Inside the wild world of novelty political candidates

Inside the wild world of novelty political candidates
From Binface to Buckethead, Elmo to Mr. Fish Finger, Britain has a long history of madly dressed mavericks standing in elections, but who are they, who votes for them and what do they represent? Kyle MacNeill investigates.

My first howler with Howling Laud Alan Hope, the 82-year-old leader of the Monster Raving Loony Party, is calling his political organisation a fringe group. “We’re not fringe! You’ve got the wrong one! We're the only party that's on everyone's side!” Hope exclaims over the phone. That notwithstanding, it’s fair to say that the satirical political outfit MRLP are not exactly a mainstream offering. If UK politics is a two horse race, then the Monster Raving Loony Party is a knackered donkey trotting the wrong way down the track, with an oversized black-and-yellow rosette wonkily pinned to its jockey’s jacket.

The MRLP have been in this race for a very long time, but are still yet to finish the first furlong and win a seat. The parody party started out in 1982, when musician Screaming Lord Sutch – who had been standing under various guises since 1963 – founded MRLP after being inspired by Monty Python’s Silly and Sensible parties sketch, which featured candidates dressed in clown costumes. Armed with comical gags and fancy dress, the MRLP entered politics with a crash, bang and wallop. Sutch and his gang of renegades – complete with top hats covered in badges, signature gold megaphones and as many clashing prints as possible – contested scores of elections across the country.

Their wildly written “manicfestos” laid the groundwork for other novelty candidates and became part of political pop culture. Their policies were pub comedy fodder; over the years they have promised the public a year off from listening to politicians, free pins to reduce inflation and a new 99p coin. The quintessence of British eccentricity, they caused delight and outrage in equal measures. David Mellor, a Home Office Minister, once quipped in 1985 that a by-election contested by the MRLP had been marred by “a backdrop of a lot of people dressed like idiots, behaving like idiots and waving idiotic slogans.” Idiotic or idiosyncratic depending on your view, they marched onwards.

But in 1999, Sutch took his own life and the MRLP needed to choose a new figurehead. Hope remembers the leadership election well. “We were at the 1999 conference and we had to elect a new leader. There were only two candidates: me and my cat, Catmando. He got 112 votes and I got 112 votes. So since I was the casting vote as the chairman, I voted for myself on his behalf,” he says. Catmando was run over a few years later. “I was accused of assassinating him,” he says. Since then, Hope has led the MRLP, now in his 25th year in office (the office being, for most of his tenure, a room in The Golden Lion pub in Devon).

Screaming Lord Sutch, at a rally on June 4, 1989 in London, David Fowler/ Shutterstock

A year older than Joe Biden, Hope is running again, this time in North East Hampshire. He’s joined by 23 other MRLP candidates across the country with names like Barmy Lord Brockman, Incredible Flying Brick and Lady Lily the Pink. Even a Tory official wouldn’t bet on them winning; no MRLP general election candidate has ever got their deposit back, with Sutch getting closest in 1994 in Rotherham with 4.2% of the vote. But Hope is still fittingly filled with a buoyant optimism, aiming to receive three times as many votes as last time. In reality, a last-past-the-post result awaits.

But the Loonies are not alone in this political horseplay. Britain has long had a rich tradition of election chancers and colourful characters, throwing their silly hats in the ring. Many of them are so committed to the bit they never break character, refusing to admit that they are novelty candidates. But they all promote ludicrous policies, sport outlandish costumes and have no actual chance of winning a seat.

This year, though, one novelty candidate could buck the trend. Count Binface, the intergalactic warrior with an industrial-sized waste container plonked on his head, is once again standing to be a Member of Parliament, this time in Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Yorkshire constituency of Richmond and Northallerton. Played by comedian Jon Harvey, the Count first faced the election count back in 2019, going viral after peddling a manifesto of pithy promises, including nationalising Adele and renaming London Bridge to Phoebe Waller Bridge.

Stashed between these were some surprisingly and strikingly straight-edge, progressive policies: laying the House of Lords to waste, free broadband for everyone, stopping arms sales and lowering the voting age to 16. And for that matter, also capping it at 80, meaning Binface, a 5,072-year-old leader of the Recyclons, couldn’t vote for himself. Which might have helped; he received just 69 votes from the people of Uxbridge and South Ruislip.

Even worse, he wasn’t even the best performing anthropomorphised cylindrical receptacle. He was pipped to the post by Lord Buckethead, a buccaneering space pirate with a bucket on his head created for Todd Durham's 1984 sci-fi flick Hyperspace, And, the recipient of 125 votes. Bizarrely, Jon Harvey – that’s Binface, remember – had played Lord Buckethead previously back in 2017, three decades after the daft Darth Vader parody had stood against John Major

Lord Buckethead/Twitter

But Durham hadn’t authorised it and dumped Harvey, later offering the character to film journalist David Hughes, who took up the role and began canvassing as a trash can just in time for the 2019 general election. It was here that he, as Lord Buckethead, faced Count Binface for the first time in Uxbridge. And both trash-talking vessels were ready to burst.

“It was the bin and the bucket. It was next level stuff,” David Hughes tells Huck, remembering the election night. “But Jon Harvey and I finally sat down and broke bread like a big peace summit. Jimmy Carter said it was the most important of our time,” he jokes. The more serious politics, though, got in the way. “The Boris Johnson landslide sucked all the humour out of the room. So neither of us were particularly gracious in defeat,” he says. Hughes hung up the bucket and the role has been vacant since 2019.

Binface, though, is enjoying a surge of popularity. After contesting the 2023 Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election (beating Piers Corbyn and UKIP's Rebecca Jane in the process) the Count put his name down for the 2024 London mayoral election. He won a whopping 24,260 votes, beating London Real (the libertarian YouTuber) and Britain First in the process. Just last week, he landed a front page feature and official endorsement from the Daily Star, lifting the lid on new policies including building at least one affordable house, capping croissants at £1.10 and listing Claudia Winkleman's hairdo. Fringe candidates, eh? The intergalactic space warrior is also planning a nationwide “Bindependence Day” tour, hopefully clawing his deposit back with a new comedy show.

Binface faces farcical competition in Richmond and Northallerton; also running is Bobby Smith, a fathers' rights activist and founder of the Give Me Back Elmo party. He wears, as the name suggests, a furry red Sesame Street costume. Climbing politicians’ roofs for several years to demonstrate for New Fathers 4 Justice, Smith has also contested 7 elections and often received single figure votes.

And then there’s Niko Omilana, a YouTube prankster who placed fifth in the last mayoral election and has allegedly tricked at least ten other people with the same name to stand across the UK (mirroring Richard Huggett, who stood in 1994 as a “Literal Democrat” and won 10,000 votes). Elsewhere, in Brighton Pavillion, an artificial intelligence version of a real politician is standing. AI Steve, the digital version of Sussex-based entrepeneur Steve Endacott, offers a direct democracy through accepting ideas online, reflecting Black Mirror slowly becoming reality. I ask him one question: Are you a joke? “No I'm not a joke. I'm a serious contender for the MP seat and I'm here to listen to your concerns and opinions on the issues that matter to you,” he says robotically.

But what do these novelty candidates offer people? They seem to appeal to floating voters, anarchic spirits and those looking for a cheap laugh. For others, it’s a feeling of going against the system. “It's hard to say who voted for me but I imagine it's people who were planning to spend the evening in the pub cracking up about actually doing it,” Hughes thinks. “It brings a bit of light-hearted, Spike Milligan style silliness. A lot of people enjoy the spectacle of Binface and Buckethead and Boris and Elmo being on stage because it's that whole Boaty McBoatface type Britishness,” he continues.

Once in a blue moon, too, they actually end up representing their voters. Remarkably, Laud Hope was elected  as a councillor for Ashburton Town in 1987. He later became Deputy Mayor and, eventually, Mayor. “I was re-elected for a second time. That’s unheard of! Of course they pooh-poohed the idea to begin with but in the end I was a hero,” he says. And what did he think resonated with the people of Ashburton? “We had reverse psychology policies. We had so many potholes in the road. So I got a big feature in the local newspaper, advertising a National Pothole Preservation Society. Within two weeks they were all filled up. It works,” he says. Notably, some of the MRLP's ideas have become actual law, including pet passports and pubs being open throughout the day.

But, 99% of the time, these pranksters don’t even podium. So what’s in it, apart from a one-in-a-gazillion chance of victory, for those running? Sometimes, it’s for work, like for Original Travel founder and writer Tom Barber, founder of The No Fruit Out of Context Party back in 2003. “I thought it might be an interesting exercise to chart the creation of a party, the campaigning, and then the election itself, with publication on the day after the election as a 'human interest' story,” he says. “I chose an issue close to my heart - that pineapple on pizza is a truly monstrous invention - and took the plunge,” he continues.

The campaign wasn't without its gaffes – his manager was caught eating a Hawaiian pizza – and his editor at the Evening Standard killed the story on the morning of the election. But Barber enjoyed an anti-pineapple surprise: a hefty slice of the vote. “Amazingly, I received 411 votes, about 1% of the total. Martin Linton, the incumbent Labour MP, signed off his valedictory speech by saying: “Thank you everyone, and for the record, I hate pineapple on pizza!” To top it off, even the Iceland PM stole his policy.

Other times, it’s the result of a mad, eccentric personality seemingly looking for a sense of purpose. Captain Beany, the world record holder for basking in a bath of baked beans for the longest time, stood several times for the New Millenium Bean Party throughout Wales. David Bishop – also known as Lord Biro or Bus-Pass Elvis – founded the Church of the Militant Elvis Party in 2001, endorsing a madcap manifesto built on taking down Tesco, placing CCTV in Nick Clegg’s bedroom and shouting at icebergs to stop them from melting.

Meanwhile, Make Politicians History (previously Vote For Yourself Rainbow Dream Ticket) – formed by famed squattor Rainbow George Weiss and led by Northern Irish crooner Ronnie Carroll – called for Britain and Ireland to be renamed “Emerald Rainbow Isles” and to cancel all debt. And Mr Fish Finger? Well, aside from calling to “Hake Britain Again” and wanting to plant Kendall Mint Cake trees across the country, the costumed goujon stood against Tim Farron in Westmorland and Lonsdale. He got absolutely battered.

The reason we have so many of these novelty candidates is simple; it’s actually quite easy to stand as an MP. “Probably the most difficult thing to do is you have to be affiliated to an actual party, which is a bit of a rigmarole to go through,” Hughes says. But even then, you can stand as yourself. “I decided to stand as an independent but on a No Fruit out of Context Party ticket, which was much easier,” Barber remembers. All you need, aside from that, is a £500 deposit and a measly ten signatures. And for that, you get a lot of promotion. “The government will pay for a leaflet to every single house in the constituency,” Hughes explains.

Many of these politicians, of course, like Mr Fish Finger, are a flash in the pan. But some, like the Monster Raving Loony Party, stand the test of time, contesting elections for decades. But can they really stay out of proper politics and dodge important issues? I get my answer when I ask Hope about MRLP’s current policies, expecting more of the usual silly, light-hearted nonsense. But alongside an idea to literally paint the town red if he wins, he suggests and then retracts a “tongue-in-cheek” suggestion about how to stop refugees seeking asylum by boat, following his proposal of it at a recent local debate.

I was taken aback. Is he satirising the government’s anti-immigration stance I wondered? Or is there something more rightwing lurking beneath the facetious facade of the Monster Raving Loony Party? They wouldn’t be alone; The Church of the Militant Elvis Party made jokes about putting up celebrity photos at airports to “discourage undesirable foreigners from entering Britain.”

I decided to dig further into the MRLP. In a 2000 article written by Jon Ronson for The Guardian, Hope is quoted as using the N-word alongside alleged antisemitic and anti-Asian remarks from other party members. It also turns out that Lord Toby Jug, once the party's media officer, expressed concerns over Hope's comments when ousted by the MRLP in 2014. An excellent report from earlier this year published by the Indy100, meanwhile, called out a slew of anti trans and anti Black Lives Matter tweets on the Official MRLP twitter account.

When I call up Hope again to question his comments, he says he was misquoted by The Guardian, has nothing to do with the Twitter account and the unsavoury anti-immigration policy was something he overheard and doesn’t want to pursue.

Their novelty factor seems to give them a sense of immunity and impunity, meaning that most people give them a free pass and take it all as a total joke. Including Hughes, who actually ran as Lord Buckethead on a MRLP ticket at the last minute in 2017. “Obviously I should have been aware of this all before but it was a last minute scramble to get on the ballot. Back when I was a kid, they were a joke political party and did the kind of silly stuff that Binface has brought back,” he says. “But then you expose that unsavoury stuff and all of a sudden it's not funny anymore,” Hughes continues, noting that there isn’t a “cigarette paper” between some of MRLP’s policies and The Reform Party’s views.

So, should novelty candidates get in the bin? There is, quite clearly, still a general desire for costumed crusaders and political pranksters at elections. We are, after all, all in need of a laugh right now. “I think it's a tradition that should be upheld. Politics is a serious business and you do need to poke fun at it from time to time,” Hughes says. While there’s a fair argument to say that this irreverence has become irrelevant and we should focus on the real issues, many of our sincere candidates, as the novelty contestants like to quip, are just as ludicrous as them.

Perhaps, it’s still a way of showing disillusionment with the system. “I was an inadvertent protest vote and voters should always have mechanisms to protest or signal their disapproval,” Barber says. “I'm also a fan of that certain British eccentricity and sense of humour that sometimes manifests itself in silly candidacies like mine. It can pop the pomposity of some of the (often less than impressive) political class,” he continues.

More pressingly, though, is a vote for these novelty candidates actually a laugh? “[Some of the satirical policies] are not exactly award-winning comedy,” Hughes says. “I remember that horrible, hollow feeling that I felt on election night which made me hang up the bucket the next morning. It wasn't funny anymore,” he adds.

Often, what you think about them is partially down to your own politics. It’s why Barber won’t comment on individual candidates. “I'm not that keen to get involved in any judgement calls on other novelty candidates, past or present, or whether someone standing is funny, satirical or a fundamental threat to the fabric of society. That is presumably in the eye of the beholder?” Barber questions.

“I'm sure some people thought I was a disgrace, others a mildly amusing vignette and others a profound opportunity to stick two fingers up at all politicians. Likewise different people will think different current candidates actions are either good or bad, depending on their politics. That's kind of the point, no?” he continues. But with social media giving everyone a soapbox and votes at the ballot box mattering more than ever, the role of the novelty candidate is increasingly wobbly.

Hughes thinks the power of novelty candidates lies in their ability to make people think a different way. “It's a way to frame incredibly progressive policies that are also funny but draw attention to a serious thing,” he says. He uses the example of a sketch in the Ali G Indahouse film, which sees the titular character run for parliament and call for all homeless people to be allowed to sleep in bed shops. “The dream novelty candidate for me is not someone who says that they want to issue ray guns to seven-year-olds but someone who [deals with] a real political issue, like making MPs eating at school canteens for a week to show the slop they're served,” he says.

Either way, the boundaries of this kind of satire are increasingly sketchy and lines are easily crossed. When it comes to politics, none of us are truly neutral and this is the same for all novelty candidates. Their own beliefs – whether they are progressive or conservative, repulsive or ridiculous – spill into their manifestos and show through their masks.

Who knows how many votes the likes of Binface, the MRLP and that shudder-inducing AI robot will actually get this time? It’s pretty unlikely that any of this political circus are going to get their deposits back. For some of us, these wind-up merchants are still a light-hearted bit of comic relief; for others, the novelty factor has worn off and these costumed crusaders should be consigned to the dustbin of history. But, like the MRLP, these outside horses will continue racing if people continue backing them, jockeying for our attention – and that very first constituency win.

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