38 Degrees interview: Meet British politics’ spammer-in-chief
MPs have come to despise 38 Degrees for clogging up their inboxes with emails from constituents. They need to get used to it – because this model of campaigning-by-email-bombardment isn't going away.
For an organisation only set up in 2009, 38 Degrees has notched up its fair share of victories. It forced the coalition government's first big U-turn, on the forests sell-off. It called for more free school meals – and Nick Clegg duly announced they were being rolled out for all infants. It raised enough cash to pay for the judicial review which successfully challenged health secretary Jeremy Hunt's plans to shut down key services at Lewisham hospital.
"It's not often you can say 'I took the government to court and won', but that's what thousands of 38 Degrees members could say last year," its executive director David Babbs tells me. We're seated at a meeting table in the middle of the 38 Degrees office in central London. From here, the small team of around 15 staff coordinate the activities of its 2.2 million members. Compare that to the 193,000 members of the Labour party – and the 130,000 Tory party members – and you get a sense of the scale of the operation.
One thing is for certain: 38 Degrees has infuriated politicians in parliament. It's hard to overstate the irritation many in Westminster, particularly on the government benches, feel when you mention its name. One MP I bumped into immediately after this interview was outspoken in blaming them for ruining his inbox. He says many of his colleagues have genuinely struggled to cope with the sheer amounts of emails they receive from 38 Degrees. They're nothing more, this MP said, than "spam". Most of these identikit emails, I was told with a nod and a wink, get deleted immediately.
When you put this to Babbs he bristles with indignation. "The fact MPs described contact from their local voters on issues that matter to them as spam tells you all you need to know about why the public feels like that about traditional politics," he says. 38 Degrees' members have been described as 'zombies' and even 'rent-a-mob' because they bombard MPs with near-identical emails. But 90% of its email templates are personalised in some way, Babbs claims.
"That reflects a very patronising view, that people aren't thinking for themselves, that they're being somehow instructed by me or some other sinister force," he says. "It's simply not true. Members vote to decide what they want to campaign on."
Every week the team in Farrigdon sits down and takes in the results of its members' poll. They identify their campaigning priorities and get to work accordingly. As we speak, I can hear Babbs' colleagues keeping tabs on the number of emails being sent to wavering Lib Dem MPs over the gagging bill. One has received 41 emails that morning alone. Another is on 53. The glee in their voices is unmistakeable.
"For me, someone who believes in democracy, the internet has made it easier for people to get in touch with their MP," Babbs says. "That has brought an increase in the number of people who wish to do so, and are able to do so – particularly in the framework of an organisation like 38 Degrees, where it feels it might make a difference."
This is an interesting idea – the thought that getting involved with 38 Degrees is a more effective way of making your voice heard than acting alone. There is clearly an appetite among the public to have their say. But parliament's attempts to try and incorporate them – the flawed epetitions system being the classic example – haven't quite met the grade. Rather than making people feel empowered, the most popular epetitions have only highlighted how powerless parliament actually is against the government.
Babbs thinks progress is being made, but we're not there yet. He says academics are right to say the "changes that are being wrought across society" are "as profound as [the shift] from the scribal culture to the printing press".
"You'd expect those changes to generate contested narratives of how those things should work," he says philosophically. "You'd expect it to take a while for the dust to settle. So it's early days."
Such high-minded thoughts are a long way away from the second charge laid at 38 Degrees' door – that it's nothing more than a centre-left front for the agenda of Labour supporters and Liberal Democrats fed up with the coalition.
The truth is there in plain sight in the 38 Degrees office. Just look around and words like 'fairness', 'equality', 'sustainability', 'human rights', 'democracy' and 'community' are emblazoned in cheerfully bright corridors on the walls. "Some people might well describe those values as left-wing, but most of our members wouldn't,"Babbs shrugs. "A lot of our members think about politics in other ways than left or right."
In fact 20% of 38 Degrees members say they vote Conservative. That hasn't stopped backbencher Robert Halfon setting up an explicitly Tory alternative, Right Angle. Babbs is half-flattered, half-baffled. He thinks Halfon and co have missed the whole point.
"One of the ways the internet is changing people's approach to politics is that 38 Degrees is explicitly independent of party politics," Babbs says. The shift to digital communication, he continues, has created an "expectation of participation" which is reflected in the way 38 Degrees operates. "It's much more than taking party politics and putting html on the end."
Next year sees the general election, a chance for 38 Degrees to set up a campaigning platform which could make a real difference. Babbs says it's an "opportunity", as you'd expect. But his plans to "highlight where different MPs and candidates stand on different issues" will have incumbents and challengers alike fingering their collars nervously.
It's no surprise No 10 is looking for ways to reduce the number of campaign pledges candidates sign in election year. Now there are organisations like 38 Degrees paying attention and publicising the promise-breakers, it's better to avoid them altogether.
"As the expectations of British citizens change – as shortcomings within the system become more widely known – people are going to be looking for quite big changes about how things work," Babbs, quite the revolutionary, predicts.
"The internet offers an opportunity for those politicians who want to see a positive democratic future in the UK – those MPs who are a bit more enlightened in their approach – to improve their understanding of what voters really want. We've seen MPs of all parties who are able to do that."
Right now, though, whenever I mention 38 Degrees to backbenchers the most likely response is more likely to be a stifled oath than a paean of praise. Perhaps there's no better indication this new arrival on the campaigning landscape is doing its job well.