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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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What has happened to the Liberal Democrats?

As Brexit nears, Vince Cable is struggling – but his is a poisoned inheritance.

During the coalition years, Iain Duncan Smith came up with a plan: if unemployed people went on a demonstration, and the police stopped them for any reason, the officer should pass their names on to the Department for Work and Pensions, which could then freeze their benefits. After all, the minister’s reasoning went, if you had time to protest, you weren’t actively seeking work.

This was just one of the many David Cameron-era Tory proposals that the Liberal Democrats quashed before it ever saw the light of day. Every Lib Dem who worked in the coalition, whether as a minister or a special adviser, has a horror story about a policy they stopped or watered down – and usually the papers to prove it, too.

And so from time to time, Vince Cable’s team needs to respond to a news story by plundering their archives for anti-Tory material. A month or so ago, a former Lib Dem staffer got a phone call from the party’s press operation: could someone answer some questions about their time in government? To which the ex-staffer said: OK, but since you’re calling on a withheld number, you’ll need to get someone to vouch for you.

Perhaps, the former staffer suggested, Phil Reilly, the Lib Dems’ communications chief and a veteran of the party machine, was around? No, came the answer, he has moved on. What about Sam Barratt? Out at a meeting. Was Paul Haydon there? No. Haydon – who worked for the party’s last member of the European parliament, Catherine Bearder, before joining the press office – had moved on, too. After a while, this ex-staffer gave up and put the phone down.

The really troubling thing about this story is that I have heard it three times from three former Liberal Democrat aides. The names change, of course, but the point of the story – that the party machine has been stripped of much of its institutional memory – stays the same. The culprit, according to the staffers who have spoken to me, is Vince Cable. And the exodus is not just from the press office: the party’s chief executive, Tim Gordon, is among the heavyweights to have departed since the 2017 election.

Is this fair? Tim Farron, Cable’s predecessor as party leader, did not share Nick Clegg’s politics, but he recognised that he was inheriting a high-quality backroom team and strove to keep the main players in place. Reilly, who is now at the National Film and Television School, wrote not only Clegg’s concession speech at the general election in 2015, but Farron’s acceptance speech as leader a few months later.

The Liberal Democrats’ curse is that they have to fight for every minute of press and television coverage, so the depletion of their experienced media team is particularly challenging. But their problems go beyond the question of who works at the George Street headquarters in London. As party veterans note, Cable leads a parliamentary group whose continued existence is as uncertain as it was when Paddy Ashdown first became its leader in 1988. The difference is that Ashdown had a gift for identifying issues that the main political parties had neglected. That gave him a greater media profile than his party’s standing warranted.

There is no shortage of liberal and green issues on which Cable could be more vocal: the right to die, for instance, or the legalisation of cannabis. He could even take a leaf from Ashdown’s playbook and set out a bolder approach on income tax than either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn. While none of these issues command anything resembling majority support, they are distinctly more popular than the Liberal Democrats. They would also get the party talked about more often. At present, it is being ignored.

These complaints will receive a greater airing if the Lib Dems have a disappointing night at the local elections on 3 May. The party hopes to gain ground in Manchester and retain the Watford mayoralty, but fears it will lose control of the council in Sutton, south-west London. It expects to make little headway overall.

So what else could be done? If you gather three Liberal Democrats in a room, you will hear at least five opinions about what Cable is getting wrong. But the party’s problems neither start nor end with its leader. Cable inherits two difficult legacies: first, thanks to Farron, his party is committed to an all-out war against Brexit. In 2016, that policy successfully gave a shattered party a reason to exist, and some hoped that the Lib Dems could recover ground by wooing disgruntled Remainers. Last year’s general election changed the game, however. The two big parties took their highest share of the vote since 1970, squeezing the Lib Dems to a dozen MPs. That simply doesn’t give the party the numbers to “stop Brexit” – therefore, they feel to many like a wasted vote.

Why not drop the commitment to a second in/out EU referendum? Because one of Farron’s successes was attracting pro-European new members – and thanks to the party’s ultra-democratic constitution, these hardcore Remainers can keep that commitment in place for as long as they wish.

The legacy of coalition is even more difficult to address. In policy terms, the Lib Dems can point to great achievements in government: across every department, there are examples of Duncan Smith-style cruelties that the party prevented.

Yet there is no electoral coalition to be won from voters who are pleased and grateful that hypothetical horrors didn’t come to pass. More than half of voters still regard the Lib Dems’ participation in coalition as a reason not to back the party. That might change as the memories fade, but for now the party’s last spell in government is a significant barrier to gaining the chance to have another one. Even a fresh, young and charismatic leader – with a superb, experienced team – would struggle with such a poisoned inheritance. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum