Why 38 Degrees is independent from political parties

It's 38 Degrees members like these who decide what campaigns we run

A number of Conservative MPs have recently sent emails to 38 Degrees members, or posted to their web sites, suggesting that 38 Degrees supports the Labour Party. This allegation is, of course, totally false. Here is a detailed response to help 38 Degrees members to get back to these MPs with the real facts.

It is a fundamental principle of 38 Degrees that we are completely independent of all political parties. 38 Degrees exists to put power into the hands of ordinary people, not political parties. Our agenda is set from the bottom up, by 38 Degrees members, not top-down by the staff and board. Our mission is to strengthen democracy by giving the British public a new way to be involved in public issues more directly.

By working together in our thousands we are a loud and persistent knock on the door of anyone who has power to make decisions that affect us all – politicians of all parties, government officials, or businesses. We hold them to account and make sure they listen and respond to our calls for positive change. The difference between the 38 Degrees model of bottom-up people power and the approach of political parties is pretty obvious to anyone who gets involved in 38 Degrees campaigns.

There are now over 1 million 38 Degrees members. We include supporters of pretty much every political party in the country, and many who don’t support any political party at all. It is these 38 Degrees members who set the agenda, voting regularly to decide on the campaigns we run and the tactics we use.

38 Degrees does not accept any funding from big business, government, or political parties. Nor have we ever given any funding to political parties. And unlike the political parties, we are not dependent on big donors: 38 Degrees members donate the funds required to deliver the campaigns, most recently by raising over £300,000 to fund billboards asking David Cameron to listen to the warnings about his plans for the NHS.

To further guarantee that 38 Degrees cannot be controlled by political parties, every 38 Degrees member of staff is required to sign a clause in their contract undertaking to uphold the political independence of 38 Degrees, and board members sign a similar pledge.

Our record shows how we have challenged politicians of every stripe. At the moment, with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in government, it is inevitably the case that many 38 Degrees campaigns challenge these parties and their policies. However, before the 2010 general election, when the Labour Party was in government, we ran plenty of campaigns which took them on. For example:

More recently, it is true that 38 Degrees members have decided to run big campaigns challenging the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government on issues like the plan to sell-off England’s forests and the changes to the NHS, where they pursued flawed policies which have gone against the will of the majority of the wider public. However, challenging some government policies is our democratic right as British citizens!

Other campaigns prioritised by 38 Degrees members have targeted big companies (for example gas and electricity companies) or have supported motions proposed by Conservative MPs (for example a ban on wild animals performing in circuses, and a tougher recall law).

It is both cynical and wrong to dismiss the reasoned, case-by-case approach which 38 Degrees members take to public issues as motivated by the top-down political or ideological approach of the old politics. It is only right that non-partisan people power should be prepared to challenge all politicians from all parties – especially the most powerful, and especially when they get things wrong.

Some of the emails currently circulating from Conservative MPs go on to make a couple of specific claims about 38 Degrees, supposedly to “back up” their allegation that 38 Degrees supports the Labour Party.

These emails distort the facts to mislead the reader. They are strikingly similar, and it seems that they are based on a briefing paper currently circulating among at least some Conservative MPs.

38 Degrees is built on principles of openness and transparency and has nothing to hide. So here are detailed responses to each of these claims in turn.

CLAIM 1:

The email from MPs says “In the 2010 General Election Campaign, 38 Degrees emailed out advice on tactical voting: ‘…The Daily Mirror has published how to vote if you’re in a key seat and your priority is to stop the Conservatives winning…’ and gave a link to the 38 Degrees website as to how to vote tactically against the Conservatives.”

Actually, the full paragraph from the original email said this (original bolding):

It’s up to each of us to decide who we vote for. If you’re still looking for more information, 38 Degrees members are here to help. Together we’ve compiled some alternative sources of information, less biased or at least differently biased. Together they may help you to decide who should get your vote.

In other words, the 38 Degrees election day email encouraged people to decide for themselves, and pointed them to a number of resources that might help them to make up their minds. That included one from the Daily Mirror which was about stopping the Conservatives, but also another three which were nothing to do with party politics. The email also mentioned that some of the sources were biased.

The overall purpose of the email was to give 38 Degrees members a variety of resources and links which they could forward to their friends to encourage them to vote. This was something which 38 Degrees members had voted to make a priority when they came together to discuss and decide the 38 Degrees election strategy, and the content of the email was shaped by the other priorities set by 38 Degrees members, including the cause of democratic reform.

CLAIM 2:

There are three claims made about members of the 38 Degrees board:

“Co-Founder and Director of 38 Degrees, Henry Tinsley, funded the Labour Party through the firm Betterworld. Betterworld has given at least £125,250 to the Labour Party and £5,000 to Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign. He gave a ‘four figure sum’ to the left wing blog: ‘Left Foot Forward’. Co-Founder and Director, Paul Hilder, put himself forward as General Secretary of the Labour Party in 2011 and writes policy papers for The Fabian Society. Director, Ben Brandzel, described himself in 2009 as ‘dedicated to the Labour cause’.”

These statements seem to have been selectively chosen to mislead the reader about both the role and the nature of the 38 Degrees board and its members.

Most importantly, it is the members of 38 Degrees who decide what we campaign on, and not the board. You can read more about how 38 Degrees members choose 38 Degrees campaigns here. The role of the board is arms-length from the substance and detail of what 38 Degrees members campaign about. It is focused on good governance: to hold the staff accountable, to ensure that staff are properly consulting and involving the membership, and to make sure that 38 Degrees is run with probity, in accordance with the law, and in a genuinely bottom-up way.

Secondly, all board members are required to sign up to maintaining the independence of 38 Degrees. They are bound by rules to prevent conflicts of interest arising, and are present on the board because of the expertise they bring, not because of any political affiliation.

But since a misleading briefing campaign has now been initiated against some of the 38 Degrees board members in an attempt to discredit the activities of 38 Degrees members, here is a fuller description of their background and experience.

Henry Tinsley is on the board because of his substantial experience of running businesses such as Green and Blacks, and his long-standing involvement in campaigning on causes such as Darfur. He also sits on the board of the Carter Center UK, which is known for its non-partisan work in election observation and democratic institution-building.

It’s true that Henry has donated to the Labour party. But he has also supported the Liberal Democrats, who are part of the coalition government. Henry has in fact donated to three different UK political parties in the last three years. He also funds a whole host of other charitable causes, including international human rights.

Paul Hilder is on the 38 Degrees board because of his experience as a campaigner, reformer and social entrepreneur. He currently serves as Vice-President at Change.org, and was previously Campaigns Director of both Oxfam and Avaaz, as well as co-founder of openDemocracy.net. He has worked on democratic reform in the UK and internationally, and published on the opening up of political parties, as well as community empowerment and devolution.

It is true that Paul was considered last summer as a candidate for general secretary of the Labour Party, advocating an agenda of reform and opening up. But he has never held any party office, and if he taken up this post he would have immediately left the 38 Degrees board. He has also worked with city and county councils across the UK led by all three of the main political parties, and participated in the Conservative-led Chamberlain Forum on local democracy.

Ben Brandzel, for his part, is on the board because of his experience as Campaigns Director of MoveOn.org and a board member of Avaaz.org, and one of the leading thinkers on people-powered movements. But Ben Brandzel is an American. Where he has any political links, they are to the Democrat party. It is true that he has supported Barack Obama as US President – but David Cameron says he does, too!

Previous links to political parties aren’t a bar to getting involved in 38 Degrees campaigns, or joining the staff or board. People often get involved in political parties because they care about public issues, and because they recognise the importance electoral politics has in deciding how these issues are treated. But we have very strict and clear rules for maintaining the political independence of 38 Degrees as an independent, member-driven, people-powered movement.

It is interesting how selective the e-mails by Conservative MPs are. This seems to be deliberately designed to suggest a bias to the Labour Party. Not only do they give a misleading impression of the role of the board and the experience of these three members, they neglect to mention the wider breadth of experience represented there. For example:

  • Benedict Southworth, the Chief Executive of the Ramblers, former chief executive of the World Development Movement and former campaigns director of Greenpeace Australia, who once stood as a Green party candidate in council elections.
  • Gordon Roddick, on the board because of his expertise as a hugely successful businessmen (the Body Shop) and starter of new social enterprises (e.g. the Big Issue), who has in the past made donations to the Liberal Democrats and the Green party.
  • Gemma Mortensen, on the board for her expertise in campaigning, coalition building and international human rights, who is currently Chief Executive of Crisis Action and has previously worked for the United Nations and the European Commission.
  • Peter Myers, who is on the board for his experience and expertise gained working on special projects with Greenpeace and the climate group, and as director of enoughisenough.org

You can read about all 38 Degrees board members here.  [UPDATE , 2015: Henry Tinsley stepped down from the board in March 2014, and Paul Hilder stepped down in September 2014 – you can view a complete and up to date list of board members here]

Once again, all board members sign up to a code of conduct which includes maintaining the independence of 38 Degrees from political parties. They do not decide our campaigns – 38 Degrees members do. 38 Degrees exists to put power into the hands of ordinary people, not political parties, and our independence of political parties is fundamental.

Our mission is to strengthen democracy by giving the British public a new way to be involved in public issues more directly. We’re quite new, so it’s not surprising that some politicians may find all this hard to get their heads around. We would also not be surprised if some of those who guard their own political power are starting to think about how they can attack and undermine 38 Degrees.

38 Degrees will continue to be open, transparent and led by our members. If you’ve got any feedback on what more we could do in this respect please leave it below.