Politics

Elmo, Binface and a fish finger: A colourful history of novelty political candidates taking on the elite

As well as making politics more accessible and irreverent, spoof candidates can embarrass established politicians and the hard right

Screaming Lord Sutch at his home reading news of Thatcher's resignation. Image: Victor de Schwanberg / Alamy Stock Photo

While Ed Davey mastered the art of the humorous photoshoot in the 2024 general election, 2017 saw a previous Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, competing against a man dressed as a fish finger. Elsewhere, reflecting a peculiarly British approach to democracy, other recent novelty candidates have included Lord Buckethead and Count Binface, someone dressed as Elmo, and various representatives of the Monster Raving Loony Party.  

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Driven by a range of concerns, from political satire to earnest campaigning on a single issue, or just a general call for democratic engagement, early examples of this British tradition of novelty political candidates include naval hero and cyclist lieutenant commander William ‘Bill’ Boaks. He stood in 28 elections from 1951, firstly attempting to oppose Clement Attlee, but unfortunately registering for the wrong constituency.

Commander Bill Boaks in Kingston, 1979. Image: Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

Boaks became known for his extravagant bikes plastered with road safety messages, and tragically died in 1986 from injuries sustained in a road traffic incident. 

However, such politics is typically dated to ‘Screaming Lord’ Sutch’s National Teenage Party in the 1960s. It framed an upstart agenda as one opposing a political culture epitomised by the Profumo affair. Sutch argued that if older people behaved so badly then younger people should be able to vote from 18. Reducing the voting age from 21 was one policy that subsequently became law. Others included legalising commercial radio, abolition of the 11 Plus exam and the pedestrianisation of Carnaby Street – the latter also supported by Boaks [and which happened in 1973].     

In the 1970s, the trend continued, notoriously spoofed by Monty Python’s election night special sketch. Referencing a similar parody by The Goodies, the 1976 Cambridge by-election saw Philip Sargent stand for a party called Science Fiction Looney. While being defeated comfortably by the Conservatives, Sargent’s campaign also opposed a racist National Front candidate.

Paul Ellis, also known as Mr Fish Finger in Kendal, 2017. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Meanwhile, in 1979 Private Eye’s Auberon Waugh campaigned under the Dog Lovers’ Party to draw attention to the Liberal Party’s Jeremy Thorpe. He was facing trial for conspiracy to murder, a situation which came to light after the shooting of a dog in a potential assassination attempt. Thorpe was acquitted later that year, but not before he lost his seat. 

As for Sutch, he returned to the fray and founded the Monster Raving Loony Party in 1982. The party became synonymous with novelty candidates, outsized rosettes, flamboyant outfits and ostensibly absurd manifestos. To discourage such candidates, in 1985 the deposit for election to the House of Commons was raised from £150 to £500.

Despite this, by the 1990s other novelty candidates included Mr Blobby, standing for the House Party in the 1995 Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election. He was opposed by Sutch, who roundly beat Blobby by 782 votes to 105.  

More recently, professional comedians have become involved. In 2015, Al Murray’s pub landlord campaigned in South Thanet against Nigel Farage, then leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Murray’s Free United Kingdom Party (FUKP) spoofed Farage’s politics and drew much media attention. Yet this intervention led to some locals criticising Murray for mocking genuine issues to promote his career. In response, Murray turned his campaign into one encouraging people to vote.

Lord Buckethead of the Monster Raving Loony Party. Image: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

While the Monster Raving Loony Party continues, and impressively stood 22 candidates in the 2024 general election, Count Binface has sought to dominate this space in recent times. His character was inspired by Lord Buckethead, who first appeared as a spoof Darth Vader figure in the 1984 film Gremloids, and in 1987 stood against Margaret Thatcher.

Buckethead later represented the Monster Raving Loony Party, including challenging Boris Johnson. Yet Binface’s recent industriousness and development of the spoof candidate as art form is particularly notable, and includes a website, social media strategy, podcasts, media endorsements and a sustained effort to interlace serious themes with a largely absurdist agenda.  

Count Binface. Image: James Veysey/Shutterstock

Finally, as well as making politics more accessible and irreverent, Binface continues a trend of such candidates embarrassing populists and the far-right. Notably, in the 2024 London mayoralty election Count Binface secured 3,741 more votes than a far-right competitor candidate. In response, Sadiq Khan thanked Binface for his steely campaign and highlighted his successes as “another reason to love London”.  

Paul Jackson is a professor in the history of radicalism and extremism at the University of Northampton.

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