"I've helped thousands of people": Controversial Sheffield MP Jared O'Mara speaks for the first time in months on first anniversary of election
Jared O'Mara says he has no regrets about standing as the MP for Sheffield Hallam.
“I’ve helped 3,000 people between me and my staff,” he says, referring to the number of cases he and his office workers have managed to resolve for constituents since he won the seat a year ago, defeating Nick Clegg in one of the 2017 General Election’s biggest upsets. “I’d do it all again and go through the emotional rollercoaster if it means helping those people.”
Perhaps defiantly, what he describes as ‘the elephant in the room’ - his suspension in October by the Labour Party that followed the discovery of misogynistic and offensive comments he posted online in his twenties, and the allegation that he called a constituent an ‘ugly bitch’ weeks before polling day - hasn’t caused him to rue the day he ran for Parliament.
He remains under investigation by the party’s national executive committee, and there’s no timescale as to when a verdict might be reached. “Patience is a virtue in this circumstance, I suppose,” says Jared, who won’t talk about the inquiry for fear of prejudicing the outcome.
A lot of soul-searching has been called for. The day before Labour withdrew the whip, he admitted being ‘deeply ashamed’ of the man he was, telling an online magazine that he got swept up in laddish attitudes that warped his mind, turning him into a ‘bitter and spiteful person’.
“The culture I grew up in was very different,” he claimed.
Nevertheless, despite keeping a very low profile - this is his first interview since he was suspended - the MP, technically an independent for the time being, is determined to give a serious account of himself to prove he has been working for his Â£77,000 salary over the past 12 months. After all, two figures from Clegg’s former party the Liberal Democrats - leader Sir Vince Cable and their local prospective candidate Laura Gordon - have accused Jared of being ‘ineffective’, arguing Hallam is effectively unrepresented.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he states when the comment is put to him. “Anyone can go on our website and have a look at all the things we’ve been doing. There’s tons and tons of stuff.”
The situation, Jared thinks, is ‘only going to get better’. “I’m only going to be able to make more of an impact. That’s what I wanted to do this job for in the first place from being a kid.”
It was said that, when the scandal deepened last autumn, he cancelled his MP surgeries, but he denies this. “No, no, no. That was never the case.”
Surgeries are held twice a month, happening at Ecclesall Library and the sports hall on Coldwell Lane, Crosspool. “We’re going to be trying to find other venues across the constituency as well so we can move it about. It’s never ceased at any point. We’ve constantly been seeing constituents, either myself or my senior caseworker.”
He ‘likes to take a big lead on casework wherever possible’. “Because that’s what I enjoy. It’s quite selfish really, I like helping people at grassroots level.”
Jared has still not given his maiden speech in Parliament. His address was reputedly all ready to go last year, but he now says he intends to give it once the investigation is over.
In the meantime he has been voting with the Labour whip and submitting written questions to ministers, receiving 68 answers so far on topics ranging from school funding and bank closures, to support services for female ex-offenders and chronic loneliness.
Local concerns feature; Jared has asked about pollution, in light of Sheffield’s worryingly poor air quality, and issues with rail services on the Hope Valley line from Dore & Totley station.
And Jared, 36, who was born with cerebral palsy, remains committed to the cause of disability awareness. “We need to really create a disability-positive society where people understand the issues and treat people with compassion, equality and understanding.”
He has sought answers from the Government about mental health training for DWP staff. “Access to benefits for people with mental health problems is an even steeper hurdle than most other disabilities. So many times people get horrible and offensive questions or statements like ‘If you can wear make-up you’ve not really got problems’. People have gone out and harmed themselves off the back of that.”
He has been appointed vice chair (access) of the Disability All Party Parliamentary Group, and is a member of the APPG on acquired brain injury; Jared hopes to support a constituent in giving testimony when the latter committee next meets. The O’Mara signature has also appeared on early day motions about job centre closures, blue badge entitlement, legal aid cuts and the plight of women affected by changes to the state pension age. “It’s another example of gender inequality. Two of my staff are WASPI women.”
Jared is hosting an EqualiTeas coffee morning at Ecclesall Library on June 30, celebrating the Representation of the People Act 1928 that gave the vote to all women over 21, and enthusiastically backed International Women’s Day this year.
Does he think he can credibly support these movements after last year’s furore? He stepped down from the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee when his position became untenable.
“Absolutely, I’ve been miscast as someone who doesn’t believe in equality. I’ve fought for equality all my life, and that includes women - if you look at humanity as a whole, 51 or 52 per cent of people are women. The way I was cast as somebody who’s got a problem with women was a complete misnomer and an example of strawmanning.”
He says he feels comfortable facing constituents, regardless of his public shaming. “I’ve seen 100, 200 maybe in 2018. My constituents are so supportive and we really engage on a really jovial and respectful level. It means a lot to me to be able to help them in the instances we’ve been able to deliver. There wasn’t much in the way of hate mail.”
We meet at his office building on Tapton House Road, in a room with peculiar leather-padded walls. It’s strange to see Jared again after so many months; he looks a little tired, and is bearded now. He was signed off work by his doctor for several weeks, returning on a phased basis in January. How bad did things get?
“I was very, very ill - I wouldn’t say at death’s door, but I was very ill. Thankfully I managed to get my health back, and that was with the support of my staff and my family. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
He won’t elaborate on the nature of his condition. “It was a number of things, it wasn’t one particular illness.”
Jared returned to Westminster in January, ‘with trepidation’. “But I was welcomed with open arms by so many Labour colleagues, and people from other parties as well. It was not only touching but made it a lot easier for me.”
He was even hugged by Tracy Brabin, the MP for Batley & Spen. “My mate. It’s mad, that, when someone you’ve watched on Coronation Street becomes a real-life mate. I think that’s madder than having real-life politicians that you’ve known beforehand as mates. David Blunkett was on the phone yesterday.”
He has been hosting school parties and constituents at Parliament, and wants more to arrange visits through him.
Whatever happens, he has resolved to ‘see this term out’ as an MP. “I’m staying, and it’s a pleasure for me to continue helping my constituents in the way I am.”
He wants to meet Coun Lewis Dagnall, the council’s new cabinet member for environment, who will be handling the authority’s response to the ongoing ruction over tree-felling in Sheffield.
"He’s somebody I’ve got a lot of respect for, as a person and politician, so I hope that respect is well-founded and he’s really going to deliver by saving some of the trees in my constituency. I would love to show him around some of the sites earmarked for felling.”
Jared submitted a petition to the shadow environment secretary Sue Hayman regarding Sheffield’s felling programme.
So would Jared stand in Hallam again?
“I’m not ruling it out because that’s years away. I can’t predict the future. It’s important to live in the moment and concentrate on the here and now. There’s stuff to do. There’s Brexit votes coming up and I want to concentrate on that - I’m not thinking about 2022 just yet.”