My unedited article on internet campaign platform 38 Degrees for Kensington Chelsea & Westminster Today (February 2015):
I AM 38 DEGREES! – campaign groups under Election threat
“There’s so much tiptoeing going on around it” an informant with very good contacts among the Save The NHS campaign groups told me. ‘It’ is the Lobbying Act which became law a year ago. It extended the laws governing political party campaign spending to make issue-based, non-party political charities and campaign organisations subject to new regulations involving substantial spending limitations.
One of its tests has the felicitous flexibility of interpretation that would make Yes Minister’s Sir Humphrey glow. And Orwell sharpen his pen. “Could your activity be seen as intended to influence people’s voting choice? Even if your campaign activity is about raising awareness of an issue and you do not name a particular party or candidate it may still meet the purpose test.”
If they fall foul of the Act’s tests charities and leading campaign organisations like War On Want and 38 Degrees (38D) running big national campaigns face serious shortfalls in their spending allowances in the run-up to the Election. To avoid the regulations also incurs heavy spending limitations under the Act.
“The government has forced through a bad bill in record time that will limit groups like Friends of the Earth from speaking out on behalf of their supporters ahead of elections. This is bad day for anyone wanting to protect the environment, save a hospital or oppose tuition fees,” a disappointed FOE spokesperson said at the time.
“It’s been deliberately brought in to suppress people like 38 Degrees,” a retired former Minister confided. Which is why many refer to it as The Gagging Law. So what is it about the UK’s leading issues-based, people-driven internet campaign facilitator that is giving the political establishment the heebie-jeebies?
Inspired by organisations like the global Avaaz, using the internet to mobilise the public and connect them and their governments, 38D’s fifteen 30-somethings in a Central London open-plan office have a mailshot of over 2 million UK citizens. They help them launch and conduct their own campaigns; raising petitions, staging public meetings and demonstrations and lobbying MP’s and the powers-that-be with letters.
Their campaigns cover national issues like Save The NHS, the EU/US Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP), fracking and nuclear waste dumping, and local ones over hospital cuts and property developments, even the saving of a much-loved old pub.
These campaigns seem to have a real effect. In 2011 38D, with a petition of 500,000 and a mailshot to MP’s by 100,000 supporters, played a leading role in the successful Save Our Forests campaign. The government backed down from selling off publicly-owned Forestry Commission assets.
The EU Commission has now backed off a centrepiece of TTIP, its controversial Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provision allowing corporations to use secretive international trade courts to sue governments introducing public-interest legislation. Under ISDS-type agreements the Australian and German publics face huge compensation claims from multi-nationals on account of their governments’ smoking ad bans and nuclear energy abandonment. The Commission cited public pressure for its decision, with 35% of the public petitioners coming from the UK. 38D are a leading platform for anti-TTIP/ISDS campaigns.
Over Christmas 38D enabled a 20,000-signature petition to be gathered by campaigners to save the Curzon West End Cinema. “It’s an absolute catalyst, a fantastic toolkit for redressing the balance of power. Keep it small, keep it tight, keep it creative, keep it informed. And you will be surprised,” as one successful local campaigner put it.
There are now 38D groups in the Kensington and Chelsea & Fulham constituencies (https://you.38degrees.org.uk/local_chapter_collections/1). The latter’s eclectic founding membership has an age span of over 50 years, the majority women, with one hitherto “lifelong Tory”. They include a psychotherapist, a hairdresser, a young entrepreneur, an acupuncturist, an artist, a former Council manager, and an elderly actor. They have just launched their first local campaign Save Thamesbrook Care Home in Chelsea.
John Furse is a filmmaker. His latest project deals with the global debt crisis and the issue of debt forgiveness (www.johnfurse.wordpress.com/dump the debt).