British political history is about to made in the suburbs of south-west London. Placards are a-waving as activists fight to make their candidate the next Member of Parliament for the Richmond Park constituency.
The seat was vacated by Zac Goldsmith, who resigned in protest at the Government’s decision to expand Heathrow airport. The former London mayoral candidate is campaigning for re-election as an independent. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems have thrown their weight behind Sarah Olney, who is hoping to capitalise on the constituency’s strong pro-EU turnout in the June referendum by presenting the by-election as something of a litmus test on Brexit. The vote is thought to be on a knife-edge between the two.
But there’s been something bubbling under the surface of these quibbles over trivial issues like the country’s withdrawal from the European Union and the Government’s industrial policy. The Monster Raving Loony Party is back. They burst onto the scene this week: hurtling through Richmond’s high street in a black four-door saloon, party leader Howling Laud Hope shattered local residents’ mid-day stupor by reminding them of his candidacy with the aid of a rather large loudspeaker.
I headed into The Triple Crown pub, which the party is using as temporary headquarters, to grill Hope ahead of the by-election.
Hope sat nursing a pint, wearing a beige top hat; off-white suit; and an enormous yellow rosette doing its best to compete with the multitude of badges hanging off his torso. He greeted me with his swashbuckling campaign team, each sporting their own audacious headgear and a motley of garish ornamentations.
“What’s on your Manicfesto for this by-election?” I asked.
He pulled out a leaflet and briefly scanned it. “One of the key points is that we think Zac Goldsmith should be made to pay for this by-election himself. Why become an independent over Heathrow – surely he would have been better off fighting it inside the Conservative party? He’s cost the taxpayer thousands of pounds by triggering it, all for his own egoism. He can afford to pay for it.
“You might well ask what the Monster Raving Loony Party thinks of the third runway. We don’t particularly mind it – we’re looking more to the future of our beautiful Great Britain. We would have Heathrow become the Looniversal landing pad for the whole of Great Britain.”
This all sounded rather serious to me: I wondered if he was trying to lead me off track onto the easy topics. So I did what any good journalist does and asked myself, what would Paxman do?
I pressed on. “What about the British people’s decision to leave the Galactic Federation?”
“The Galactic Federation?” Hope replied, “do you mean the Euro?”
“I’m asking you what your stance is on Earthxit,” I said, intent on nailing him down on the issues.
“Oh, Earthxit!” His eyes lit up. “Yes – this is where the Looniversal landing pad comes in! All the other planets can land here.”
“I hadn’t heard about this airport business,” I pressed on, “but as you may know, local allotment enthusiast Phil Heath has controversially been permission to expand his already long line of cabbages. What do you think of the Government’s decision to expand Heath’s row?”
“Well as I said, the Loony party can see the good in that. But instead of Heathrow saying they don’t want it, have it at Gatwick; and Gatwick saying they don’t want it, have it at Heathrow; why doesn’t the government build a new runway at each airport? For the future of the country.”
It suddenly dawned on me that this man means business.
“That makes sense,” he argued. “Many of the Loony party policies actually make sense. And over the years, government have picked up on them. I can remember, years ago, we promoted passports for pets. ‘Don’t be so silly,’ they said, ‘that’s so loony!’ Now they’re doing it.”
Hope also informed me that his was the first party to campaign for the voting age to be brought down from twenty-one to eighteen.
“All-day pub openings, too. It’s down to the Monster Raving Loony Party that pubs are open all day today. Those are just some of the things we’ve promoted and that the government have picked up on.”
He failed to mention that his Manicfesto for Richmond Park pledges to forbid planes from Heathrow from flying over the constituency, allowing only hot air balloons which may be powered by politicians’ exhalations during speeches. It also calls for use of the swings in Old Deer Park to be restricted to pensioners during the day, since all under-16s should be in school.
I wondered why he felt the need to neglect such sensible vote-winners, but, humbled by the scale of his achievements, instead chose to get his take on the competition. I recounted having seen Bob Geldof campaigning for the Lib Dems earlier that day, haranguing passers-by in his hawkish drawl. “Are you not worried that you’ve got competition from other loonies this time?” I asked.
Hope pointed out that Geldof is recorded saying ‘Screaming Lord Sutch – I’d vote for him any day’ on the back page of the late Loony leader’s autobiography. “Honestly! I want to see him about that!” he chuckled. “Who is he anyway, to be involved in politics!”
I asked him about the candidate Geldof’s supporting, Sarah Olney. Hope recounted meeting her and Nick Clegg that day. Hope isn’t convinced that the Lib Dems will beat Goldsmith, but he thinks his party might outshoot Labour (who are polling at 9.5 percent.)
“Do you think you might benefit from a Shy Loony effect?” I followed.
“I think many people are fed up with what’s gone on, and with no Conservative or UKIP candidate they might think – sod it, let’s vote for the Loony party. We might win.
“I think the Richmond by-election may be the first time ever that we retain our deposit. Richmond Park’s would get itself into the Guinness Book of World Records with that, and the other parties might sit up and wonder where on earth they are going wrong. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
I later discovered that Richmond has already set a Guinness World Record in 2015 for the most participants in a touch/mini/tag rugby exhibition match (442 children played touch rugby continuously over six hours), much to my frustration at having missed an opportunity to challenge Laud Hope on his ignorance of important facts.
“So when you say you’re going to win, then” I asked, “you mean getting back your deposit. I was starting to think you were going to win the actual election.”
“We could do – who knows? We haven’t lost yet!” I found myself nodding along. It is 2016 after, all.
Reeling at the fact that I could be witnessing history in the making, I wanted to find out more about the man behind the rosette. “Do you lead a Monster Raving Loony life?”
“Of course. This by-election will be the twenty-first time I’ve stood for Parliament. Myself and Screaming Lord Sutch started the party on 16 June 1982, in the Golden Lion Hotel in Ashburton, Devon, and I took over in 1999. Now I’m the longest-running party leader in Britain.”
Still somewhat dazzled by how many frank, reasoned words I’d heard from a leader of a party known for its eccentricity, I asked what he’d be having. A pint of Symonds. Doubters might say Hope confirmed his rightful place as a Loony by drinking cold cider on a winter night.
The Triple Crown hosts Hope’s Victory Party on Thursday 1st December, the night before the results are announced. Derek Hussey of the Blockheads is to perform.
Words by Sam Courtney Guy