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Extramarital affairs and the National Business Awards

A campaign against an affairs website, and the company that hosts it, is open ground for Labour.

Next week, George Osborne will address the National Business Awards. Over a thousand commercial leaders -- described by David Cameron as the "best of British" -- will gather for a glittering ceremony in central London. But a group of Christian Socialists is fighting to get one company disqualified for facilitating what Ed Miliband might call "predatory" behaviour, of a sexual kind.

Global Personals helps companies set up their own dating sites. Nothing wrong with that, except that two of its many clients -- Marital Affair and, until recently, AffairsDating -- facilitate extramarital affairs for money. Type in your preference and relationship status to these sites, and they fix up what you want. According to one's slogan, "The grass is always greener" -- even if you have kids.

Jon Kuhrt, a Christian Socialist and Labour member, decided to take on this practice when his five-year-old son spotted one of Marital Affair's giant billboards and asked him what it was all about. He set up a Facebook group that attracted 4,000 members and encouraged religious groups to bombard the company with complaints.

Although the advert was withdrawn, direct campaigning against these sites gave them a boom of free publicity.

A far more strategic target was Global Personals. This is an independent company with separate management and no responsibility for marketing these affairs websites. But it does provide the software, technological support and hosting for such sites. If you want to make a payment to Marital Affair, it goes through Global Personals. It monitors all the site's activity and takes a share of the revenue.

When campaigners, now working under the Faithfulness Matters coalition, wrote to the judges of the National Business Awards to express concerns, Global Personals was less than impressed. It sent the New Statesman this statement:

It is not for Global Personals to be the arbiter of "good taste" or to bow down to unelected bodies who seek to threaten and interfere with lawful business in a democratic society. Indeed it would be wholly undemocratic for Global Personals to implement the wishes of a campaign group because it seeks to bully, by threats, its chosen "target" business.

By threatening behaviour, Global Personals says it is referring to campaigners' attempts to "bombard" the switchboard and "harass" staff. Activists calling and emailing the company insist that their messages have been entirely peaceful -- and have been ignored.

The debate raises interesting questions of liberty. It is not the state's place to outlaw companies for "immoral" behaviour, but that doesn't mean that a company should abandon all sense of ethics.

Campaigners say that as long as the company continues to operate Marital Affair, they will push for the disqualification of Global Personals from the awards to "send a message" to others. AffairsDating is no longer a concern, as it recently left the Global Personals platform.

As for the awards judges, they say they "interrogated" Global Personals's operations and introduced a new scoring band for "ethics" in response to campaigners' demands. Nice, although one has to wonder why they didn't think of this earlier.

Meanwhile the campaigners under the Faithfulness Matters coalition still have a couple more cards to play. They are contacting other companies that use the Global Personals platform -- which include NatMag/Hearst Magazines, the publisher behind You and Your Wedding, and Bauer Media, which oversees Askamum and Mother and Baby -- to ask what they think. Ouch.

Campaigners also plan to start targeting George Osborne. It's a clever move, because it goes right to the heart of the liberal/conservative split in the Conservative Party. Critics such as Ed West of the Telegraph have already spoken out against fellow members for failing to take on business practices like this, arguing that it cedes ground to Labour.

As ever on the left, there is some suspicion of any campaign led by religious groups, particularly one that pursues "conservative" values. But, with its explicit emphasis on "committed relationships", this campaign is about more than protecting marriage. (Activists would be wise to change their heterosexual logo, however, even if the sites are targeted at straight couples.)

Nor are they fighting against dating -- campaigners are keen to stress their approval of 99 per cent of Global Personals's business partners. They're not even criticising infidelity. They are simply fighting the practice of making money out of businesses that promote extramarital affairs. At its heart, it is an anti-consumerist campaign against the commodification of relationships.

This is open ground for Labour to capture. Like Ed Miliband's narrative about "predatory" business behaviour and like the "small c" conservative values of Blue Labour, it puts the Tories on the back foot. It also raises interesting questions about a potential revival of the Christian Socialist movement within the party. Global Personals won't be the only one watching this space.

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