Party politics can be a dirty game. Being in a tiny political party that’s constantly being torn apart by fighting of both a political and personal nature has become something of a badge of honour for many socialists throughout the years. But our petty squabbles are put to shame by the many wars which have torn apart a political party I’d always assumed was just about silly hats and stupid names.
In 1963, musician David Sutch stood for election in Stratford upon Avon for a new party – The Teenage Party. No teenager was eligible to vote for him as the legal voting age was 21. Despite this he gained 209 votes. The campaign focused on the idea that since the adults who were in charge we’re making such a terrible job of it, it was a bit rich telling 20 year olds they were too immature to have a say. The fact that the seat was vacated following the Profumo affair probably helped Sutch gained attention.
The immense seriousness and stoicism of post-war Britain was beginning to shift by the 60s and 70s although any idea of that most of Britain was somehow “swinging“ are pretty miles out when I listen to the tales of my parents generation. In 1970, Monty Python’s “Election Night Special” sketch saw The Sensible Party take on The Silly Party (with The Slightly Silly & Very Silly Parties as spoiler candidates in some constituencies). The more wholesome Goodies also had a similar sketch which featured a candidate known as a “Science Looney.” Life imitated art when in 1976 an independent candidate ran under the banner of “Science Looney.”
Things started to come together in 1981 when 21 year old student , John Desmond Dougrez-Lewis changed his name by Deed Poll in order to stand in the Crossby by-election. His new name “Tarquin Fin-tim-lin-bin-whim-lim-bus-stop-F’tang-F’tangg-Ole-Biscuitbarrel” was a direct lift from the Silly Party candidate in the Monty Python sketch. Dougrez-Lewis/Tarquin attracted the attention of an “anti politics” group at Cambridge University known as the Cambridge University Raving Looney Society (CURLS). The group would run around campus being even more posh and obnoxious than most Cambridge Students but they really got on the nerves of the Uni’s Tory Society – perhaps because they stole many of their members. In the early 80s, David Sutch also returned (having gone to America, got shot and came back). He saw promise in both CURLS and Dougrez-Lewis and sought to work with them on his newest political project. In 1983, the Official Monster Raving Loony Party was formed bringing together these disparate elements of silliness into one semi-coherent unit.
It would be foolish of me not to take time to mention another crucial figure in all this. Many OMRLP candidates followed the example set by Dougrez-Lewis and changed their sensible names to stupid ones by Deed Poll. Lieutenant Commander William George Boaks had no need to do so. Bill Boaks, as he was known, was a tireless/tiresome campaigner for road safety among other things. As far back as 1951, Boaks had been attempting to shake up the political scene. His own start was somewhat shaky; accidentally getting the wrong constituency and not standing against the Prime Minister as he had intended. Over the years he had continued to bring his message to voters under a number of dubious guises; Association of Democratic Monarchists Representing All Women and Public Safety Democratic Monarchist White Resident to name but a few. It is unlikely Boaks knew quite how comedic he seemed but he fitted perfectly alongside Sutch & Dougrez-Lewis. Just prior to the party contesting their first election, the veteran road safety campaigner was hit by car. He died 3 years later from complications related to his injuries and never officially stood as a candidate. It is undoubted however, that his presence at the formation of the Loonies ensured hatred of cars retains a place in the party’s policy platform to this day.
The first target of this new party could not have been less auspicious. The infamous Bermondsey By-election in 1983 was an unpleasant affair. The Labour candidate, Peter Tatchell was openly gay having already come out although the Labour Party were less than happy with this and told Tatchell to shut up about it when questioned. Tatchell’s openness about his sexuality was not shared by his Liberal Democrat opponent, Simon Hughes, who took until 2006 to confess that he himself was bisexual and had slept with men in the past. In 1983 however, Hughes was on the offensive in every sense describing the election as “a straight choice” between himself and Tatchell and subsequently winning the seat. In to this melee stepped The OMRLP and their leader, David Sutch, now know as “Screaming Lord Sutch, 3rd Earl of Harrow.” Sutch’s main policy in the election seemed to be erecting a giant statue in honour of 50s teeny bopper, Tommy Steele. Sutch described him as “the only decent thing to come out of the place.” Doubtless enamoured by his charms he received a whole 97 votes.
Despite the early setback over the coming decade the party established themselves as at least something on a force. While they often struggled to get together the deposit for general elections (they managed only 11, 5 and 25 candidates in 1983, 1987 and 1992 respectively) there were hundreds of local Loonies. This made sense for a party unlikely to obtain the 5% of the vote needed to get their deposit back. Local elections often had smaller deposits or indeed none. There was also the possibility that some positions were so shit, no-one would even bother to stand. It was this logic which saw the party gain their first “success” in 1987 when Alan “Hauling Laud” Hope was elected unopposed to Ashburton Town Council. Hope used this foot in the door to develop the town (population 3909) into as close to a Loony stronghold as could be imagined and in 1998 he went on to become Mayor.
There is another reason the party did well locally rather than nationally. Ironically, this also reveals the party’s biggest conflict. Where they did well in elections there were always common features; well respected local people, anti-politicians who nonetheless had real ideas about what could make their communities better. Pub landlords, terrible entertainers or people who thought they were “local celebrities” did decidedly less well. There was also a distinct way of thinking beginning to develop among some activists that put them in conflict with Sutch and his way of doing things. Many thought that there was nothing funny about losing all the time, wasting their money on deposits to publicise local nobodies and putting forward people who they all knew would be incapable of actually doing any good. A rebellion was brewing.
Sutch did what every good leader does when they smell a rebellion. He built a faction of loyalists to defend him. The accusations against Sutch were many and varied. Some in the party accused him of losing interest in any of the political content. Many saw satire as more than just a larf – they saw it is as a biting weapon with which to destroy the total nonsense being put forward by the political elite. Many saw Sutch as little more than a publicity hound who would happily let anybody stand for the party so long as they had the cash (probably because he would). Sutch built a faction known as the Fun-da-mental-ists (geddit?) to defend him. Anyone who suggested they get more organised, improve party democracy (there was basically none), or not just lose all the time began to get it in the neck from the faction around Sutch.
Chief rebel was the a man one cannot help but respect, Stuart Hughes. The final straw for Hughes came in 1989 when the party was supposed to be participating in a sponsored fun run for the cancer charity CLIC. Hughes actually bothered to do the run while Sutch and others just got their photos taken at the beginning and end for the journos. Outraged, Hughes resigned from the OMRLP and went on to do the thing we all love as political activists – split a tiny political party into even smaller pieces. Hughes and others formed the Raving Loony Green Giant Party. The party was much more organised and the inclusion of “Green” in the title also pointed to a party with at least some priorities. The Green Giants focused much more on local priorities and “serious” politics and were more democratic than the party they had left behind. Hughes was a fierce local campaigner and in 1991 he did the unthinkable by taking on the local Tories who had a total monopoly in local government in Devon. He took a safe Tory seat on East Devon District Council and a seat on Sidmouth Town Council. Hughes refused to pay the Poll Tax and was hounded by local Tories for it. Although technically he sat on the District Council and not the County Council (who actually collected the tax) they consistently goaded the unrepentant councillor. When legal action was threatened, Hughes responded by marching in to the council chambers and dumping scrap metal to the value of the unpaid tax. The voters clearly approved as Hughes was elected to the County Council himself toppling the Tory Whip in the process. He remains a member of town, district and county councils to this day. He joined the Conservative Party in 1997 which is a shame on so many levels. By 1993 the Raving Loony Green Giant Party was all but finished with everyone having either rejoined the OMRLP or drifted off.
Far from being the end of the problems for the Official Monster Raving Loony Party, the split only accented already existing tensions. The sight of people actually being successful as anti-political heroes saw many in the party begin to adopt a similar strategy. John Tempest, who had previously worked as press officer for the Liberal Party began to take things very seriously. He saw the potential for the Loonies as a real protest vote and began to develop a media strategy based around more serious political stunts. He utilised his media contacts and even used the threat of legal action to prevent hustings from being broadcast if Loony candidates weren’t present. The biggest and most surprising success for the OMLP came in the 1990 Bootle by-election where Lord Sutch beat the Social Democrats by over 300 votes. The Social Democrats were a group of “rebels” who refused to join the Lib Dems when the Liberal Party and Social Democratic Party merged (phwoar…rebellious). In the wake of being beaten by Sutch, Owens folded the Social Democrats immediately (and again some people split and kept it going anyway). Beating well established, albeit relatively minor, parties was beginning to become a habit for the Loonies. So much so that many Greens, Commies, Nazis etc. etc. would keep a wide berth from any election in which they stood. Like many others before him, Tempest was disliked by Sutch despite, or perhaps because Tempest was largely responsible for good electoral results. Members again suspected jealousy or a threat to his power that came from people who did things properly or focused too much on actual politics. Like many others before him, Tempest was eventually forced out by Sutch.
This pattern of despotism and the continual sidelining of anyone who challenged the fun-da-mental-ists power continue throughout Sutch’s life and has persisted afterwards. Sutch died in 1999 and some had hoped his party might die with him. Alan Hope (a long time ally of Sutch) stepped in to fill the void. His leadership can broadly be described as quite like Sutch’s but with a bit less charm. He continued to base the party around himself and was also resentful of any attempts to democratise. Without Sutch to hold the Party together it began a slow and probably terminal decline. But not before a few more cracking splits. 2001 was faction fight time again. The splinter group the Rock ‘N’ Roll Loony Party was formed. Like the Green Giants before them they initially did quite well – so much so that their leader, Chris “Screwy” Driver was so busy being a councillor that he didn’t have time to run a tiny political splinter group as well. They managed to outpoll Veritas in the one seat they stood for in 2005 General Elections but have since fizzled out.
The General Election of 2005 also saw perhaps my favourite political moment ever. The official candidate “Eddie Vee,” was an Elvis impersonator but local party members favoured a well known artist. The fallout was brutal. Deputy Leader and long time Sutch and now Hope loyalist, Boney Maroney tried to calm the situation by expelling the entire branch except the candidate. This strategy had limited success in that Vee didn’t actually have the money to stand with no branch to fund him, nor was money forthcoming from central office. Ever loyal to her only remaining Loony in York, Boney went to the York Evening Press to beg for money or failing that just any other candidate; “We find people who run a pub or a shop make the best loony candidates” she declared. Quite what Eddie Vee made of that is anyone’s guess. The now expelled local branch put on a good show. The raised their deposit and came up with a name “York Integrity Party” (YIP). This meant that there was a party standing for a position of public office based almost solely around the fact that they were the ones with integrity as opposed to the Official Monster Raving Loony Party. If the voters doubted YIPs message they would not have been able to show it as in the end the OMLRP couldn’t find the £500 deposit and so stood no candidate. Using an actual real election to attempt to settle sectarian Loony scores against non-existent Elvis impersonating rivals is a political legacy I can only respect . All YIPpery has sadly subsequently subsided.
In 2007, in another long line of blows to the party, the aforementioned Boney Maroney quit. She was the iron fist throughout the party’s history having lambasted the Green Giants, the Rock ‘n’ Rollers and the YIPs. She cited all the same reasons as everyone else; lack of democracy, no politics, too much focus of promoting nobodies. In response Alan Hope repeated that he would remain party leader “till death.” Pretty definitive. In the 2010 General Election, the party went as far as to changed their name to the Monster Raving Loony WILLIAM HILL party as part of a sponsorship deal. Punting bookies as an alternative to the political mainstream would perhaps give some of the OMRLPs founders the Billy Boak.
The Official Monster Raving Loony Party are very much a product of their time, namely the 1980s. The Loonies could have chosen to listen to their members. They could have gone with what made them successful – using biting rhetoric to challenge power and putting forward real democratic solutions. Their long-standing demand to “put parliament on wheels” for example is actually a serious attempt to grapple with Londoncentric politics. The hatred of cars has led to local Loonys fighting for cycle paths, better transport links and more environmental policies. Locally they do well where respected campaigners have taken up the anti-politics mantra and they campaign hard and smart. But like many political sects of the 80s – it’s high time it was over. Obsession with building around one man, lack of democracy , centralist decision making, formation of powerful factions intent on mutual destruction. It’s almost hard not to draw parallels. It’s hard not to wonder if Boney Maroney is the Lindsey German of the Loonies finally breaking ranks after years of loyalty, if the ISG might just be the Giant Greens of the Scottish Left or if the SSP did a bit of a YIP when they stood mainly on the basis that they weren’t Tommy Sheridan, even where he wasn‘t actually standing. Over the years the Official Monster Raving Loony Party’s fixation with old methods and egos has made them little more than a cruel almost apolitical joke. There’s a warning for us all in there somewhere.