Some thoughts on 38 degrees following comments from a number of MPs, Westminster & Whitehall insiders, and seasoned campaigners
I took Puffles along to an event on the ‘social mediatisation’ of politics at the London HQ of the European Parliament – somewhere which Puffles is becoming a bit of a familiar face. There were more than a few familiar Twitter people there, including Puffles’ chum Stella Creasy. (This is what a besotted dragon fairy looks like). It was during the exchanges in the first session that the online campaign group 38 Degrees was raised – and torn to pieces.
“38 Degrees? Is that like an 80s soul tribute band?”
No, you’re confusing them with the Three Degrees.
“What is/who are 38 degrees?”
The link here should explain. Essentially it’s an online take of petitioning, just on a massive scale. So massive that their 2011/12 company accounts make for a very interesting read. Not in an *Oooh! They’ve got something to hide!* kind of way, but actually it’s something that anyone who has taken part in, is active within and/or who has fundraised for 38 degrees may learn from. In particular to inform how they hold their full time staff to account. Because it’s a big operation, spending over £1million in that financial year.
“£1million?!!? Where did they get the money from?”
It’s all in their accounts linked above, with mentions of grants from charitable trusts here. It’s one of the reasons why they have to submit an annual report: Charitable trusts have a number of terms and conditions regarding governance of organisations that they make grants to. Compared to other think tanks and campaign groups, they’ve actually been pretty transparent. But transparency isn’t the issue: it’s their campaigning tactics that are causing problems
“Yeah Pooffles, that’s the whole idea of campaigning: To annoy the hell out of politicians until they back down and do as we demand!”
Well…not quite. There different ways and means of achieving your ends. The question at the moment is whether 38 degrees are achieving their desired aims. Page 3 of their annual report indicates what those are.
I’m just going to pick a few blogposts from over the past couple of years that are critical of 38 Degrees’ approach:
- Beyond 38 Degrees of your wallet
- 38 Degrees’ Strategy is Spoiling the Potential of Email
- Can 38 Degrees translate online ‘clicktivism’ success into off-line activism?
- How not to do a digital campaign
Each of those articles speaks for themselves and I’ll leave it to the authors of those articles to defend their blogposts.
There are however, a few things that I’d like to pick up on
1) The nature of broad brush clicktivism is that it can annoy the hell out of the people you want /who are on your side, as well as those you are seeking to persuade
Both Julian Huppert, my local MP, and Stella Creasy have mentioned this. This reflects how the 38 degrees approach needs to be refined quite significantly so that the activities or the organisation don’t become an unnecessary burden on those who are otherwise sympathetic to the cause they are promoting.
Given that MPs have limited back office staff, valuable time has to be spent culling inboxes when such time could be spent helping constituents. In the grand scheme of things, many MPs take their constituency work very seriously – not least because they have a public and constitutional duty to ALL the people that live in their constituency, not just those that voted for them. For an economically deprived inner city area like Stella’s in Walthamstow, this is a serious issue because she gets thousands of cases to deal with every year – as does Julian as it turns out. Every minute spent dealing with a direct-mail-style email from a campaign group is a minute not spent on someone’s constituency issue. An MP’s first duty is to their constituents too, not to some direct-emailer from outside the constituency.
2) What is the statistical basis for the claims made of 38 Degrees’ claimed successes?
See the bottom of page 2 of their annual report. What I’m not questioning is whether or not 38 degrees had an impact. They clearly did. What I am questioning is the extent, positive or negative, it can be quantified. This we may probably never know – not least because ministers have a political interest in downplaying the influence of an organisation that in the grand scheme of things is hostile to the programme of the Coalition. Also, how do you put a number on it?
You also have the eternal problem of left-wing turfwars. Someone could make a spoof radio show called “Whose campaign is it anyway?” The serious point is what Zoe Stavri calls ‘astroturfing’. This Twitter exchange makes for interesting reading on that front - it was that exchange that kicked off this blogpost, as several of my more academically qualified Twitterfriends started throwing tough questions. Seriously kids, dismiss them at your peril – they know their stuff.
3) Turfwars (sort of continued from above)
This is something that remains a tension as each group tries to brand every other protest going as ‘their’ protest. The bedroom tax was one of them. Is this What some of Puffles’ Twitterfollowers have accused 38 Degrees of doing is the online equivalent of what far left organisations do with their pre-printed and mass-produced placards around every passing bandwagon. It reminds me of the tensions in Brighton when I lived there over a decade ago – around the time of the big anti-capitalist demonstrations. The tensions are best described in this pamphlet Monopolise Resistance from 2001. “This is a protest, not a paper sale” was something I regularly saw when autonomously-minded activists organised local demonstrations, in particular the 2001 Brighton bin men strike & occupation. At the time I was a volunteer at the local library, internet cafe & information centre at the then Gardner Street premises of the Brighton Peace and Environment Centre. Hence feeding my mind.
The point on turfwars for me is just as much about control as well as giving genuine credit to those who played an essential part in changing the outcome of something important. For me, the student protests of 2010 demonstrated that people don’t want to do the ‘top down’ style of activism anymore – where they are the footsoldiers to be directed to the next campaign front at the whims of a central steering group or committee. To be fair to 38 Degrees, they engage with their activists on deciding where to campaign next. But again, having done this the criticisms are on what they do next. In particular, at the top of the list should be identifying who is already campaigning on the issues, and then asking said people/groups: “How can we help you achieve your campaign aims?”
“But Pooffles! They are using social media, and this is good, isn’t it?”
Well, they are using social media tools, but are they using social media? They are not one and the same thing. Just because you are using social media tools doesn’t mean that you are using social media. Social media implies a conversation. In particular, it implies some sort of feedback mechanism that allows you to analyse the responses & constructive criticism you get back. Mass email-spamming campaigns don’t really allow for that. Ditto with using Twitter as a broadcast function only. You are using the tool, but not for the purpose it was necessarily designed for. Think of using a saw as a hammer. You are using a saw but you are not sawing.
Having built up a significant membership and financial base, the challenge for the likes of 38 Degrees is to refine (significantly) how they deploy both. How can they evolve their campaign tactics and not remain stuck in 2010?
The two that stem to mind are:
- Overhauling electronic campaigning systems so that you are going beyond what is now being treated as email spam by both MPs and departments of state. Campaign email-spam is very easily processed and dismissed by departments of state.
- Making use of the huge breadth and depth of expertise within your membership base. Rather than treating all of your members as identical ‘droids’ to be directed en masse, can you identify who has what expertise, bring them together online and/or face-to-face and encourage them to ask much more specific, targeted questions of those in power?
On the second point in particular, have a look at the staff profiles of 38 Degrees. Who has experience of being a nurse on an overburdened ward? Who has experience of being a secondary school teacher in a run down inner city comprehensive? Who are the tax experts that have done accountancy qualifications? Who are the environmental scientists who can unpick the data and statements that form the basis of press releases? In a nutshell, who are the people that could speak on behalf of your campaigners but from a vantage point where they cannot be dismissed as ‘professional campaigners’ but where those in power have to engage with the substance, given the expertise of those that you put forward?
Food for thought.