Witney, England — On the otherwise sober streets of the English market town of Witney, midday shoppers and bemused pensioners are being bothered by a man wearing an inflatable banana on his head.“If you can’t give us your vote, give us a smile!” he cries. Further down the street a fellow conspirator in a gold lamé top hat and oversized bow tie is haranguing passers by through a megaphone: “Vote for insanity! You know it makes sense!”
The political constituency of Conservative Party leader David Cameron, Witney is about as far from the sharp end of this election as it’s possible to get.
The town has sent Conservative lawmakers to parliament continuously since 1922 and a commanding majority of more than 14,000 has left Cameron largely free to focus on his national campaign to replace Gordon Brown as prime minister.
But as the electioneering enters its final hours ahead of Thursday’s vote, the tranquillity of the town has been shattered by the arrival of a peculiarly British political institution.
The Monster Raving Loony Party may not take its politics seriously but this army of eccentrics has been ever-present in UK elections for decades, its bizarrely-attired candidates often to be seen gurning awkwardly on the shoulders of significant political figures as results are announced on election night television.
Now the party’s leader, Howling Laud Hope has planted his standard in Witney, one of 27 candidates raising the Loony banner across the country.
“If you vote Green, you’ve got a reason to do that. If you vote UKIP (UK Independence Party), you’ve got a reason for doing that. If you vote BNP you’ve got a reason to do that. But you don’t need a reason to vote for the Loony Party,” Hope told CNN.
Like any party, the Loonies have their manifesto; it’s just that the Loony end of the political spectrum veers beyond what consultants might call “blue sky thinking” and straight into the outer stratosphere.
Hope says the party plans to introduce a 99p coin to cut down on small change. Other policy pledges include selling socks in packs of three as a precaution against losing one and banning superheroes from using their powers for evil — though who could honestly say they disagreed with that?
To launch the party’s transport policy, two candidates rode floating bicycles up the River Thames past the Houses of Parliament.
“We’re going to have animals in parliament. Animals make more sense most of the time,” says another Loony stalwart, Dancing Ken Hanks, who also promises motorized pavements and motorized shoes for the elderly.
Meanwhile, Crucial Chris Dowling doles out million-pound banknotes featuring the face of Princess Diana and signed by the chief cashier of the Bank of Loonyland.
“The Raving Loony Party: the only party that gives you money! When we get elected we’ll give every voter £1 million,” says Dowling. “This will be legal tender — that’s a campaign promise. We’ll get rid of debt and we’ll all be millionaires!”
But while Hope, a veteran of numerous election and by-election campaigns, says that the Loonies are all about bringing some fun to politics, he accepts that his party offers one possible ballot sheet protest vote in an election in which trust in the political system has been badly damaged by the controversy over lawmaker expenses.
“If Labour or Conservative get in again then nothing is going to change. We’re on the side of the people,” he says.
The party can also claim some past successes. Sixties musician Screaming Lord Sutch, the founding father of the Loony movement, first ran for parliament in 1963 under the moniker of the National Teenage Party. Sutch campaigned for the voting age to be lowered to 18, which duly came to pass six years later.
Hope, who succeeded Sutch following his suicide in 1999, says his party was also the first to call for all-day pub opening and passports for pets. “Everybody said, ‘Passports for pets? Don’t be so loony, that’s stupid.’ And what are they doing now?” he asks.
On the streets of Witney, the Loony effort to amuse and entertain skeptical locals seems to be paying off.
“They’ve got a nice light-hearted approach,” says Romley Carlin, an 18-year-old first-time voter. “It’s what politics needs really. Takes the boredom out of it.”
But some candidates among the eight others standing against Cameron complain that the Loonies and others are publicity seekers whose presence in Witney has provided an unwelcome distraction.
Paul Wesson, a libertarian independent involved in Witney politics for 12 years, says he was not invited to take part in the constituency’s main hustings. “I’ve been excluded because they’ve tarnished me with the Loony brush. I accept I am mildly eccentric but I consider myself a serious candidate,” he told CNN.
When Wesson stood in the last election in 2005, Witney voters had just five names to choose from. “We’re not getting the coverage we got then and the process has been clogged up,” he says.
But Liberal Democrat candidate Dawn Barnes, whose party finished second to Cameron in 2005, said the presence of the Loonies and so many other candidates on the ballot paper was good for democracy.
“It has become a bit of a media circus,” Barnes told CNN. “We’re hearing a lot of messages from a lot of different people — the more the better if you ask me.”
But what would happen if voters did suddenly start taking the Loonies seriously? In its various incarnations since the 1960s no candidate has ever achieved the Holy Grail of fringe politics by retaining their deposit — currently set at £500 ($757) — which is forfeited upon failure to win at least five percent of the vote.
Hope says it would be no joking matter if any Loony candidate ever came close to breaking that losing streak: “We always said that if anybody ever retained their deposit we’d have to have a meeting to throw them out because they’re obviously not being loony enough.”
This story was originally published by CNN on 5 May, 2010.