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Politics: Political campaigners: friends of democracy?

24th September 2010

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In a free society, the right to campaign in politics is held up as a cornerstone of democracy. The art of influencing our elected representatives has become increasingly sophisticated in recent years, with the lobbying industry arguably having better access to government than ever before.

Walking through the exhibitors' areas at the major party conferences highlights the agenda that non-governmental organisations, charities and even government agencies have in policy-making.

Public affairs companies see themselves as gatekeepers to our elected representatives, undermining an individual's right to influence their elected representative directly. Whereas lobbying could traditionally be seen as the preserve of blue-chip companies that don't have a public affairs department, it is increasingly charities that employ public affairs and government relations advisors to campaign for their interests. Inevitably filling these roles are those with a Westminster pedigree - the badge of legitimacy being that they've all either worked as researchers to MPs or Ministers, or in think tanks and policy-making organisations favoured by the government of the day. They come from a background where, unlike their colleagues in the marketing and corporate communications professions, the professional qualification is based not so much on where or what you've studied, but who you know, and where you've worked. There is no recognized qualification for this branch of communications, unlike marketers who are accredited by the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) for example. Despite the complete lack of transparency and openness, they are the people who get heard in Westminster.

A glimpse of the lobbying industry draws the conclusion that it is the successful political campaigns are the prize of the well funded and educated in the machinery of the British political system. In a key piece of research first published in 1978, Professor Wyn Grant, an expert on interest groups at Warwick University, cited the labels 'established' and 'non-established' to distinguish between 'insider' and 'outsider' type participants (Maloney, Jordan and McLaughlin, 1994 and 2008, various publishers). Grant's typology acknowledged the important divide between the relatively few groups with privileged status, and the greater number of groups who find themselves consigned to less influential positions. The 'insider' is associated with a particular style of policy-making, an organization or institution seen as politically acceptable such as Stonewall, actively consulted on civil partnerships and equality legislation, and child welfare charities such as NSPCC and Barnardos getting the ministerial ear when it comes to youth policies. There are the obvious fringe groups such as eco-protestors, Climate Camp, the superheroes of Fathers for Justice and the gay rights group formed by Peter Tatchell, Outrage. None of these groups seeks a serious role in the consultation process, with their emphasis on direct action and media stunts.

Grant's labels still look familiar 30 years on, although, arguably the growth of social media tools and a general explosion in media coverage of all kinds of interest groups that seek to exert an influence on policymaking make the job of distinguishing between the insiders and outsiders much more difficult. The hardest task for a politician may be to determine which groups have a legitimate say in helping to decide government policy.

These sorts of questions may be asked of organisations such as 38 Degrees, which, according to its website, was set up by wealthy entrepreneurs such as Gordon Roddick, partner of late Body Shop founder Anita, and Henry Tinsley, former chair of Green & Black's Chocolate.Taking its namesake from the angle at which it takes an avalanche to happen, the group employs three full-time staff to encourage over 160,000 38 Degrees 'members' across the UK, to undertake actions ' as simple as signing a petition, or as complicated as hosting a rally'. Its members, who are vaguely liberal and left-leaning, are all 'leaders', with campaigns ranging from calling for the BBC to be saved from cuts to calling for a register of lobbyists, as well as campaigning for a 'yes' in a referendum on the alternative vote. Campaigns effortlessly cross established political boundaries, not seeking the approval of any particular party. There are few well-grounded policies, or long-debated positions - instead, 38 Degrees thrives on user-generated campaigns, less a coherent programme for change and merely a modern form of middle-class moaning.

Its weapon of choice is mass emails, a progression of traditional letter-writing campaigns favoured by non-governmental and voluntary sector organisations. Easy to complete template messages can overwhelm a poorly resourced backbench MP with little notice. Some politicians have been keen to court their support, with aspirant Labour leader Ed Milliband taking part in a phone conference with hundreds of members on climate change. Others have found their methods tantamount to 'cyber-harassment'. Stella Creasy, a newly-elected Labour MP for Walthamstow, became a target of 38 Degrees very soon after being elected in May 2010, tweeting her displeasure:

"Apologising now to any genuine person from E17 who has emailed me - with 1000 38 degrees emails to wade through I may have lost yours!" 11:56pm, May 11th.

The deluge continued to flood into Stella's office overnight: "@marcushobley 38 degrees campaign completely unacceptable and counterproductive...and still getting emails from them now!" 12:04am, May 12th.

This resulted in Stella appealing to constituents to cease from contacting her with genuine issues so she could get through the backlog of emails "as am still getting 50 emails every 20 mins from 38 degrees so can't see normal ones" in amongst genuine residents of E17".

A phone call to Stella's office resulted in a brief conversation with a constituency worker: "I wondered if it was possible to talk to Stella about the work of 38 Degrees - have you heard of them?" - which met the weary, knowing response, "Oh, yes". The staff had dealt with a reported 1500 emails, out of which only four were genuine Walthamstow residents.

People such as Stella, and no doubt, privately, many of her parliamentary colleagues may question whether organisations such 38 Degrees enhance democracy, or indeed hinder it, with questionable legitimacy and invasive methods. It could be argued that while Grant's 'insider/outsider' model may be blurred, it is fashionable for MPs to ride the wave of social media and web-based campaigns. Little research exists to hint as to whether parliamentarians take any notice of viral campaigns which rely on mass participation - but there is much to suggest that those 'in the know', with a direct route to Westminster and Whitehall are ultimately the most successful at getting their voices heard.

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