Policy Lessons from the Official Monster Raving Loony Party

23rd November, 2023

Not long ago, I heard a Tory grandee giving a speech in support of a political rookie. As the occasion demanded, he offered some advice. Life in politics would be hard, he warned, but success was possible: just look at Screaming Lord Sutch and the Official Monster Raving Loony party.

You might think that the Conservative veteran was being sarcastic in invoking Lord Sutch’s name, as Sutch (who was not a Lord) holds the record for the largest number of parliamentary elections or by-elections contested, and he lost all 39 of them.

(That figure is according to Guinness World Records. Sutch himself wasn’t so sure. While Sutch was working on his autobiography, his co-author told him he had tried and failed to produce a definitive count of all those election defeats: “There’s no doubt you’ve stood in an awful lot of by-elections . . . to be perfectly honest, your stuff’s in such a mess I don’t think I’ll ever be able to work it out precisely.”)

But no, the praise for Sutch was genuine. Screaming Lord Sutch, argued the grandee, was a singularly successful politician. Although Sutch never succeeded in renaming South Hams, Devon as “South Hams Egg and Chips”, he has an enviable record in seeing his policies embraced by the establishment.

When the young Sutch first stood for election in the 1960s, his platform included promises to lower the voting age from 21 to 18, to introduce commercial radio and to pedestrianise Carnaby Street. All of these policies were introduced within a decade of Sutch championing them, followed shortly afterwards by the abolition of the national 11-plus exam that sorted pupils into or away from selective grammar schools, for which he had also campaigned.

Sutch also pushed for regulatory reforms: the introduction of all-day opening for pubs, followed by 24-hour licences; the abolition of dog licences; and the introduction of pet passports. All became policy, despite Sutch never having a sniff of being elected.

We already know that you can lose a string of British parliamentary elections while seeing your policies embraced by the political mainstream; Nigel Farage taught us that. But Sutch’s triumphs suggest something further: that policies which seem daft to one generation can seem essential to the next.

I couldn’t help but wonder what silly policies today might feel foundational tomorrow. And Sutch’s heirs could do worse than ponder the eccentric policy platforms that follow:

From the Yimby party: abolish all requirements for planning permission. The costs of British planning rules are crushing. We have a wholly inadequate number of boxy houses built on flood plains, all unaffordable, because it’s all but impossible for someone to simply buy some land and build housing on their own property.

Some might instead advocate piecemeal reform to protect people’s right to light and ensure funding for local infrastructure. But we’ve been promised piecemeal reform for a generation, and it never materialises. Vote Yimby, burn the regulations and let’s see what happens.

From the Tax Jaffa Cakes party: VAT on everything at 25 per cent. No more arguments about why tampons attract no VAT but period pants do, or whether Jaffa Cakes are biscuits, or about why children with big feet have to pay VAT on shoes, but adults with small feet don’t. Introduce VAT on chartering helicopters and on everything else.

To those who think this policy is cruel and regressive, I direct your attention to Denmark, where it seems to work well enough. The UK needs to get serious about addressing poverty, and if we believe that poverty is best relieved by offering patchy tax breaks for small shoes, tampons and selected biscuits, who really is the loony? Thankfully, levying a high rate of VAT on everything will raise more than enough money to increase benefits for those in need. It might even fund a small but universal basic income.

From the Haven’t Had Enough of Experts party: let’s have the Monetary Policy Committee — but for everything. The MPC has been given the job of keeping inflation around 2 per cent and, despite their evident struggles, nobody is under the illusion that elected politicians would do a better job.

Some jobs are best delegated to experts. I may decide that I’d like to install a power shower, but having made that decision I am happy to leave the details to a plumber. It’s the same with monetary policy, so what else might we delegate?

A fiscal stimulus committee made up of tax wonks could vary VAT with the aim of stimulating or restraining the economy, as appropriate. The climate change committee, currently just an advisory body, could be handed control of a tax on carbon emissions and asked to set it at an appropriate level. Politicians might grumble that it is inappropriate to give control of substantial taxes to unelected boffins, but the MPC already has a huge influence over many household budgets, and few people seem to think the job should be handed back to politicians. In any case, the government would set the targets and retain control over all other taxes, including income tax. What’s the harm in trying?

Finally, the We Are All Lord Sutch party proposes choosing the entire membership of the House of Lords by lottery, in accordance with the advice of some Italian academics. The lucky winners, selected at random from the adult population, can do the job on rotation — like jury service but with a better restaurant. Surely it beats giving the job to bishops, the descendants of Norman barons and the hangers-on of the past few prime ministers.

No doubt these ideas seem rather more far-fetched than the pedestrianisation of Carnaby Street. Indeed, I feel awkward even mentioning them. I certainly wouldn’t advocate them. What do you think I am, a loony?  

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 27 October 2023.

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