38 Degrees - the real opposition?

Inside the online campaign group that Conservative MPs fear the most.

David Babbs (centre) and the 38 Degrees team
More hack, less activist? David Babbs (centre) and his team of techno whizzes say their work isn't a threat to parliament

MPs dread seeing their email in-boxes inundated with angry messages from campaigners pushing single issues. Are hyperactive, arm’s-length clicktivists the face of democracy to come? Rafael Behr reports from Westminster.

For the "digital revolution" to be worthy of that title, it must produce irreversible political change - otherwise it is just a passing digital disruption. The sudden penetration of new communications technology into every aspect of our lives is routinely compared with the Reformation or with industrialisation in the 18th and 19th centuries. The web is said to match the printing press as a disseminator of challenging ideas; online communities are the new urban masses demanding representation. If these analogies are true, many institutions of established authority will be transformed or torn down.

British politicians sense dimly that this might be the case. There is a sickly anxiety around Westminster that power is draining away from parliament and the old parties and dissipating into the electronic ether, where it might be captured by . . . well, who knows? The nervousness expresses itself in various ways. Commentary on the role of mobile phones and social media in last year's inner-city riots verged on the hysterical, with hints of bans and blockages, as if looting were inconceivable without a BlackBerry. MPs hurry to represent themselves on Facebook and Twitter. Some manage palpable candour; most churn out bland micro press releases that express nothing more than wincing recoil from the medium.

Such reservations are born of insecurity as much as arrogance. MPs feel besieged by the digital petitioners, lobbyists and haranguers. They see themselves as victims of "clicktivism" - internet agitation for single-issue causes, often marshalled by political websites, generating tidal swells of electronic pester power. As one Conservative MP puts it: "When you get ten or 20 emails on a subject you take it in your stride. When suddenly it's 200, you start to shit yourself." An MP has complained to the Information Commissioner's Office about websites publishing his email address, on the grounds that his privacy has been invaded. Another has reportedly deactivated his official email account.

The phenomenon applies across the political spectrum but is felt most keenly by the party in power. One of the first policy victories for an online horde was the storming of the Downing Street website in early 2007 by opponents of a road-pricing scheme that the last Labour government had floated. The coalition had its first taste of digital defeat last year when a proposal to sell part of the Forestry Commission estate was trampled by an unlikely alliance of Tory-leaning conservationists and the green wing of the left. The policy was just a small component of the government's departmental spending review, but it affronted the public imagination disproportionately. The notion of privatising woodland sounded like a greedy developer's charter to evict Winnie the Pooh. Opposition was picked up by mainstream media, but the effectiveness that prompted a prime ministerial U-turn was attributed to grass-roots activism, largely co-ordinated by the web-based "campaigning community" 38 Degrees.

The idea is neither unique nor complicated. A not-for-profit organisation, funded by individual donations, eschewing corporate or government sponsorship, offers itself as an online rallying point. It has registered members who set the agenda, deciding which topics will be the subject of petition and protest. The model originated in the US from progressive groups such as MoveOn.org and Change.org. Australia has GetUp! and there is Avaaz.org, which sees itself as having a global constituency. But it is 38 Degrees, since it claimed the policy scalp of the forestry sell-off, that has drawn the suspicious gaze of Westminster.

Glorified garage

“It was the government versus 38 Degrees and they won," says a Conservative backbencher. That dynamic has not escaped the attention of
a Labour Party struggling to engage the public imagination. Ed Miliband has launched vigorous attacks on government reforms to the NHS, but it was 38 Degrees that pooled the resources for a leaflet and billboard campaign on the issue. It is 38 Degrees members who feature on the posters urging David Cameron to abandon the plans. "I sometimes think they are a more effective opposition than we are," a shadow minister laments.
Offline, 38 Degrees is just a pair of adjoining rooms in a labyrinthine office development comprising hundreds of small business units in Clerkenwell, central London. It doesn't feel like a threat to the established order. There are fewer computers than you would expect; more marker pens and charts. And fewer people - a dozen or so on the day I visit, most of them volunteers. Three lurid orange beanbags float empty on the coarse, navy blue office carpet. Among the campaign flyers pinned to the walls is a washing-up rota. It feels like a cross between a Silicon Valley start-up and a student common room.

David Babbs, the organisation's 30-year-old founder and executive director, is sceptical of MPs' complaints that his members are usurping parliament. "We don't get the feeling that the political system is over-responsive," he says. "It feels much more like an uphill struggle." As viewed from this glorified garage, Westminster's suspicion of online community activism looks like a bunch of people with a cosy old monopoly on power that they refuse to share.

The effectiveness of 38 Degrees derives not from crafty leadership but from the aggregate energy of ordinary citizens. "What we do is give our members a voice on decisions that affect them. It's people coming together to challenge the powerful," Babbs says. "Power is not generally given, it's taken."

It is perhaps this kind of language that has persuaded some Conservatives that 38 Degrees is a left-wing pressure group dragging behind it an army of unwitting hangers-on. Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow, recently described it as "a mass database of centrist/floating voters, albeit with a sizeable minority from the centre left", that is "controlled by leftists". Halfon is setting up an explicitly Conservative alternative - Right Angle - with a view to regaining what he sees as lost terrain in an ideological battle for control of the internet. Babbs strenuously resists any charges of political affiliation, pointing out that 38 Degrees confronted the last government, too, and only received less attention then because it was smaller.

The Tories are particularly sensitive on the topic of online activism because of a recent campaign that was every bit as tribally political as they feared (and nothing to do with 38 Degrees). On 9 February an advertisement was posted on a government website inviting candidates to apply for work at Tesco, but in exchange for Jobseeker's Allowance instead of wages. This was part of a wider policy under which private-sector companies agreed to provide work experience placements for people claiming benefits. In theory, participation was voluntary. In reality, many participants were given to understand that refusal to comply would lead to benefits being cut off. The ad went viral on Twitter and other social media, with accompanying commentary to the effect that Tesco was using slave labour furnished by the Department for Work and Pensions.

Political Scrapbook, a left-wing blog, built a web page that enabled visitors to generate thousands of protest messages in a few days, targeting corporate partners in the work experience scheme. (A similar model had been used to embarrass companies that advertised in the News of the World at the height of last summer's phone-hacking furore.) Protest against the policy of having benefit claimants work for their welfare was not new, nor was it confined to the internet. But it was the digital surge that made mainstream media pay attention to the matter, which in turn alerted companies to the potential damage to their brands. Tesco, among others, indicated its preference that the compulsory element of the scheme be diluted. Ministers, with gritted teeth, complied.

Digital squalls

It was a tiny victory. The campaign did not change the broad thrust of government welfare policy. Privately, some senior Labour figures fretted that it was unhelpful because it signalled that the left was more interested in bashing business than in helping unemployed young people into jobs. The most significant outcome of the episode was that it reinforced politicians' fear of being blown off course by sudden digital squalls.

The standard response to that fear is denial that online reaction is an authentic reflection of public opinion. This charge has some foundation. Online petitions can be signed several times by one person; web-generated automatic complaint mail is robotic. MPs feel that their in-boxes are being hijacked by political spammers. The most energetic correspondents have never been the most typical constituents. Previously they wrote letters, scribbling spidery script in green ink. Now their agitation is multiplied by gigabytes of processing power. That then makes it easier to reject the whole phenomenon as vacuous frothing petitioners who barely understand the detail of what they oppose. The co-ordinators of online action denounce such suggestions as patronising and elitist. Both sides, to a degree, are probably right.

The more subtle critique of clicktivism is that it empowers the already empowered, handing yet more influence over the political process to the relatively affluent middle classes that often are most engaged online. Of roughly ten million people in Britain who do not have access to the internet, half are in the lowest, DE socio-economic bands. Thirty-nine per cent are over the age of 65. The people least likely to have computers or web access at home are those living in social housing.

So, MPs will get far more correspondence from owner-occupiers complaining about property developments encroaching on the green belt than from families on housing waiting lists that might benefit if the supply of affordable homes were increased. "There is this idea that the internet is a wonderful global democratising tool. It's somewhat true," says Alex Smith, a former director of online campaigning for Ed Miliband. "It has enabled some people, but it's still mostly the middle classes. It's still the educated elite using it to their advantage . . . People who most need amplification don't always have access to the technology."

Smith is sceptical, too, about the potential for politicians to mobilise their own loyal digital armies. He tells a story of what happened once when he called someone who had campaigned against university tuition fees to see if she might be interested in backing Ed Miliband. "Why are you calling me?" came the baffled response. "I'm not interested in politics."

The exchange encapsulates a strategic challenge facing every party in Westminster. There is a generation that does not make a natural connection between idealism, campaigning zeal or outrage at social injustice and the established political process. When there is any engagement with politics, the expectation of personal and immediate interaction is high. This "digital native" cohort, raised in the internet age and with an ingrained sense of consumer entitlement, is setting the pace for how responsive our institutions are expected to be. Their parents - the "digital immigrants" - are acquiring the same habits. "Technology has changed the culture so people just expect a different level of engagement," Babbs says. "If you're a democrat, that should be a good thing." Yet few politicians are equipped to navigate a world where citizens are so demanding.

The change poses an immense challenge to parliament, with its arcane protocols and impenetrable procedures. One innovation designed to match the growing public appetite for interactivity is the e-petition. A hundred thousand signatures secures consideration by the backbench business committee, with the possibility (but no guarantee) of a non-binding debate in the Commons. Yet some MPs see even this modest mechanism as a sop to faddish populism and Downing Street remains wary, regarding it as ammunition in the hands of "awkward squad" backbenchers.

It is easy to see, in Westminster's digital discomfort, the symptoms of creeping obsolescence. Why should politics be spared the digital upheavals inflicted on every other industry? It is harder to imagine what a modern, hyper-responsive techno-politics would look like. Pause for deliberation is vital to democracy. The parliamentary term, with its protracted legislative rhythms, affords a space in which politicians can trade unpopular measures against the promise that, by election time, the benefits will be manifest. By contrast, the essence of populism is surrender of that space. It is the pretence that what the public wants most urgently is also what is most in the public interest. The new media seem to invite that surrender. Twitter and Facebook accelerate a trend set by 24-hour rolling news, shrinking the political attention span until every moment is a referendum. Mistakes big and small are punished, without perspective, in a frenzy of ridicule.

Paradoxically, online activist communities seem to be both an expression of a devalued political culture and the promise of some healthier alternative. They thrive on those means of communication that seem to favour gut reaction and vituperation over compromise and reasoned debate. Yet they also convey the legitimate demands of people who feel inadequately represented by professional politicians and journalists.

Perhaps what we are observing is a new, more efficient market in policies and ideas - a real citizens' democracy evolving through the wisdom of crowds. Or maybe technology is doing to the old political marketplace what high-frequency electronic trading did to the world of finance and the City, promoting velocity and volume over judgement, facilitating the unthinking stampede.

After all, a crowd in search of instant political gratification is a mob, and that, more than any technological innovation, is history's preferred tool for effecting revolution. No wonder Westminster is nervous.