"Politics are too serious a matter to be left to politicians." When Charles de Gaulle made this observation, the general-turned-President of France couldn't possibly have envisaged quite how many of the candidates competing in a July 10 by-election in a remote corner of northeastern England would be amateurs heeding his call to wrest the business of government from the political classes. Fourteen of the 26 hopefuls for the parliamentary seat of Haltemprice and Howden are not affiliated to any party. Of the remainder, several represent ideologically driven fringe groups of the right, the left or the left field (the English Democrats, for example, are demanding "the reunification of Yorkshire," a historic county in northern England that has been subdivided for administrative purposes). There's also a rich array of joke candidates pounding the streets on behalf of organizations such as Make Politicians History, the Church of the Militant Elvis and the elder statesman of all joke parties the Official Monster Raving Loony Party (OMRLP), which for decades has been poking not-so-subtle fun at the poor saps who take British politics seriously.
One such fellow is the candidate representing the only party in this by-election field that has ever actually won a parliamentary seat: David Davis, a Conservative who served as Member of Parliament for Haltemprice and Howden from 1987 and also as Shadow Home Secretary from 2003 until he resigned from both positions on June 12. Davis stood down in order to wage an election campaign based on challenging the ruling Labour Party's stance on civil liberties, after the government forced through legislation that could increase the period for which a terror suspect can be held without charge from 28 days to 42. In Davis's stirring resignation statement, he spoke of his "noble endeavor" to defend "the freedoms of the British people".
"I will fight it and argue in this by-election against the slow strangulation of fundamental British freedoms by this government," he added. That a political tough guy who lost the contest for the Conservative leadership to the more emollient David Cameron should feel inspired to lecture his opponents on human rights highlighted just how far the Labour leadership has moved into ground traditionally occupied by the right in prosecuting the war on terror. Under fire from its own backbenchers and severely strapped for cash, Labour didn't bother to field a candidate. The third-biggest party, the Liberal Democrats, have also abstained, because they agree with Davis. That left the task of challenging Davis to candidates such as the OMRLP's Mad Cow-Girl, aka Rosalyn Warner, a 47-year-old country-and-western fan, who has the distinctly unfunny job of working as a hospital nurse in an intensive care unit. Campaign photos show her wearing a bright yellow cowgirl outfit complete with cowhide hat and three OMRLP rosettes, but her manifesto includes a surprisingly cogent political argument: "I may be a Loony but I'm not mad enough to want dangerous people walking free in the name of political correctness. David Davis acted like a loony by throwing his toys out of his pram, so it was up to us to take a semi-serious platform, as he'd stolen our loony one," says Warner.
Though the OMRLP owes its inspiration to comedy (a founder Loony contested a 1981 by-election as Tarquin Fin-tim-lin-bin- whin-bim-lim-bus- stop-F'tang-F'tang-Ole-Biscuitbarrel, the name of the Silly Party candidate in a 1970 Monty Python sketch), the party has sometimes argued for policies that later became law. The first OMRLP leader, David Sutch, a rock musician known as Screaming Lord Sutch, stood for election in 1964, campaigning for lowering the voting age from 21. Sutch's electoral bid was unsuccessful he was to suffer many more defeats and no victories but the voting age was reduced to 18 five years later. His party, which after an exotic array of names has campaigned as the OMRLP since 1983, has also argued for passports for pets (introduced in 2001) and all-day opening for pubs (made possible in the 2003 Licensing Act). When Sutch was found hanged in 1999, even Downing Street paid tribute to Britain's longest-serving party leader. "For many years he made a unique contribution to British politics," said a spokesman for then Prime Minister Tony Blair. "Our elections will never be quite the same without him."
Sutch's mantle was taken up by a hotelier called Alan Hope. Restyled Howling Laud Hope, a year before Sutch's death he had been elected Mayor of the Devon town of Ashburton, a pinnacle of electoral success that surprised him as much as his rivals. Now Hope has big plans for the OMRLP. "We're looking for a sponsorship deal," he says. "We're on TV so much it would be a natural for a company to come in and put its name on our rosettes."
The money could be useful. Any party failing to attract 5% or more of the total votes cast in a parliamentary election forfeits its £500 deposit. Warner, the OMRLP's current champion, says her party has fought "about 48 by-elections so far, without ever retaining our deposit. We've become experts at losing deposits." Her defeat in Haltemprice and Howden seems inevitable, but the last laugh may be on the likely winner, Davis, and on the rest of Westminster's sober-suited professional politicians. Amid declining trust in politicians and diminishing voter turnout at elections, the OMRLP's greatest triumph may reside in the fact that growing numbers of Britons may have come to treat the country's political mainstream as something of a joke.