Wednesday 25 January 2012

38 Degrees: Part Way There

38 Degrees are finally asking people to throw their weight behind changes to the Welfare Reform Bill. That’s good, that’s really, really good, but that doesn’t mean that this series of blogs has completely achieved its purpose. Help fighting the Welfare Reform Bill is a huge part of what disabled people have been asking 38 Degrees for over the past year, that lack of support is what started me blogging on the subject, the call to arms to oppose the Welfare Reform Bill is what I set out to achieve, but asking for that help has thrown light on a problem at the heart of 38 Degrees itself.

An organisation that builds its identity around its democratic mechanisms needs those mechanisms to be accessible to all, but the truth is that they aren’t. The near insurmountable difficulties disabled people have faced in getting support in the 38 Degrees votes on where to campaign next are just one aspect of that problem; any demonised minority, Travellers for instance, is going to face the same issues. If disabled people are begging for support, with well beyond half a million of us facing losing our benefits, and we are losing the votes, yet badgers are winning*, then isn’t there a problem 38 Degrees need to address? That’s a major problem in itself, but the problem extends even further.

People in social housing don’t face quite the same problems in demonization that disabled people do, yet they are another disenfranchised minority when it comes to campaigning for support from 38 Degrees, Martha Lane Fox, in her role as web accessibility tsar, pointed out before Christmas that half of people in social housing have no way of getting online, and therefore no easy way to try and ask for support from 38 Degrees, no matter how worthy their cause. That's a feature they share with disabled adults, a very high proportion of whom have never been online and who, on top of the demonization, are similarly restricted in lack of Net access when trying to get help from 38 Degrees.

The two groups most comprehensively disenfranchised by lack of Net access were the same two groups most savagely targeted by the Welfare Reform Bill, and the same two groups worst placed to get the support they needed from 38 Degrees. Even badgers have better (if indirect) Net access. An organisation which prides itself on the democracy at the core of everything it does cannot ignore the fact that those who need its help most desperately can't even get into the polling booth….

The fight to get 38 Degrees into the battle over the Welfare Reform Bill has been won, but the need for change in 38 Degrees itelf remains. The principles at the core of 38 Degrees mean that it cannot afford to remain an organisation that disenfranchises those who cannot afford to be online, just as it cannot afford to disenfranchise those demonized by the media or society (particularly when that demonization extends into the beliefs of its supporters). 38 Degrees cannot afford to be seen as solely a tool of the trendy, web-enabled, chattering classes, but unless everyone can access its help on an equal basis, then isn’t that ultimately what it is?

* I signed the badger petition, I have nothing against badgers, the cull is bad science, but their cute, furry beeline to the heart of active, online 38 Degrees voters is the clearest example I know of the problem I’m trying to highlight.


  1. As a victim of the wrb living in social housing, perfectly spoken David. Nice one.

  2. A UK firm wanted to make PCs available for £15 each which would have been halfway to getting folk online. But guess what? No government help and the UK companies that bid for the contracts to manufacture them were too expensive, so the work went to China. I think they go on sale later this year. They still need extras like a TV to plug into and a keyboard but its a step nearer to access for all. Meanwhile, many mobile phones are available second hand with internet access on a pay as you go basis which should make it available to more.

    I think 38 Degrees helped the Tories and this is just tokenism now.

  3. Ians12: £15 for a Raspberry PI (not to mention add-ons like keyboard and wifi+modem) is £15 many people will not have. If people have to choose between eating and heating, then web access doesn't enter into their consideration. We do need to provide web-access to those who can't get online, because without they're going to become second-class citizens, but that's something for Martha Lane-Fox's accessibility initiative, and it's the work of years. Meanwhile people are disenfranchised right now, and the Welfare Reform Bill and its like mean they need to be able to access campaign groups like 38 Degrees right this moment. That doesn't mean them finding some way to get online, it means 38 Degrees, and Avaaz and the rest finding some way to reach out to them, recognising the threats they face and join with them in campaigning against it.