by David Babbs / 28 Jan 2013
This article is from the February 2013 issue of Total Politics
MPs often grumble about 38 Degrees. They complain that our members send them too many emails. They accuse us of making it too easy for their voters to get in touch with them, and claim that this devalues the political process. They complain that their staff are spending too much of their time – heaven forbid – responding to the concerns of their constituents about upcoming legislation, rather than focusing on their “real work”.
The first few times I encountered MPs dismayed that the web has made it easier for voters to get in touch, I was tempted simply to be amused at how out of touch they were. But a depressing number of MPs genuinely seem to view it as an inconvenience to hear from their voters. Many look back nostalgically at a pre-web era where it was more difficult to be reached. A lot seem genuinely to think their voters should have to earn the right to contact their MP by composing original prose, digging out an envelope and walking to the post office.
Ironically, the same politicians who moan about too many of their voters contacting them can also frequently be heard lamenting rising levels of “voter apathy” and low levels of political literacy. MPs might not like to hear from us between elections, but they still feel uneasy that fewer and fewer of us are turning out to vote for them.
But if they are serious about improving levels of political engagement, members need to start consistently valuing the opportunities for the quick, easy ways of getting involved offered by the web. They need to stop responding with hostility if their voters dare to contact them by email as part of a campaign, and instead acknowledge that it’s a legitimate and valuable way of getting involved in the political process. Political engagement has to start somewhere. Even the most seasoned political hack probably didn’t start off with a subscription to Total Politics, a party membership card and an addiction to watching PMQs. For many of the political class, taking an interest in politics happens naturally, whether it’s conversations around the dinner table with a Marxist academic dad or taking part in Eton debating societies. Over time, literacy with the norms of politics grows and becomes a comfortable habit. As the easy routes into political engagement of yesteryear fade – for example, with the disappearance of the union way of life and the hollowing-out of constituency parties – Westminster politics has become increasingly dynastic. New, accessible first steps into the political process are desperately needed.
For those of us not raised within a political family, joining in with an online campaign is often a first step to getting more engaged with the political process. And for the most part, the first thing we do is likely to be something quick and easy. Signing an online petition or using a website to send a template email to an MP may seem like nothing to those who live and breathe in the Westminster bubble. But to thousands of 38 Degrees members, it’s often the first time they’ve engaged. It’s an important first move.
Over 1.2m people have now joined 38 Degrees. Collectively they have taken action over 10m times, and donated over £2m to fund campaigns. Two-thirds of those who are involved tell us that before 38 Degrees, they hadn’t really done anything like this before. So when – it happens too often – an MP responds to one of our members in a rude or dismissive way, that MP is insulting someone in the early stages of political engagement. Obviously that’s not exactly going to encourage them to engage more. Sometimes when I make this case to MPs, they express scepticism as to whether simple online actions like signing a petition can ever lead to what they consider more proper forms of political engagement. Do simple online actions hosted on the 38 Degrees website really act as a “gateway drug” to becoming a full-blown active citizen?
When we launched 38 Degrees in 2009, it was a working assumption that this would be the case. Last year, we were able to put this hypothesis to the test and, I think, prove it fairly conclusively. In the first half of 2012, 38 Degrees members had tried – and ultimately failed – to prevent the passage of the Health and Social Care Act. In the process, over 600,000 signed an online petition. Thousands emailed their MP, contacted a member of the House of Lords, donated to fund billboard advertisements and legal advice, organised local campaign events or wrote to the local press. When the bill passed, our campaign was at a crossroads, and we held a vote on whether to continue. Over 98 per cent voted to maintain a campaign to protect the NHS. Suddenly, the very structures which we had campaigned to prevent being created became a key focus of our campaign. With so much power transferred to Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), it became crucial to get organised locally and put pressure on them not to privatise.
Over the past year, 38 Degrees members have risen to that challenge, meeting in hundreds of locations, in pubs, cafes, and community centres. They’ve organised local public meetings, got themselves into the local papers and gathered petition signatures. They’ve held meetings with every single one of the 220 new CCGs, pushing them to address local concerns about cuts to services and privatisation. Across the country, members are reporting that most of the people turning up to CCG meetings are, like them, sporting 38 Degrees badges.
Turnout for many of these events has been remarkable. More than 40 get-togethers have taken place in London alone. One café owner in Newham, East London, phoned our office after being tipped off by a friend that someone had set up an NHS get-together with her café as the venue. She was panicked that the number of people signed up to attend simply wouldn’t fit into the space. We helped the café owner contact Ferha, the local 38 Degrees member doing the organising. Together, they re-arranged the date further in advance to make sure the cafe would have the space – and the sandwiches – to allow 38 Degrees members to plan their local campaign.
From the very first gatherings, 38 Degrees members have been keen to get ready to meet, face to face, their local CCGs. The 38 Degrees office team has been kept busy sending out copies of the local petition for their area, and a booklet containing vital advice for their CCG. The advice includes amendments drafted by lawyers that CCGs could build into their constitutions, to help legally protect the NHS from the worst effects of privatisation and fragmentation of services. In the West Country, which has already felt the deleterious effects of privatisation of local health services, we’ve seen nearly 20 local get-togethers across the region.
It’s especially exciting that we’re beginning to see local organisers emerge and take a lead role in co-ordinating campaigning in their area. A great example of this is in the West Midlands, where 38 Degrees member Ken Band has blazed an impressive trail. A member since 2010, Ken was among the first people to sign the Save Our NHS petition. When the chance came to take the campaign to a local level, Ken grabbed it. He first organised an event in his neighbourhood, then helped 38 Degrees members from across the region do the same. He also puts together an email newsletter with updates on NHS campaigning activity across the West Midlands, so members can keep up to date with what’s happening and co-ordinate their activities for maximum impact.
Ken explained to me why he has become so involved: “38 Degrees arrived at a time when it seemed as though politicians were isolating themselves further from widespread public opinion than ever before. For me, it has become a second ballot box for influencing public debate and airing concerns that were being ignored.“
On the NHS issue, I have met many other people who would never describe themselves as activists or even ‘joiners’ but who feel that 38 Degrees is a uniquely straightforward and genuinely democratic platform where their opinion actually counts for something. While it was initially perceived as a top-down national movement, its supporters are now spontaneously organising themselves at regional and local level. No one in the 38 Degrees office is really surprised that thousands of members are now meeting face to face in their local communities. We’re not even surprised that they’ve been ready to take the lead, coming up with their own smart, practical campaign ideas to make it work in their area. We know how clued-up, passionate and energised many 38 Degrees members are – and it’s not going to be a well-kept secret for very much longer; its members are mostly pragmatists.
We had grave doubts about the creation of these new NHS structures. In many cases our fears about how responsive new CCGs would be to local people are proving to be right, but we’re not about to give up. Andrew Lansley’s changes to the NHS mean that vital decisions about the future of services have been shifted to the local level, with the dice stacked in favour of cuts and privatisation. So we’re moving local too, and we’re proving that accessible, online campaigning can feed through into sustained, local and off-line efforts.
David Babbs is executive director of 38 Degrees