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Can direct democracy win a seat in Kilburn?

Jeremy Smith

1st April, 2010

Environmental activist Tamsin Omond is running for a Westminster seat on a platform of more collaborative democracy, and resurrecting the idea of the Commons as a shared public good

When I was asked to get involved with a political party standing on the platform of protecting the Commons (and named The Commons), I was instantly intrigued.

The Commons matters to me. Not the House of Commons, but the concept of the Commons - those shared public goods that include the air, the water, the internet, public squares, silence, the oceans, stories, wilderness, pavements, genes, knowledge, the airwaves, traditions, libraries, indigenous societies, Wikipedia, linux, open source principles, the night sky... all those and much more - all owned by no-one, shared by everyone, and all too important and too valuable to be neglected or sold off.

Unfortunately, it's a concept most clearly defined by it's negative, especially by the phrase 'The Tragedy of The Commons', first used by Garrett Hardin in 1967.

What he showed - and what we learn continually these days in fights around the world to protect public water supplies from privatisation, or in resisting efforts to sell off Africa's farmland to feed foreign countries - is that it is the very importance of the Commons' to us all that makes them so desirable as property to covet; a resource from which to profit for those who have the power and influence to take control of them.


 

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The winds of change

Thankfully, ever since people have been taking what's rightfully ours, other people have been standing up to protect it. The first significant moment is often seen to have taken place in the 17th century in once leafy, now suburban Walton upon Thames in Surrey.

There, in response to the 'enclosures' of what had previously been common land for the use of all, Gerald Winstanley and a group known as the Diggers took over vacant land, planted food on it, and began to distribute it freely. Acts such as this have carried on throughout the ages, across the world, reflecting the changing times.

And so today we see it in collaboratively constructed, free-to-use sites such as Wikipedia, or in the very open source movement itself, both of which actively resist the idea that we should be paying companies hundreds of pounds for the right to use the common public goods available through the internet - itself the ultimate commons of the modern day.

The keywords are 'open', 'free' and 'share', the last one a word used everyday now by members of Facebook, Twitter or other social media outlets as they proliferate the internet with information, games, photos, songs. Just as the world becomes ever more profit-driven, and pays the price for this, so another world, one based on 'co-opportunity' is springing up abundantly everywhere you care to look.

And so the concept that we might be able to bring these ideas and this ethos into British politics is what led me to discover a plan to put up a candidate - climate activist Tamsin Omond - in her local constituency of Hamsptead and Kilburn.

Running for office

Depending upon whom you read, Tamsin is the 56th most powerful gay person in the UK... a former trainee priest who decided her mission here had to be climate change... the granddaughter of a baronet... or the driving force behind Climate Rush, which brought comedy and media impact to climate protest with actions that have included a tea party for 1000 people in Heathrow's Terminal 1, scaling the roof of the House of Commons and dumping manure on Jeremy Clarkson's front lawn.

She's all of these, as if any of it really mattered. For as I know her, she's a 25-year-old woman of tireless energy and courage and genuine inner joy, yet one who is frustrated to the point of despair by having seen our leaders' failure to lead at Copenhagen, and who believes it's time for a new generation - her generation - to have a go. And one who - being steeped in the world of social media - implicitly gets how game-changing these technologies are.

So now here I am, sat in the office on London's Finchley Road, volunteering. The office that was painted by inviting local kids in with their spray cans to decorate the walls. There are piles of vegetable seeds in one corner, to be made into seed bombs for guerilla gardening activities, or given out free to passers-by in front of Tesco. Conservative Central Office this is not.

Social platform

But what, you might ask, are her/our policies? What are we standing on? We have one central policy - that decisions are best made by those whom they most effect and that the more people you involve in decision making, the better, fairer and more likely to be accepted a decision will be. Democracy should not be representative; it should be collaborative, participatory and direct. We don't believe that a politician should be answerable to their party. We believe they should be answerable to their constituents. The whole idea of whipping MPs to toe a party line is an anathema.

But social media - crowd sourcing - means that on every issue we can reach out to the community and canvas their opinions, and then, once these are discovered, discussed and consensus found, Tamsin - or whoever else is standing elsewhere on the same platform, would represent their community's wishes on the wider stage.

And if that sounds unique - well it's not. It's just not what you are hearing from mainstream politicians. Already we've discovered another candidate Denny de la Haye, standing on almost the same platform in Shoreditch. And as we scour the internet we find more and more examples across the world.

There was an All India People's Manifesto. In the US there is Whitehouse2 where people discuss and vote on what they want Obama's policies to be. (It's also being developed in Canada and Australia on the Nationbuilder platform). In New York a wiki has been developed for residents' discussions of what the Big Apple should be doing. And there's so much more, which we will be featuring and discussing on the social network we are developing to share, discover and proliferate these ideas far and wide.

This is an idea - a multitude of ideas - whose time has come. And whether Tamsin gets elected or not is only the beginning. Of course, we hope we will engage the 60 per cent of young people in our community who don't vote and who can, by themselves, give us a landslide and shake British politics to the core. But, as we discover to our joy everyday, we're part of something much, much bigger. We all are. It's just up to us to decide how much we want to join in.

Relevant info:

Jeremy Smith is currently the campaign manager for The Commons. He also edits www.bigpicture.tv and www.ivili.org and is a former editor of the Ecologist. His first book, Clean Breaks - 500 New Ways to see the World was published last year.

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