THE MAN WHO’S DIGITISING DEMOCRACY
If there’s one thing the politicians who will be jostling for your vote this year can agree upon, it’s that David Babbs has them worried. His organisation, 38 Degrees, is at the forefront of ‘clicktivism’, giving millions of people easy digital access to their MP, and by the simple acts of emailing and signing digital petitions, they’ve pestered politicians into changing the law. They even took the government to court, and won.
38 Degrees is not a political party, but we have more members than the big three political parties put together.
We don’t have members in the same way – we don’t charge people money to join, and each of our campaigns is optional. It’s up to our members whether they sign a petition or get involved, rather than having to sign up to a ‘party line’. The big political parties tend to be fairly cagey about reporting how many members they have, but for Labour and the Tories I think it’s somewhere in the region of 100,000 each, with considerably less Lib Dems. We have over three million members.
We wouldn’t be able to do what we do without the internet.
Without email and social media, communicating with three million people would be very difficult – it would mean stamping a lot of envelopes. This kind of mass communication makes everything possible at speed and at a scale that would be hard to imagine using traditional means, from communication to fundraising. Often when people donate to 38 Degrees it’s to fund a specific goal: to get some adverts in a newspaper, or to hire legal experts to challenge a decision by a company or the government. Often you need to move quite fast to do those things, and thanks to the internet we can quickly get an email out inviting people to donate. Within 24 hours, we have the money in the bank account ready to spend on the tactic.
The internet is like a town centre, in a way: there are areas that feel like public spaces, but actually they aren’t.
So, if you go into a shopping centre, it can feel like a public space where you should be able to say whatever you like (within reason, obviously) – but if you start handing out leaflets, for example, security guards will show up and you’ll be asked to leave. And that’s true of a lot of the internet. For example Facebook isn’t a public space, it’s owned by a company. One of our long-term worries is whether we’ll always have freedom of speech in these areas. This is something I think about a lot, because one issue we campaign about is how to get companies like Facebook to pay their fair share of tax.
There’s a group of coders calling themselves Democracy Club.
They’re building a set of tools to help citizens get more involved in the next general election – they’re making things like having a free, open-source repository of campaign leaflets, so you can compare what different candidates are saying, and the promises they make during the election can go into a database so we can see if they break them.
One MP has said he thinks political parties are a bit like HMV – they’re an outdated business model.
At the moment, we have a democracy based around a time when the most high-tech thing you could do was to elect a man who had a horse and send him to London. Surely modern tech opens up greater possibilities for listening and conversation?
In what may have been a brilliant piece of social media strategy, but was more probably a ham-fisted attempt to search for his name, Ed Balls simply tweeted “Ed Balls”. Over 30,000 people retweeted him, and continue to do so.
George W Bush, whom you may recall from his time running America, repeatedly referred to “internets” during his time in office. Maybe they have more of ’em in the US.
“A series of tubes”
...is how the 82-yearold senator for Alaska, Ted Stevens, described the internet. He also complained that someone on his staff had sent him “an internet”, and that it had taken over a day to arrive, proving that handwritten letters are still better.