I received my first batch of template emails from 38 Degrees recently.
As a general rule, most of their mail-bombing campaigns are aimed at MPs, rather than councillors, so they tend not to come our way. But the recent announcement by the Prime Minister that the UK will take several thousand Syrian refugees and then distribute them across local councils has made it a local issue, and many people are, understandably, keen to let their own councillors know their opinions.
That much I don’t have any problem with. It’s a genuine local issue, and I welcome emails from local residents on any matter which directly affects them, or may potentially do so. What I am less happy with, though, is the use of identikit mass emails as a tool.
There are all sorts of reasons why using a pre-filled email template is a bad idea. I won’t go into all of them in detail, as there’s already an extremely good explanation of why you shouldn’t use them on the WriteToThem.com website. However, having not received any personally until a few days ago, I couldn’t speak from personal experience. So, having now got a bunch in my inbox, these are my thoughts.
The couch activist’s digital cop-out
Like most councillors, I get a fair number of emails from constituents. They cover a wide range of issues, although the two most common are planning applications and dog poo. They also vary a lot in content; some are lengthy screeds and come complete with attachments of supporting documentation, others are brief “I’ve got a problem with X, can you help?” type messages.
One thing all these emails have in common, though, is that they are in the sender’s own words. And another is that they are almost always the start of a conversation rather than a one-off message.
The 38 Degrees emails, though, have neither of these characteristics. All of them have had campaign-ese wording which clearly isn’t that of the sender, and mostly doesn’t even relate to my role as a councillor or to the specific wards that I represent and the councils that I sit on – it’s just generic boilerplate. And, although I’ve replied to all of them, none of the senders has made any further contact.
When someone takes the time to look up my email address, and then compose an email about whatever is bothering them, I know it’s something they care about. They have put effort into it, or at least are planning to – even if all they want me to do is phone them, they’re willing to spend the time talking to me. I also get a feel for the personality of the sender and how strongly they feel about something.
With the 38 Degrees emails, I get none of that. Sending a campaign email via 38 Degrees is trivially easy, and requires no knowledge about either the subject matter, the person the email is being sent to or the public authority that they represent. All you need to do is go to a website, enter your name and postcode and click a button. It’s a throwaway, inconsequential act that treats serious subjects, such as the Syria crisis, in the same way as expressing an opinion on which boy-band is better or which chocolate tastes nicer.
Participating in a 38 Degrees mail-bomb doesn’t show that you care about the subject. On the contrary, it shows that you really don’t care at all. Because if you really did care, you would take the time and make the effort to get in touch directly, in your own words.
Veruca Salt’s campaign class
As it happens, I do actually support the government’s plans to resettle Syrian refugees in the UK, and I’m confident that my local authority will be capable of doing whatever is necessary locally. To that extent, I agree with the emails I’ve received. But the details are all still to be finalised, as things stand, and in any case I’m just one of many councillors and have no ability to set council policy or dictate what will be done. So an email demanding that I “ensure” that the council takes in refugees and gives “immediate” sanctuary to them is heading towards moon on a stick territory.
Asking for something that I, personally, cannot deliver is pointless. By all means, ask for my support in your campaign to get the council to do something. You may or may not get my support, but you’re perfectly entitled to ask for it. Or ask what my position is on a policy, and I’ll usually be happy to tell you. But simply demanding that I do something is just plain daft. Even if I agree with what you want to happen, I can’t do that.
This is where it gets even more silly. I’d be a lot more tolerant of seemingly unreasonable emails if they were directly from a constituent and written in their own words. I don’t expect everyone in the ward to know how local government works and what my responsibilities are. But, of course, these emails aren’t written by the people whose name appears on them. They’re written by some faceless and unaccountable activist at 38 Degrees.
Given that their style makes them instantly recognisable as being from 38 Degrees (even though the email itself does its best to hide the true origin), they’re almost certainly being written either by the same person, or a small group of people. In which case, these people ought to know how government, including local government, works. They are, after all, trying to persuade us to do something. You’d have thought they’d at least make the effort to find out what form of persuasion is most effective.
So, what we have is a mass-mail campaign being run by people who don’t really care whether their emails are persuasive – they just want to make sure we have the inconvenience of having to read them – and sent by people who can’t be bothered to do anything more constructive. If anyone really thinks this is a helpful way to engage in the democratic process, then they are sadly mistaken.