38 Degrees: 'Dangerous, untrue and insulting'

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 14 February 2013 in News
Sadie Smith counters David Babbs on his vision of politics and the intricacies of his group 38 Degrees' campaign methods


Having read the article by David Babbs on 38 Degrees, I think we can agree on one thing: MPs do often grumble about the organisation. Not just them but their researchers and constituency staff too, but perhaps not for the reasons Babbs thinks.

No. MPs and staff are irritated by 38 Degrees because, in trying to fix the problem of low political engagement, it is creating an atmosphere in which such disenfranchisement finds it easier to flourish.

The tone of the piece hints at the false dichotomy perceived by 38 Degrees: the howling, downtrodden masses vainly attempting to get their voices heard at the highest levels, ignored by dastardly Members of Parliament who are irritated by the representations they receive because it’s keeping them from feeling up the intern in taxpayer-subsidised bars.

I suppose we should be grateful Babbs stopped short of implying that most of them are in possession of swirling cloaks made of the flayed skin of members of the public and comedy bad-guy moustaches.

The problem 38 Degrees perceives is a simple one: lack of engagement. The solution is equally simple, according to them: facilitate more engagement.

But it really isn’t that straightforward. Because, as with life, politics just isn’t.

Let’s start off with praise where it’s due: 38 Degrees has been effective on certain issues. The backpedalling of the government over the Forestry Commission is a notable example of this. But in spite of that, it likes to see MPs as wholly bad, and I refuse to return the compliment. But I don’t see them as wholly good either.

The myth that MPs are “nostalgic” for the good ol’ days when they could pitch up for a spot of lunch at one, fall asleep in the chamber at 2.30, and head to the bar at five sharp after binning the odd rogue bit of correspondence from a random punter has not been true for the twelve years I’ve worked as a bag-carrier to politicians.

Given the backlog I inherited upon starting work for a new MP immediately after his election in 2001, I suspect it wasn’t true long before that, and an age before politicians started blogging and tweeting their local residents.

And, do you know what? In spite of the perception given by Babbs, most MPs love it. At its most cynical, look at it this way: high visibility with their constituents is grist to the mill come election time, and only the most idiotic or arrogant politician would dismiss an opportunity – any opportunity – to present him or herself as “working hard for you.”

Babbs’ lofty amusement at politicians apparently not wanting to engage is wildly misplaced. It’s not the engagement that is the problem, it’s the way it’s undertaken. 38 Degrees creates eye-rolling precisely because it fundamentally misunderstands how this works and sees the computer and the standardised email as, if not the only, then certainly the most important form of interacting with politicians.

There are many problems with this. First, although it’s hard to imagine for a lot of people, many people – particularly the elderly, first generation immigrants, the poor, or the marginalised – just don’t have access to online tools of democratic engagement.

This does not, of course, mean that they should not be used, but it does mean that there is a danger in viewing the laptop less as a means to express a view, and more as a “second ballot box” because, unlike an actual ballot box, it is simply not available to everybody. It is not, to put it mildly, either democratic or progressive to encourage the view that it is a good state of affairs that those with the most influence should be the wealthy and computer literate.

Second are the responses that standardised campaigns encourage from MPs. Imagine the scene: your average bag-carrier, upon firing up the office computer on a Monday morning, finds five hundred identical emails from constituents urging the MP to write to the Foreign Secretary on cabbage farming in outer Patagonia will naturally sigh and get on with it.

And five hundred constituents will duly receive a standard response back again. Ironically, a lot of members of the public view this as a “fobbing off”; their engagement began and ended with a simple click of the mouse, but if it was that easy to change the world, I’d be its Commander in Chief by now. So you should all be profoundly grateful that it isn’t.

MPs have many thousands of constituents with discrete, complex and often harrowing personal circumstances that they are dealing with, combined with databases of thousands who have all written in bespoke letters about pressing local issues and legislation that will affect their lives. Yet 38 Degrees gives the strong impression that it is either unaware or doesn’t believe that this is the case, and that MPs’ “dismay” derives from simple laziness rather than trying to represent the views of seventy thousand odd constituents, most of whom disagree with each other.

Thirdly, there’s a difference between “pro-engagement” and “anti-politics”. As I say all the time – come on kids, you know the words to this one, sing along! – politics is a process of complex dispute resolution: the balancing of various interests and compromises made to achieve the best outcome in an imperfect world, rather than the most awesome outcome in an unrealistic one.

Single issue campaigns are worthwhile enterprises, but they can only be successful within the spectrum of negotiation and give-and-take. Unless, of course, everyone’s up for a Rousseau-style dictator to decide on everybody else’s behalf what is in the common good, in which case: call me. 

It’s not sexy, it’s not going to win you any friends, and it certainly isn’t as easy as clicking on a website, but life isn’t glamorous. Especially not political life.

Hell, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that being a politician is the worst job in the world, but Lord knows I don’t fancy it much. However, the implication that most of them are work-shy public-haters who, were it not for 38 Degrees, would have absolutely nothing to fill their days is a dangerous, untrue and insulting one.

Still, maybe Babbs isn’t as 21st-century as he thinks. This quote (via Professor Phil Cowley) sounds oddly reminiscent of his view that MPs “represented not their country but themselves, and always kept together in a close and undivided phalanx, impenetrable either by shame or honour, voting always the same way, and saying always the same things...”

It comes from The Danger of Mercenary Parliaments, first published in 1698. Is there any chance, perhaps, that we would be more successful in effecting real change if we could move on from this?

Tags: 38 Degrees, David Babbs, Sadie Smith

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