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Lord Buckethead vs Theresa May - meet the UK's weirdest political parties

Forget rail nationalisation - how about yogic flying? 

On 8 June, voters across the country will face a choice. Again. And for most of us it will be a fairly binary exercise: the least bad of the two most likely outcomes, whether or not either happens to particularly represent anything you might happen to believe in. But they aren’t the only choice. Nor are the third party candidates, or even fourth or fifth - keep going. All the way down.

Since the 1950s, candidates have stood for more than 700 different political parties in UK parliamentary elections. The Official Monster Raving Loony Party might be the most famous these deposit-losingly futile exercises, but even on the eccentricity front it’s got some competition - on name alone comedian/psychologist Pamela Stephenson’s “I Want to Drop a Blancmange Down Terry Wogan's Y-Fronts Party” has got to be up there.

Sometimes these endeavours are little more than cynical promotional exercises, as in the 1993 Christchurch by-election, when a pub landlord ran for the "Highlander IVth Wednesday night promotion party". Why bother? Well, besides the inherent attraction of a publicity stunt, standing for election gets you free postage for one piece of "campaign literature" to every registered voting household in the constituency. See also "The Alfred Chicken Party", who were promoting a video game, and "Buy The Daily Sport".

Was PR what motivated Lord Buckethead of the Gremloids Party? Buckethead, birthname unknown, took the name and appearance of a Darth Vader-esque character from a 1984 film called Gremloids, an obscure Star Wars parody. He made his entry into UK politics in 1987, when he stood against Margaret Thatcher with policies including free sweets for all children and the demolition of Birmingham to make way for a starbase. Lame marketing ploy by the film’s UK video distributor or an extremely obscure in-joke? Either way, he, or at least someone with the same name and costume, rematerialised temporarily for a failed attempt to take on John Major in 1992, before presumably dying on his way back to his home planet. (Ed: Or so we thought at time of writing: Lord Buckethead, or an inheritor of the title, has apparently returned to stand against Theresa May in Maidenhead. Presumably Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron were Gremloid-endorsed.)

Then there’s the Dog Lovers' Party - which on the face of it sounds ridiculous on any number of levels, but was actually a small part of a deadly serious, albeit bizarre episode of British political history. The party’s name was pointedly selected by its sole candidate - the journalist Auberon Waugh - when he stood against the former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe in 1979. It referred to a scandal in which an associate of Thorpe had attempted to assassinate riding instructor Norman Scott, with whom Thorpe had had an affair - in the process killing Scott’s dog, a Great Dane named Rinka. Waugh was primarily standing to distribute his anti-Thorpe campaign literature, which was so "forceful" that an injunction was taken out to stop it. The DLP lost their deposit. Thorpe lost his seat.

But it was the 1990s which saw perhaps the boldest attempt by a niche group to transform UK politics, in the form of the Natural Law Party, who contested over 500 seats between 1992 and 2001. Their underlying principle was that transcendental meditation and yogic flying (which, as demonstrated in some memorable Party Political Broadcasts, looks a lot less like flying and a lot more like crossing your legs and bouncing around on your arse) could end all war and all crime. Their backers included George Harrison and his spiritual adviser the Maharishi, who proposed that all three then-living ex-Beatles to stand in Liverpool constituencies (they declined). Not a single Natural Law candidate ever managed to keep a deposit and the party quietly bounced into the aether in 2003.

While not as ambitious as the NLP, the Vote For Yourself Rainbow Dream Ticket Party nonetheless made electoral history. Sort of. Founded by "Rainbow" George Weiss, who claimed to have initially entered politics on the advice of his “extraterrestrial soulmate”, at various times party policies included concreting the Thames, replacing the pound with “the Wonder” and renaming Belfast “Best City” in honour of George Best. The 2005 election saw the party contest 23 seats; Weiss himself was the candidate in a record-breaking 13 separate constituencies (a record he’ll likely hold in perpetuity since it’s no longer legal to stand in more than one). In Cardiff North the party attracted a single voter, the lowest number of votes a candidate has received since the introduction of universal suffrage - and it wasn’t from the candidate herself, who was registered to vote in a different constituency.

Whilst the spectrum of British political parties is impressively broad, it is not without limit. In 2015 the Beer, Baccy and Crumpet Party saw a setback after objections to their use of the word crumpet (here referring to women, rather than baked goods). After some consideration they rebranded as Beer, Baccy and Scratchings Party. Their low vote share would indicate further research into "the three most popular things in the constituency of Eastleigh" is required.

Maybe the best the brave souls of Britain’s fringiest parties can hope for is to ensure that the winning candidate has to attempt to give a dignified victory speech in front of someone wearing a gigantic leopard print top hat. But sometimes there’s a candidate who just seems a bit before his time, like the 34-year-old businessman who ran as independent in the 1995 Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election, having first changed his name by deed poll to Mr Blobby. His policies? A four-day week, fixing wobbly tables in restaurants, and bricking up the Channel Tunnel. He never stood again, which is a shame as his policies seem perfectly triangulated for 2017 Britain.

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Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear