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Although the advert was withdrawn, direct campaigning against these sites gave them a boom of free publicity.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

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear