALE-ition”, which bears a picture of David Cameron holding Hope’s hand aloft.

“He’s mad, he is,” a man at the table next to us says affectionately to his companion as we sit down. Hope has been a councillor here for six years, and used to be the mayor – a first for a Loony – when he lived in Devon, where he was based until 2000.

“We used to be the party of protest, against what’s going on in government,” he smiles. “And now he [Nigel Farage] seems to have taken that role. We don’t mind, we’ll win them back again one day.”

Hope has nicknamed Farage the “Political Cuckoo”, because he’s “hatched a Conservative egg” in Clacton and Rochester, but has never hatched one of his own. This joshing is part of Hope and Farage’s pint-toting friendship; they’ve known each other for years.

Hope even reveals that Arron Banks, the former Tory donor who caused a stir by pledging £1m to Ukip in October, is sponsoring him the £500 necessary to run in Uxbridge against Boris Johnson in the general election. I’ve contacted Banks’ office about this, and they have confirmed it.

“Ukip are the unofficial Monster Raving Loony Party – although you could argue that about all of them,” the merchandising secretary known as Chinners tells me. It’s an echo of David Cameron’s ill-advised dismissal of Ukip as “loonies” (as well as “fruitcakes” and “closet racists”).

The party Treasurer, nicknamed The Flying Brick, adds: “We get on quite well with them. They tend to kick about the pubs, we tend to be in the same pubs. There’s no ill feeling, and it’s nice to see them rattling Westminster.”

However, some in the party’s top tiers aren’t so sure. The membership secretary Baron Von Thunderclap – “Where does your name come from?” “My father” – calls Ukip, “much more dangerous than people imagine. I think he [Farage] is a dangerous man. I’m not a fan of his policies but he’s got every right to put them forward. They campaign in pubs; it’s the pub culture that we pioneered.”

The Loonies have been sponsored by the bookmaker William Hill for 25 years, but now that this agreement is over, they are looking for other organisations to back them in fielding candidates for the upcoming election. “Anybody who’s got any money, and a good sense of humour and wants some publicity,” grins Hope.

They have never once kept their deposit, although Sutch came very close to the required 5 per cent share in the 1994 Rotherham by-election, winning 1,114 votes.

 

Loony law

Although forever on the political periphery – “If any of us actually get elected, we’re instantly expelled from the party; that’s in the party constitution,” Von Thunderclap says approvingly – lots of Loony policies have actually made it onto the statute books.

All-day pub opening hours, “passports for pets” to avoid them having to go through quarantine after returning from holidays abroad, lowering the voting age to 18, and the abolition of the 11+ exam because it’s “the wrong age to take an exam that affects you for the rest of your life” are all measures we have in place today.

As with so many elements of the party, this is down to Sutch. In 1963, when he was a rock ‘n’ roll musician in a band called the Savages, he ran as a candidate for his National Teenage Party in the Stratford-upon-Avon by-election triggered by the Profumo Affair. He proposed most of the policies listed above.

It was a satirical stunt essentially suggesting young people should have the vote if their politicians act like teenagers. During the campaign, when the Tory candidate was asked his opinion on Sutch’s policies on a television debate, he replied: “They’re nothing more than the rantings of a raving lunatic.” This comment gave birth to the Monster Raving Loony Party two decades later, when Sutch and Hope founded the party in 1982.

“We founded the party on 16 June, 1982,” murmurs Hope. “Do you know why I remember that? Because it was my birthday. And do you know what he [Sutch] did on 16 June, 1999? He hung himself. I’m sure that date never crossed his mind. Just sheer coincidence.

“I wasn't shocked at all,” Hope recalls. “I knew it would happen one day.”

Sutch’s death is the sad story behind a party that remains all smiles on the outside. Away from their election night merriment, Monster Raving Loony members do give off the impression of sad clowns.

Hope was great friends with the party’s chaotic pioneer, and still calls him the “spiritual leader”, yet insists the Loonies have maintained their identity in spite of his death:

“The only by-election we missed recently was the one in Heywood, because it was on the same day as Clacton. So we missed that one, but we've been to every other by-election one way or another. With the general coming up now, we'll see how many candidates we get.”

And how many people are willing to stump up to sponsor them.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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“If not evolution then revolution”: temperature rises in Catalonia as independence vote looms

Clashes between Barcelona and Madrid over the disputed referendum lead to protests and arrests.

Summer may finish today according to astronomers, but the heat in Barcelona has been steadily rising over the past few weeks. Things reached boiling point yesterday when the Spanish police arrested 14 Catalan officials responsible for organising a referendum on independence for the region. They also seized about 9.8 million ballots intended for this vote, which the Catalan government wants to hold on 1 October.

The Spanish central government, the conservative People’s Party (PP), is completely opposed to the referendum and has so far refused even to discuss it with the Catalan administration. This prompted the pro-independence Catalan parties in power to start planning it unilaterally.

On 6 September, the Catalan parliament passed the Self-Determination Referendum Act, which established how the vote will be organised and held. The question would be: “Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state with the form of a republic?” And since the electoral register can only be accessed by the Spanish authorities, whoever is allowed to vote in the Catalan regional elections can have their say.

Legal experts are divided over whether this kind of independence referendum is allowed by the Spanish constitution, which was approved in 1978. This was just three years after the death of fascist dictator Francisco Franco, and one year after the first democratic elections since the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War.

According to the constitution, sovereignty resides with the Spanish people. Opponents of Catalan independence claim it is therefore up to the whole of Spain to decide such a matter – and that in any case, it would have to be approved by the Spanish government.

But those in favour of the Catalan process argue that, given the complete lack of political will in Madrid regarding the referendum, the unilateral way is legitimate even if it may be declared illegal according to Spanish law.

As expected, two weeks ago the constitutional court suspended the Catalan Self-Determination Referendum Act, and yesterday’s police operation followed. Shortly after the raid began, during a government control session in the Spanish parliament in Madrid, prime minister Mariano Rajoy said “the rule of law has worked and it’ll continue doing so”. He insisted that the government was just “doing its duty”.

In this charged atmosphere, while Rajoy was still speaking, the MPs of the Catalan parties supporting the referendum walked out of the room, while those of the ruling PP chanted: “Leave here your salaries!”

Later in Barcelona, the Catalan regional prime minister, Carles Puigdemont, said Spain had “de facto suspended self-government in Catalonia and de facto applied the state of emergency”. Surrounding him during his speech, several other high officials looked funereal.

Applying further heat to the situation, the head of the Spanish tax agency signed an order on Tuesday that gave control of the Catalan public finances to the Spanish state. From then on, and at least until the end of the year, the Catalan administration isn’t allowed to allocate any money that hasn’t been sanctioned by Madrid.

However, the Spanish central government could still go even further and, using Article 155 of the constitution, suspend self-government in Catalonia – not de facto but officially. This extreme measure, never used in modern Spain, would in theory make possible what Catalans often joke about: tanks from the Spanish army would drive down the avenues of Barcelona.

Catalonia is the richest Spanish region, last year contributing 19 per cent of the country's GDP, while its population represents about 18 per cent of the total. It has long considered itself historically and culturally different from the rest of Spain, and yet just a decade ago an independence referendum would have been inconceivable.

In 2006, just 15 per cent of Catalans wanted “an independent state”. But that year the ruling PP referred the Catalan statute to the constitutional court, which declared part of it illegal. Then, after the PP won the general elections in 2011, the Spanish government started refusing to engage with Catalonia on the issue. 

Support for Catalonia becoming an independent state remains at around 41 per cent in favour and just under 50 per cent against. However, when Catalans were asked if they would vote in a referendum not sanctioned by Madrid, 67.5 per cent said yes, and of those, 62.4 per cent would vote “Yes”.

As of today ballot boxes are still being kept in a secret location, and Puigdemont and other Catalan officials insist the referendum will be held one way or another. In the past, the Catalan PM has said that if “Yes” wins, Catalonia will declare its independence within 48 hours.

For now the atmosphere is tense. On Tuesday, thousands of people took to the streets of Barcelona to protest against the police operation, in front of several offices of the regional government that were being searched.

The biggest demonstration was next to the Catalan finance ministry, which was being searched by the Guardia Civil, the Spanish paramilitary police. Many protesters were carrying the estelada, the unofficial flag of the independence movement – some worn it as a cape, others waved it in the air.

“We are protesting against this unjust situation”, said 47-year-old sales rep Ferran Batalla. “[The referendum] is not an aggression, it’s an option to have justice, an option to ask the people what they think."

The protesters chanted in Catalan, “We will vote!”, and in Spanish, “We want to vote!” Some were distributing flyers that read in Catalan, “We vote to be free”, and graffiti on a telephone booth said in Catalan, “Voting is not a crime.”

In English a giant banner on top of the building that hosts the Catalan finance ministry read: “Welcome to the Catalan Republic”. At one point, police coming out of the building were met with deafening whistles before the crowd started chanting in Catalan: “Out with the occupying forces!”

“I don’t want to fight anybody in Spain, but we’ve reached a point in which we can’t understand each other any more”, said Batalla, who complained about the fact that the central government has always sternly refused to talk about planning a referendum. “When the state doesn’t want to negotiate, and doesn’t want you to leave, and doesn’t want to hear from you, and mistreats you… They think we are stupid, and we are fed up and this is over, because they are making us feel as if we are the bad ones."

In nearby Plaça de Catalunya just a month ago, barely a flag could be seen among the huge vigil following the terror attack on Barcelona. And if that proved to be a show of social and political unity between Madrid and Barcelona, today the Spanish government on the one side, and the Catalan authorities and many of their people on the other, couldn’t be more polarised.

Many Catalans mention the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, and the agreement with Westminster that preceded it, as an example of how things could and should happen. But the two situations are actually very different.

Catalonia makes up a far larger chunk of Spain's population and economic output than Scotland does of the UK. Meanwhile, Spain has a constitution that the government considers untouchable, while there is nothing similar in the British legal framework.

Late Tuesday, Rajoy made an official statement urging the Catalan government to get back to  law and to democracy, and stop at last this “escalation of extremism”.

"This referendum can’t be held, it has never been legal nor legitimate,” he said, before adding: “And every illegal act and every infringement will get its response, which will be determined, proportional and rigorous”.

The PM’s intervention was followed by a huge cacerolada in Barcelona and many other Catalan cities – meaning people started banging pans in their windows in protest. In the streets, demonstrations went on through the night as people tried to prevent the Guardia Civil from leaving the Catalan finance ministry. The protest was mostly peaceful, but police cars parked outside were destroyed while people chanted a rhyme in Spanish: “¡Esta noche os vais sin coche!”, or “Tonight you will leave without a car!”

Finally, at around 4am the first Guardia Civil agents started leaving the building. There were moments of tension between the protesters and the Mossos d’Esquadra, the Catalan regional police, who opened the way for the Guardia Civil.

Wednesday began calmer, as both sides considered their next steps. The Spanish government remains focused on preventing the vote from happening, but has said it will be open to dialogue afterwards. “On 2 (October) we will talk and this new dynamic will take us to look for solutions because the coexistence of all Spaniards must continue in Spain... We’ll have to sit together and talk, and that we will do”, Íñigo Méndez de Vigo, the spokesperson for the government, told Spanish Radio. 

By the afternoon, there hadn’t been word of response from the Catalan authorities, but having invested so much in the referendum and seeing the atmosphere in the streets, it’s not clear how they could backtrack.

In a bar in the Eixample area of Barcelona, right outside the city centre, people discuss the situation over their mid-morning coffee. “What happened yesterday was shocking, independently of whether one supports independence or not,” says 37-year-old Italian IT consultant Paolo Mosca, who has lived Barcelona since 2013.

“I understand that within the Spanish legal frame the referendum isn’t legal, I know this, but within the Catalan legal frame it is legal because it was approved in the Catalan parliament”, says Sergi Pedraza, a developer and who was born in Catalonia as the son of Andalusian parents.

“The only possible solution, because the situation has become unsustainable, is a referendum, but one well planned and agreed with the state”, says Álex Castaño, 28, also a developer, originally from Seville and who has lived in Barcelona since 2015.

All three would be eligible to vote and Sergi says he’d vote “Yes” while Álex says he wouldn’t vote. Paolo says he’d vote “Yes” because he understands and supports the will of those who want independence. But he and Álex say they’d probably leave if Catalonia becomes independent, because of the uncertainty of what may happen to today’s cosmopolitan Barcelona.

By noon the street demonstrations had resumed, this time in front of the Catalan High Court, where hundreds of people, many of them again carrying and wearing esteladas, were protesting against yesterday’s arrests. Loud Catalan music could be heard.

“The government in Madrid is insulting the intelligence of the Catalan people,” says retired businessman Enric T Coromina, who adds that he studied law and is “politically from the right”. He is wearing a barretina, a Catalan traditional red wool hat, and a T-shirt saying in English: “Make no mistake, I’m Catalan, not Spanish”. He’s sitting on a folding chair; has brought food, water and a blanket, and says he’s ready to spend the night here. He’s sure the vote will happen – he will back “Yes”– and will be legitimate even if not legal under Spanish law.

"If evolution is not possible from within the system, then there’s only one other way left and that’s revolution, civil disobedience,” he concludes, as more and more people join the protest.