The actions of 38 Degrees, the lobbying charity have been mentioned here before on several occasions. I have expressed my view that whilst their approach can be rather overwhelming for those on the receiving end, such as MPs and MEPs, that the process of encouraging individual electors to write to their MP on a matter that these electors feel is important needs to be seen as a positive contribution to our democratic discourse. My view was formed through my own experience of standing for public office. When I was a candidate for the role of Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner, 38 Degrees encouraged their members to write to ask candidates their views on the privatisation of policing. I received nearly 100 near identical emails and I know from the feedback I received subsequently that the response from candidates varied. At least one candidate simply ignored these requests, one sent a standard email explaining that they don’t respond to mass mailings, and at least one sent a standard email response pointing to a statement on their website on the matters raised in the 38 degree campaign. I chose to write to all these potential voters, explaining my view on the matter of privatisation and encouraging them to vote in the election, recognising that its turnout was predicted to be low. Several of these people subsequently wrote again to thank me for my response and suggesting that they would consider voting for me!
I have previously referred to several individual MPs or even Ministers who have criticised 38 Degrees for their actions, one of these Peter Bottomley the MP for West Worthing has been speaking out again at a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Civil Society and Volunteering this week. According to this article in Third Sector Magazine Sir Peter claims receiving “hundreds of emails” from campaigners irritate parliamentarians and disrupts their work. He also said that the approach by 38 Degrees to influence MPs’ views on the lobbying bill was counter-productive. “The 38 Degrees campaign is turning off many members of the house,” he said. “It’s stupid”. It is rather disappointing that Peter, who I previously found to be willing to engage on matters Parliamentary business, has formed this view of 38 Degrees. My previous correspondence with him took place when he was an opposition MP as he was in March 2008 when he signed early day motion 1160 which includes the following “That this House notes that 2008 marks 250 years of parliamentary government in Nova Scotia, the first in Canada; recognises the efforts of Democracy 250 in Nova Scotia in educating the electorate and especially the young on the importance of participation in the electoral process” He also spoke during one of the debates on Hillsborough when he spoke to the Prime Ministers “you do need people to whistle-blow” and that “whistleblowers should be persistent and should be heard” He also spoke in April 2007 in the House of Commons “Will my hon. Friend give encouragement, through the Speaker’s Commission, to the Electoral Commission, to continue to encourage voters and potential voters to register to vote where they are, which will help young people and others to take part in elections, whether local or national.”
It is vital that encouraging people of all ages to participate in a representative democracy does not raise expectations that we will have 24/7 access to our MPs or Councillors. However it is also clear that if the expectations are so low, suggesting the only form of engagement will come through a 4 or 5 yearly visit to a ballot box in a school hall that many of us will not feel engaged with at all. Somewhere in between must be a level that works for both the representative and those being represented. It is not unreasonable for MPs to attempt to clarify what they feel is appropriate and also to speak with groups such as 38 Degrees to see if there is some common ground between them. I for one believe Sir Peter and his colleagues are at significant risk of cutting of their noses to spite the faces of many 1000’s of electors who clearly do feel that this is the best way of contacting them and expressing their views.