TMC Interviews… Tamsin Omond – not just your average MP candidate
Well whaddya know, it’s May Day and election week is upon us already. How time does fly. If the polls are anything to go by, come Friday morning Gordon will be packing up the Tony memorabilia (aka voodoo dolls) and shifting his sorry arse from No. 10 (Shouldn’t have dissed the little old lady, Gordon). So who will be our next PM? Will it be greasy old Cameron? (He has enough slick to give Slimer a run for his money.) Or Superhero Clegg? (It’s official – he iz da bomb.) Well, despite the marginal success of Clegg during the leadership debates and the orgasmic frenzy the press whipped itself into, there’s still many a voter who – how to put it nicely – well, they just don’t give a sh**. Same parties, same politics: why even bother? Not quite if you live in the newly formed constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn.
It’s all happening in H and K, where it’s ‘not just the usual suspects’ bidding for a seat in Parliament. In fact anyone strolling down Kilburn High Street will most probably have already encountered Tamsin Omond; the idealistic independent hoping to represent her constituency in Parliament. Challenging politics with protest and an orange boiler suit, Tamsin is ready to take on the world! Well not quite, but she’s not afraid to give Cameron and his cronies a telling off. I caught up with her for a quick chat whilst she canvassed the streets, handing over flyers with her charming smile.
So who is Tamsin Omond? Well she’s no stranger to controversy – that’s for sure. She recently organised the Gay Flash Mob, where she and 500 of her closest pals ‘gayed it up’ outside Tory HQ. And it wasn’t her first protest. A keen activist, Tamsin earned her stripes many moons ago with the 2007 summer protests against the third runaway at Heathrow. After three years of university with about as much interest in climate change as a seal has in flamenco lessons Tamsin received some literature that opened her eyes to the perils of our planet. Spurred on by the support of her friends she soon found herself caught up in the controversial protests against Heathrow expansion and from there she was catapulted into climate activism. With the formation of campaign groups such as Climate Rush under her belt, Tamsin has played her part in drawing attention to the cause. From Edwardian tea parties to flash mobs, Tamsin is most notable for scaling the Houses of Parliament to hang a banner on the roof. Not your average Saturday night then.
And what’s shifted her focus from climate change to politics? After international climate talks in Copenhagen failed last year, Tamsin started to think about different ways to help society move towards a better way of living. With the recent disillusionment of politics, the election presented itself as the perfect opportunity to show that there is an alternative way to govern. As opposed to the current structure, where decisions are made at a top level and fed down, Tamsin wants to prove that an MP can represent all the different communities within their constituency and that they can be deeply committed to understanding their issues and involving them in the decision making process. ‘If you involve everyone you end up with a better decision and more people feeling less frustrated or angry.’
One look at her as she canvasses the streets and it’s easy to believe that she means it. As she hands out flyers, she extends her whole arm; leaning her entire body towards her audience she balances on one foot. She engages her audience, interacting, listening to what they have to say. As I head back to her flat, I’m amazed to see a young man bounce off his bike to praise her for her good work and offer his own words of gratitude and encouragement. As he cycles, away she tells me she only met him that morning.
But not everybody is so supportive. A quick Google search brings up a stream of articles in strong criticism of the 26 year old. Some are just plain petty, though others do hold some reason. For instance – just how qualified is she for the role? Tamsin tells me that aside from her experiences in her university debating society she is more the community activist than the bellowing MP. She is a lot of action, less talk. Her work as a climate activist saw her organising an average of fourteen or so protests a year with anything from 100 to a 1000 people taking part, and she managed to bag them all national coverage in the press. She states that she is good at being a community activist ‘getting into different communities and getting them excited and galvanised and then translating that into real political power.’ Four days after organising the Gay Flash Mob she had set up a meeting with George Osbourne - ‘the second most important Conservative in the country.’
Still, a look at the website for her newly formed party The Commons demonstrates a significant lack of policy. Instead it focuses more on encouraging debate and gaining feedback from the constituents whilst Tamsin even makes a few personal pledges to donate part of her salary back into the community and volunteer an average of one day a week throughout the year. How realistic are these ambitions? Will anything ever get done? She tells me that examples of strong local democracies doing well do exist, particularly evident in parts of South America. ‘It is not a completely novel idea to hand power back to the people.’ She intends to have all her parliamentary votes online and will encourage the communities impacted by the decisions to get involved if elected.
She realises that it is this – encouraging involvement – that presents her biggest challenge and identifies it as ‘a bit of a chicken and egg’ dilemma. Visibility and accessibility are her only defences. She cities being ‘fun and young, doing funny things like singing in the street or hosting picnics and free gigs’ as useful tools of engagement. Ultimately listening to what her constituents want is her policy. She recognises not everyone will have an opinion on everything, but rather ‘it’s about targeting direct democracy so that those communities that are impacted by certain decisions get to have a say in those decisions.’
And just how in tune is she with those communities? She may have grown up in the constituency she seeks to represent but with a Cambridge education and an upbringing in West Hampstead Tamsin has been criticised for being too far removed from those she seeks to help. Can she really claim to be that in touch with the people when coming from such privilege? She doesn’t deny that she has been very lucky and she is more than aware that had she not her background there may have been many things she wouldn’t have been able to do. But for Tamsin it’s not where you’re from but where you’re going that counts. She can’t deny she is lucky but she intends to use that luck for the benefit of society. ‘Not in a holier than thou way’ she adds self-consciously.
And just how is her party funded? ‘Badly,’ she tells me with a chuckle. ‘Passion is the power behind our party – it’s what keeps us all working so hard. The costs of printing fliers, travel expenses etc have been met by small crowd sourced donations and larger one off from the owner of Lush cosmetics.’ So she’s not riding on Daddy’s payroll then.
Besides, does she really need to be apologetic for the family she was born into? Her campaign demonstrates a genuine interest in serving her community and there is little doubt she possesses a willingness to engage with everyone, to listen to all their stories. She tells me of a encounter with a BNP supporter, frustrated with society seeking someone to blame. In an area which has seen a surge of immigration and lack of integration the BNP exploit the fears of working class white men. Tamsin listens to these men and seeks to offer then an alternative that doesn’t promote racism but rather encourages the inclusion of all sections of society. Whether she changed the opinion of the BNP man she’ll never know, but I can’t help but respect her bravery for trying.
But with a campaign that believes in the good of people and tries to please everyone is she perhaps being naïve? She disagrees. ‘I think a good way of getting the best out of situations is if you go in with an optimistic approach. In terms of this constituency and all the people that I’ve been talking to they’re excited by the positive message that we’ve got. This election is all about negatives, it’s about voting Tory to get Labour out or voting Labour to keep the Tories out and what we’re saying is that actually that’s really not democracy. Democracy is about having a choice and making it and you really don’t have much choice in this election if all you’ve got is to say no to the worst. What we want to do is be that positive choice.’
Perhaps the most damning criticism of all is how does she justify standing against the Liberal Democrats and even more notoriously the Greens – surely her own flesh and blood? ‘What we’re doing,’ she tells me, ‘is taking the best of the different parties and getting rid of the rest. Acknowledging the benefits in the different politics of all these different parties is a good thing but it actually doesn’t get done because different parties have to oppose each other. But why should we sculpt ourselves to fit politics, politics should mould itself to fit us.’
She continues by explaining her core demographic – the 53% of people that don’t even bother to vote. ‘Our main focus is massive voter disengagement and considering the Green party definitely aren’t galvanising any new people to vote, what we’re about is trying to inspire and excite and encourage the people that wouldn’t even bother voting. It’s a very different target audience and it takes a different form of engagement. It’s annoying that criticism because it diminishes what we’re doing and diminishes democracy. Democracy is about having a choice and the idea of splitting it just because you’re giving people a different choice undermines democracy.’
She tells me she believes the internet is ‘a resource that has yet to be harnessed. We’ve gotten pretty good at looking up porn,’ she chuckles, ‘and at some point we’re going to get really good at communicating democratically through the use of the internet.’ As yet she doesn’t believe MPs are innovative enough, more concerned with using social media as just another outlet. ‘The majority of parties haven’t worked out the benefit of its conversation. It encourages creativity and allows access and feedback.’ Perhaps not such a good thing for most politicians, especially when one takes the My David Cameron Campaign into consideration. But Tamsin is adamant that it’s the future of democracy.
So how does she intend to work within government and influence those around her? Well the prospect of a hung parliament works greatly within her favour as she claims ‘we [independents] are going to be the votes that people are courting in government and that puts a lot of power in our hands. I can then transfer that power back to the community and use it to negotiate in their interests. As an independent I don’t have to confirm to a party whip so I’m truly free to act within my constituents’ interests. Plus I can still protest. I came to the public profile because I stood on the Houses of Parliament and dropped a banner, if I’m in the Houses of Parliament I can drop a banner every day.’ I ask her if that’s the case is she still advocating protest? ‘Definitely.’ she tells me. ‘I think protest is a cornerstone of democracy. If all the democratic routes have failed and you still don’t feel represented you protest.
‘Peacefully of course.’ she hastily adds.
So what if she doesn’t win? What next? She tells me she’s not going anywhere. She has lived and worked in this constituency all her life and for her it’s a good place to be a community activist. ‘What The Commons is saying is that we will represent you, we will work hard for you, regardless.’
I ask her what she feels the most important issues are. Getting people interested in democracy is number one. ‘As long as people aren’t interested there won’t be any good decision made. People need to feel like they’re being listened to and need to have more of a voice. So many important decisions are being made in small rooms in Westminster by a bunch of privileged people and as long as that’s the case we’re going to continue to find ourselves in even more of a shafted situation than we are in at the moment.’
Climate Change is the second. It’s something Tamsin believes needs recognition and that society will have to change it’s behaviour for in the next few years. Thirdly she mentions the economic situation. ‘It’s going to leave us with a massive debt and that’s a debt you and me will be paying off for the next sixty years.’
Finally I ask her who she would vote for if she weren’t running. ‘Hmm I don’t know. I’d probably have to get engaged in all this tactical voting stuff that’s going on. But I suppose I’m kind of one of the people that we’re trying to capture. I’ve voted once in my eight years since I’ve been allowed to vote. I wasn’t very politically engaged. Obviously now I know more and I can definitely say I don’t want a Tory government so I guess I’d vote Labour. But before I started this campaign I wasn’t particularly interested in politics and may well have just gone without voting.’