“There’s this thing, it’s called Government, and it’s got a hell of a lot of resources and it’s got a lot of people making very important decisions… but those people and those decisions seem cut off of the people they make those decisions on behalf of. I think there’s a space to move into that bridges the gap between grass roots democracy and actual democracy.” – Tamsin Omond
A coach to Sunderland, racing along Finchley Road. It’s a sunny day, and I’m lapping up the unseasonably warm weather just a few days after my last visit to this part of London. I turn, looking out of the window, and see a blur of orange; the office of The Commons, a new political party formed with the aim of getting Tamsin Omond elected as MP.
I’d been in there to interview her, but in my haste to be ready to chat I hadn’t paid much attention to the entrance. As this bus sails by I notice a piece of cardboard taped up inside the window, with the words ‘MP NOT 4 SALE’ scrawled onto them. With Omond’s words still playing back to me the sense of disappointment is palpable; it just looks so childish.
Omond is a recurring figure of contention for the contemporary British left. Recently described as an ‘epic narcissist’ by The Third Estate, she has been one of the most vocal figures in the fight against climate change in recent years. Shots of her being led away from demonstrations by police litter the internet, and have created an image of a spiteful, incendiary brat.
But Omond also manages to be one of the most eloquent speakers on participatory democracy and environmental activism I’ve seen. She’s charismatic, energetic and extraordinarily determined. And now she’s trying to get elected. Why?
“What happened after Copenhagen and the UN climate summit was that I came back really frustrated and not really quite sure what I was going to do,” she tells me in The Commons offices, “I had lots of meeting with lots of different people and this idea of The Commons just kept coming up and coming up… it started running by itself until suddenly there was a party and I was standing for candidate.”
She projects a disingenuous air about the whole thing, painting herself as someone the movement ‘just sort of happened to’ but the 27 year old has had years of experience at this. A vocal figure from both the Climate Rush and Plane Stupid campaigns, she has led demonstrations that have gotten her arrested, displaying a commitment to activism that is rare in UK politics.
Talking to her just hours after Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced a May 6th general election she plays up her background as an activist, recasting it as a long term commitment to grass roots politics:
“It’s impressive, in fact it’s kind of amazing what the grass roots can achieve. There’s another election coming up and there’s no-one reflecting what’s going on at the grass roots level… a constituency isn’t just a number of people that you represent, but the number of initiatives going on, a number of different communities doing different things. With all of those areas of diversity, all of these areas where different groups of people are doing different things, wouldn’t the better role be for an MP to be the community organiser?”
She locates the ideological history of The Commons in a much older context, painting her party as a successor to The Diggers in a new era, using new tools. “It’s an idea that, now with the communication that’s allowed by the internet, that kind of direct democracy thing, it’s much easier… it just seems really strange to me that political parties aren’t using that to access to their electorate or as a tool in democracy.”
The recent redrawing of constituency boundaries has created a strange beast in Hampstead and Kilburn. Kilburn is an ethnically diverse part of London, with as many failing storefronts as open ones. Meanwhile Hampstead is a hive of boutique shops and over-priced restaurants, a green and pleasant land filled with ageing actresses and bookshop owners. The two make very strange bedfellows. Would Omond be standing for candidate if they had remained separate?
“No way. I grew up in Hampstead and Highgate and lived there after university, working there. I then moved to Kilburn, to a part that was suddenly inside the boundary once it was redrawn, and I thought ‘this is still my area – what an odd area!’”
Laughing, she continues, “There’s something so boringly and achingly fitting about Hampstead and Highgate, and it makes perfect sense that Glenda Jackson [Labour MP] represents their area. And now you’ve got his kind of very messy boundary between places that wouldn’t see themselves as sharing much common ground or much common identity.”
Omond points out that the high streets seem to be polar opposites of one another, with residents of both areas shocked at this forced relationship. “I think both parties are thinking about whether it
changes their identity, and what that identity change means for both parties involved.”
It actually makes it a very difficult area for The Commons to successfully play their message out. By taking on an entrenched Labour MP, and a very strong Green Candidate, The Commons have been accused of further breaking apart one of the few bastions of the left. Omond seems genuinely uncomfortable with this, but clearly feels a passion for her area and her politics that leaves her confident she’s making the right decision.
The problem, and it’s a huge one, is that the fluency and passion of Omond’s rhetoric is undermined by the execution. The Commons campaign so far feels a bit like a Rag Week jumble, blending performed intervention with sloganeering. Their website is a slick, PR friendly delivery mechanism for policy concepts. Their office is covered in child-like images and vomited colour, a scrappy bedroom hive rather than a political machine.
This youth and naiveté threatens to transmit into policy. The Commons advocate widespread direct democracy, holding town hall meetings and consultation with constituents before voting on issues. But, aware that she may be starting to sound like a vessel for Kilburn and Hampstead’s vested interests, Omond indicates her party will stand for “stark, left-leaning ideals like joined-up-ness and sustainability.”
When pushed if she would be prepared to vote against her conscience to reflect the views of the community, Omond initially says “Yes… you use that platform to say ‘I’m voting against my conscience.’” She qualifies this, admitting that “It’s a bit of a social experiment; if you involve everyone, if you include everyone. If you make sure you communicate what the compromises involved in it [the decision] are then it leads policy, and then you get the best policy out of those people.”
Now, all of that sounds fine for an activist insurgency, but it’s a far from comforting image for residents. No one wants to think that City Hall will be so vague. Watch Caroline Lucas, Green Party leader and prospective MP for Brighton Pavilion, on The Politics Show and you see as woman just as confident, just as eloquent as Omond. But dressed in a suit. Lucas doesn’t just sound the part, she looks ready to govern.
The Commons enterprise feels bewildering. Westminster is becoming a genuinely fractious battleground, with marginal parties on the cusp of making huge gains due to the mistrust of Big Politics. Expenses, Iraq, years of sleaze for the generation before that, the Digital Economy for the generation to come; it hammers home just how vital Omond’s message could be.
But there’s that cardboard sign taped up in the window, the drawings in the office… it doesn’t matter how articulate she is, or how well she can manage attention surrounding her efforts, the reality is that gestures like this leave her preaching to the choir.
What Omond has to say is vital, and if voters took The Commons messages to heart then an informed electorate might make decisions based on issues and substantive representation. But she doesn’t communicate it well enough. The Commons undermine their own strength. If they spent the next four years playing ‘the game’ just a little bit more then they might just find themselves saying something that needs to be heard.