I showed my face at two of the party conferences this year, and I won’t say which one I was at on this occasion. But I heard an MP refer to what he called “the curse of 38 Degrees”.
For the uninitiated, 38 Degrees is a powerful campaigning platform, on the American model, that allows people to sign up for campaigns and to send emails to recalcitrant MPs or anyone else.
It claims to have achieved some amazing things, including the provision of free school meals. Extraordinary – and all this time, I was under the naive impression that Nick Clegg and team had been working on how to make that happen. Apparently not.
I have taken part in some 38 Degrees campaigns. I knew the people who set it up. I even helped by advising them in its early stages.
But there clearly is a problem if MPs regard the process as a curse, when tens of thousands – maybe more – emails arrive in their in-boxes.
The problem isn’t around campaigning. It is the worry I have that none of my emails have ever been answered, and a nagging fear that they may actually be counter-productive or, more specifically, mistargeted.
On the occasions when I happen to know about the politics behind one of their campaigns, usually when it is directed at Lib Dem MPs or conference representatives, the political intelligence behind it is staggeringly inadequate. I don’t know about the other campaigns, but I worry about it.
I suppose it is my fault too. I know how few staff there are at the heart of the 38 Degrees machine. Perhaps I should have picked up the phone and advised them again, but there is something about their raucous tone that now prevents me.
But here is why I’m writing about it now. Because I have just received another message from 38 Degrees urging me to give them money to help them campaign against what they call the ‘Gagging Law’, actually the Transparency Bill now going through Parliament. Their description of the position is farcical.
And this is where my sympathy has finally expired, because it represents not just a misunderstanding – but a dangerous one, and one that will do nothing to prevent American-style oligarchs intervening in UK elections as they have in US ones.
As I write, the government has agreed – as they said they would – to make sure there is no misunderstanding, and to return the definition of ‘political activity’ to what it has been since 2000, when the Labour government first introduced the definition (but including rallies with an electoral purpose).
This is how John Thurso put the case, given that the changes he asked for have now been agreed:
"First the government has agreed to retain the existing definition of what non-party campaigning actually is: that is, activity that can “reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure the electoral success” of a party or candidate. Secondly, they have reverted to an existing definition of what constitutes 'election material', on which there is long established Electoral Commission guidance. These are crucial concessions, since those definitions have been in play since 2000, and no charity or non-party campaigner has ever claimed they were 'gagged' as a result."
Most charities operate under regulations from the Charity Commission which prevent them from getting involved in elections, and always have done, and it never stopped them from campaigning on the issues they care about whenever they need to. Nor should it.
I've got to be fair here. 38 Degrees have made the running, but they are backed by charities like NCVO and others. I've read their briefings and I don't understand how using the existing definition will make the law any more ambiguous, but I do accept there is some existing ambiguity which this bill doesn't clear up.
So you might reasonably ask why the UK should have legislation about electoral activity by non-candidates at all. The answer is summed up in one word: Koch.
The reason why this is so important is because of the Koch Brothers and their activities funding ultra-conservative election support in the USA, and those like them.
They set up lobby groups and non-profits to intervene, most of them well below the radar – but tax returns show that they spent $230 million in local interventions in the USA in the year before the last presidential election, and that was just through one of their organisations.
Look at the government shut-down, the blinkered oppositionism that has degraded American politics at federal level. That isn’t just about the Koch brothers, but we don’t want it here – we don’t want an open door to every oligarch who thinks they can intervene in our elections.
But 38 Degrees appears not to be bothered about that, as if somehow – if Koch UK was to land here – someone would rush in a law to prevent them. Some hope.
I’m not saying that they are somehow in league with Koch-style conservatism. That would be stupid. But they are being unbelievably naive – or they listened to the wrong people. Or something.
I know the bill doesn’t go far enough to rein in the lobbyists. But the last thing we need in this country is shadowy Koch-like figures among the ultra-rich intervening in constituencies for elections and using their considerable wealth to do so.
Why doesn’t 38 Degrees? And why don’t they see that, if they allow themselves to become so politically partisan - as they are doing - they are more easily dismissed as a ‘curse’ and their power, such as it is, will slip through their fingers?
Which is a pity, because it is a good idea - or it ought to be.