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A friendly warning to 38 Degrees: don’t just compete, campaign together

The campaigning organisation 38 Degrees has reached a new level with its Save Our Forests Petition, and is now a national player. Now is the time for congratulations, but also for a word of friendly warning.

I was invited to a Progressive Alliance breakfast meeting yesterday where David Babbs was speaking, the executive director of 38 Degrees. This campaigning organisation was launched in May 2009, and takes its name from the angle at which avalanches start. They have now found this angle and precipitated one. Nearly half a million people have signed their ‘Save Our Forests’ petition (compared to say 25,000 against human trafficking). There are now over 320,000 members “working together for change”. I couldn’t get to the meeting. If I had, this is what I would have said to David Babbs.

Well done on ‘Save Our Forests’! I was one of the early signatories when there were around 2,000 people or so and I thought to myself  ‘Great, this is needed, good that it is being done quickly, especially as it’s not the usual urban good cause as it joins the country and the city, defending the environment while opposing cuts’. It seems lots of people agree. And it takes 38 Degrees to a new level as a national player. So big congratulations. 

But also, Whoa! Danger Signal! It is now, when you have finally won the struggle to make sure that 38 Degrees matters, and you no longer need to prove that your campaigning can be influential, that you have to ask some really clear questions about your methods, approach and direction.

I am for ‘clicktivism’ as an essential part of the mix of campaigning. You are combining it with encouraging people to meet, e.g. on the NHS. There is deep, intense direct action and there is wide, on-line registration of support for a cause. These are not opposites; they need each other. 

The question for 38 Degrees is different. It is this: are you going to be a collector or a connector? Are you going to become another NGO gatekeeper, or a gate-opener? Look down your admirable list of campaigns and it is as if no other protest network or campaign group exists. Look at the support UK Uncut needs and deserves – but do you support their actions? If the forests are saved it will be as much, or perhaps more, thanks to Jonathon Porritt and Save England’s Forests headed by Rachel Johnson, which mainlines directly into the Tory Party. Porritt mentions you. Save England’s Forests seems to be competing (why have two petitions?) but there is no need for you to reciprocate. Yet you make no mention of other campaigns.

[CORRECTION! Save England's Forests DOES in fact ask its supporters to sign the 38 Degrees petition not a competing one, I didn't realise this as I didn't try and fill it in a second time. This is exactly the kind of cross-campaign support that should be taking place and highlights the need for 38 Degrees to share and never steal credit.]

You may cite data protection as a reason not to share any information. That’s a real issue, but where there is a will and honesty there are ways of extending support. Far greater dangers are posed where organisations are insular, and this problem runs deep, as Porritt sets out in his superb critique of the passivity of the main environmental campaigns on the threats to the forests.

This is hardly new. Existing NGOs and campaigns defend their turf, worry about their ‘remit’, fear for their existing funding, and sit on their hands when critical, shaping moments arrive.

The big children’s charities, who rely on government funding and connections, failed to campaign hard on ending child detention and Clare Sambrook has written about the impact of End Child Detention Now, as a small voluntary network that simply decided to take action and do something about the scandal - and then made a tremendous impact. Or there was the notorious closing down of Make Poverty History, see Kumi Naimoo’s interview. I have told the story of how Liberty and NO2ID took the energy out of the Convention on Modern Liberty. And there are rumours of how Oxfam seeks to monopolise the NGO side of global gatherings.

Perhaps we need a sociologist to examine how NGO campaigns turn into gatekeepers as they become players and want to defend their membership, financial sources, access and profile as as spokespeople.

I am not saying this has happened to 38 Degrees. All I am saying is, ‘Watch out!’ The logic is clear; you must defend your lists of signatories. You want, rightly, to claim your own success. If you acknowledge one campaign, how to stop having to mention them all? 

I think you should look at it differently. For the sake of clarity, let me put it like this. You can become a database with two million signatories or one million signatories. Is two always better? What if this was the choice: You can do your own thing, choose your own campaigns, focus on building 38 Degrees - and get two million. Or you can link to and support other suitable causes, offer your signatories paths to sign up to similar campaigns and thereby gain influence for civil society as a whole, helping to make it thicker and better connected and based on mutual support – and get one million.

Of course, one could always argue that the second choice would also bring you two million. But let’s keep it as a stark choice. What answer would you make, now that it is an imaginable one?

My hunch is you would of course go for two million signatories of your own. You'd put building your own organisation as such first, citing all the inner logical reasons why this is best. But make sure that such reasoning is not influenced by neo-liberal logic: the desire for maximisation. Will Davies has brilliantly set out the difference between economic maximisation and optimisation. The first booms but leads to busts. The second makes its judgments based on more than pure numerical returns. Of course, it seeks continuous ongoing growth. But it looks for an ecology of support; it sees itself as part of a community in collaboration as well as competition (there is bound to be that, and no bad thing).

At the moment, 38 Degrees is a collector not a connector. I think you should be both. And I am sure that this is what the wider anti-cuts movement in the UK needs. 

About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the founder of openDemocracy and author of The Lure of Greatness


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