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Although the advert was withdrawn, direct campaigning against these sites gave them a boom of free publicity.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

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.