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.
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.