Participation Now

Organising today: stewarding and responding to ‘the people’

38 degrees aims to bring people together to take action on the issues that matter to them. As part of our series of interviews with practitioners, Participation Now researcher Nick Mahony talked to Becky Jarvis and Rebecca Falcon at the 38 Degrees office in London about their work.

Rebecca Falcon Becky Jarvis Nick Mahony
31 March 2014

Nick Mahony: What does 38 Degrees want to achieve?

Becky Jarvis: We want to make change happen – the kind of change that 38 Degrees members want to see. We want to make a difference in the world, to make the world fairer, more just and more sustainable. We come together to campaign on specific issues, but we’re also about building a movement – a movement of the nicest people in the UK.

Nick:  Who do you seek to reach and involve, who is your public?

Rebecca Falcon: We’re trying to appeal to anybody who wants to get involved in the UK. We are very conscious of the challenge to make sure that everybody could be involved in a campaign if they chose to be. This includes: making the technology that we use on our website as easy to use as possible so that this is no barrier; using language that’s not overly complicated and states the issue how it is. Not being London-centric is also important as lots of people, especially in Scotland, are put off by the assumption that politics is just based around Westminster, and that you have to be in the know in this way to participate.

A great thing about 38 Degrees is that there are communities of 38 Degrees members all over the UK, so that, when, in certain campaigns, we want to have public meetings with MPs or local groups doing things together, the infrastructure is already there.  There are people all over the country who are already taking part. Recently we had a gagging law campaign in a series of about 25 public meetings with MPs all over the country, and we got 200 people turning up on Saturday nights in Manchester and Cornwall, Edinburgh, in Bath and in Wales. That’s a real testament to how successful 38 Degrees is for people.

Becky: As staff members we see ourselves as stewards rather than leaders. We very much go back to the old fashioned approaches to community organising. So when we’re writing communications or planning campaigns, we think about how that would feel in a town hall, where people are debating strategies, and the conversations happening. As staff members, we don’t have to imagine what 38 Degrees members look like, because we speak to them all the time and we meet them all the time.

Nick:  So what is a typical 38 Degrees member like?

Becky: There’s no such thing as typical member. We’ve got a community of over 2.4 million people, so we’re well represented across the UK. But I will let you in on a secret, when I’m writing emails that we send out to lots of people, I do imagine one person that I’m writing to every time – and her name is Barbara, she’s a Bath member, and I always imagine that I’m writing to her.

Nick: Is ‘Barbara’ someone that you’ve met?

Becky: Yes. She’s one of the first people that I met and spoke to as a staff member

Nick: And what is she like?

Becky: About 50 years old, a woman who works in a library, part-time, and is involved in her local Amnesty group, probably the local Friends of the Earth group too. And she’s lovely, really nice – wants to see a better world.

Nick: I’m now fascinated with Barbara – can you say something more about why she’s important to you?

Becky: Well, personally, when I’m writing, I like to imagine how that lands with someone. Writing an email for 2.4 million people is sometimes quite a daunting task. It has to be powerful and persuasive. So, when I’m writing it, I’m imagining her opening it, taking the action and thinking about emailing her MP, or organising a meeting with an MP, or organising a group. And I want it to be persuasive enough, credible enough, for it to matter enough to her, to do the action.

Rebecca: I think that if you have someone solid in mind, then you are automatically outside this bubble of policies and what the government is going to do about it, and thinking about how ordinary people experience issues in their own lives and how issues impact on them. You are better placed to speak genuinely about an issue without jargon.

Nick:  So how exactly do you organise to represent the people?

Becky: You read something in the news, and think, bloody hell, 38 Degrees members would want to do something about that. It could be Sunday lunchtime – you put it on Facebook and it gets a massive response. You speak to a colleague and say, is this a good idea, should we test something on this? And they’d say, yeah, go for it, write an email, get it out – test it. Going well? Alright, now let’s think about a strategy… We are constantly working on ways of being more reactive. We work very much as a news team.

We also poll to help us make decisions around what campaigns to launch, what our priorities, strategies or tactics should be, what 38 Degrees members want to do. Sometimes they’re not things that we’ve even imagined in our brainstorms or staff conversations. Polling plays a massive role in that:  we’re very data driven. So, when we send out an email, if it’s bombing, if our open rate is crap and our click through rates are crap and 38 Degrees members are not up for it, by commenting or responding on Facebook or via email, or just not doing the action, then we won’t do it.

Nick: You’ll change tack or you’ll stop?

Becky: We won’t do it. Yeah, we just drop it. One of the things I would like to acknowledge is that staff do have a role – it’s a growing staff team as well. The role of the staff is very much like steward leaders, thinking about how we talk to people in a town hall, rather than making decisions for them. We’ve got an infrastructure that allows us to be people-powered. We’ve got a great platform, a website which enables us to respond quickly enough and do polling and use Facebook well and Twitter well. If Rebecca came to me with a campaign proposal, the first thing I would say is, do 38 Degrees members want to do that? What’s the evidence that 38 Degrees member want to do it? So the structures we put in place enable us to assess this.

The best campaigns are things that you couldn’t have imagined yesterday, but, now, it’s like this massive thing. Forest is a very good example of that. We saw something, 38 Degrees members were on Facebook all the time, suggesting it, and you put something out and it just went mad. That was a huge moment for us. But, as a staff team, we have to make sure that we are flexible enough to respond to that. And 38 Degrees members like that about us.

Nick:  So you see yourselves as being representative to the extent that you are responsive to the data and the feedback you get when you instigate (or when a member instigates) a 38 degrees campaign? The strength and intensity of the response you get somehow gives you…

Becky:  A mandate.

Nick:  A mandate, do you feel that?

Becky: Yeah, absolutely.

Nick:  And that’s where you get your sense that it is the people who are speaking?

Becky: Yeah. And we can fail – we test things and we fail. We fail hard.

Nick:  The kind of public representation that you do is quite different from what an MP does, so can you say more about what the difference is?

Rebecca:  With an MP, they are voted into their position and they speak on behalf of everybody for four years. With 38 Degrees, we’re constantly responding to how people react to our campaigns. Campaigns are constantly being decided upon and changed. And although 38 Degrees members are subscribers who receive our emails and take part in polls periodically, it’s not as if they’ve elected 38 Degrees to speak on their behalf on every issue. Some people take part in certain campaigns but not others… Some people love, really care about the NHS; other people are more passionate about environmental issues and they’ll take more action on those issues.

I think that’s why statistical analysis and looking at data and looking at how people react to different campaigns is so important, because you’re representing what people want you to do, rather than leading them down the right road.

Nick: So is the work of 38 Degrees underpinned by any particular set of ideals, values, ideologies or political positions?

Rebecca: As a staff team and as a community of campaigners and 38 Degrees members, the ideals we hold onto strongly are equality, sustainability, peace, community, democracy, human rights, and fairness.

Becky: And we’ve got those ideals and values on the wall there. They’re everywhere. We think about them.

Rebecca: As well as looking at statistics that tell us how 38 Degrees members are receiving campaigns, another one of our key concerns is whether we as a group and as a membership are standing up for those values. As 38 Degrees members, we wouldn’t want to campaign for something against peace or against fairness, because that would be counter to the whole point of having 38 Degrees. So those values are the backbone and help us judge ourselves against some kind of standard.

Becky: And sometimes we do things for movement building, not just for the result – in a spirit of defiance.

Nick:  For example?

Becky:  We don’t necessarily just campaign on things because we want to win it or change things –sometimes it’s just about taking part in the fight. That’s very important to 38 Degrees members. Something I consistently hear is that we’re fighting the good fight – we’re not necessarily going to win, but it’s about the taking part. For example, we knew that stopping Andrew Lansley from passing the Health and Social Care Act was going to be a very difficult job, and we were very nervous about it. But we came bloody close! We nearly won. We won some key concessions. But that campaign was about more than just winning or losing on the day – it was about being the kind of movement that stands up for our NHS and being the kind of movement that is willing to throw everything at it, even if it’s going to be hard.

Nick: How is 38 Degrees positioned in relation to more mainstream political institutions and public bodies?

Rebecca:  Compared to political policy-making institutions, we’re able to put an opinion across quite quickly about issues, which is something new. We are also a lot more open and transparent - we communicate with members about what we’re doing on a daily basis and we put everything up on the blog and include everybody in decisions and use language that is accessible. Because that’s a big problem with politics: it puts people off because they think it’s boring and difficult, and the language just doesn’t relate to people in their daily lives.

Nick: But do you also team up with other organisations?

Becky: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

Nick: And with politicians too?

Becky: Yeah, we have before, in the past. It’s very important for 38 Degrees that we work in coalition. We’ve had some of our best successes from working with lots of organisations.

Nick: So you’re building alliances with organisations as well as people?

Becky:  Yes, we’ve worked very effectively that way… The gagging law was a brilliant example of working very effectively in coalition. We have lots and lots of friends. We’re not policy-makers, so we rely very much on working with other NGOs or charities… For example, with lots of the climate change campaigning, we’ll work very intensively with Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth or ClientEarth, who are a bunch of lawyers – or whoever, to make sure that we are successful…

And we’ve worked with politicians from all the different political parties. Probably the most successful example of that was during the privacy campaign to stop the Snoopers’ Charter. We worked very effectively with David Davis MP. And he did live Q&As with 38 Degrees members, where he briefed them on what to say to their MPs to try and convince them. And ultimately, we won on that campaign. Also, 38 Degrees members want to see us working with organisations that they like. Often, a 38 Degrees member is a member of Friends of the Earth or a member of the Amnesty group or involved in a local food bank or whatever. They’re tapped into that infrastructure. So they like to see that we are as well.

Nick:  So what counts as a success to you?

Becky: There’s a very black and white version of success, if you win a campaign that you’ve set out to win. The forest campaign was quite black and white. But there’s also the work of building a movement of defiance or building a movement that does stuff together. For example, in The Big Switch thousands of people switched gas and electricity companies to try and challenge the power of the big six gas and electricity companies. That was a success. The campaigning that we did on the gagging law, although we weren’t ultimately successful, also had a huge impact. Just the value of coming together as a large number of people – personally, I think that’s a huge success too.    


Protesting the UK government’s controversial gagging law in October 2013. Image from the 38 degrees blog.

Also I’ve met lots of 38 Degrees members who say to me – and this is a very consistent theme – oh, my gosh, I thought I was the only one who thought these things where I live. Or, I’m so surprised to see so many people here meeting their MP. I’m so surprised to see so many people being active in trying to stick it to decision-makers. It’s building that community, building that movement. And, ultimately, we are building a movement, it’s not just about winning one-off campaigns…

Rebecca: When 38 Degrees members do email their MP and go and meet them in the town hall on a Saturday night to talk about the gagging law, they’re also building a relationship with their MP. It’s also a success that more people are just talking to their MPs about issues and that somehow, in that way, they’re actually making MPs think about people when they’re making their decisions as well.

Nick:  What challenges do 38 Degrees face and what will be needed to overcome them?

Becky:  We face lots of challenges. I think we were set up because we wanted to improve democracy. There was a feeling that over a million people marched against an illegal war, and didn’t achieve anything. There is still that challenge whereby MPs consistently ignore what the public and their voters want them to do: they ignore them and disrespect them and they’re rude to them. They don’t value them; they’re mean to them. And that’s a huge challenge. So I suppose that’s a long-term goal for us, to find a way to make democracy work better. And there are lots of ways to think about doing that. So that’s one challenge.

I think also about the gagging law. So seven months before the next election, we’re not going to be able to campaign on issues like protecting our NHS, because it’s going to be illegal. That’s a huge challenge. How we respond to that, thinking about ways in which we might not comply with the law, civil disobedience, whether we form a political party, all the challenges associated with that. That’s a massive challenge.

And then there’s also winning campaigns. Winning is an important part of being a 38 Degrees member, and it’s always a challenge to make sure that we think of new tactics and that we have the element of surprise, because when we won forests, we had a massive element of surprise. MPs weren’t expecting it. Now we don’t have that so much, so we have to think of new ways to constantly try and push the boundaries.

There’s a short-term campaigning nature to what we do, but then there’s long-term movement building. And for an organisation, that too is a challenge. We need to put in lots of staff resources to make sure that we can carry out effective campaigns on behalf of 38 Degrees members, and there’s also the long-term planning and the movement-building … One of the things we’re trying to work out now is how we can facilitate 38 Degrees members so that they can think about their priorities in election campaigning.

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