Zombies on the high street: 38 degrees and the ‘Save Our NHS’ campaign

Dennis pic

James Dennis

PhD candidate and Research Assistant in the New Political Communication Unit in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London.


Section 5: Campaigning and Civil Society

Life as a Member of Parliament can be a dangerous business. Not only do our elected representatives have to deal with their demanding constituents, while avoiding the wrath of their party whip, but they also have to repel thousands-upon-thousands of zombies. These are not the undead looking to feast on the flesh of parliamentarians, but members of the political activist movement, 38 Degrees, who Simon Burns MP accused of “frightening people and getting them, almost zombie-like, to send in emails”.

it is important to recognise that 38 Degrees is not an online-only campaigning organisation

This critique, made in response to their campaign to halt the reorganisation of the National Health Service (NHS) in 2011, has stuck to 38 Degrees. Widely known for their use of mass email and online petitions, the movement is often dismissed by journalists and politicians as being ‘online only’. Oscar Rickett has argued that these seemingly easy and low-cost forms of engagement are largely ineffective. They create an illusion that one is having a meaningful political impact without bringing substantive policy change. However, as their activism during the general election campaign shows, this is a misinterpretation.

In January the staff at 38 Degrees launched an online poll, asking for the input of their members into the formation of their campaign strategy. Over 135,000 members took part. The results underlined the NHS as the most important issue for their membership in the upcoming election. Rank and file members were also involved in tactical decision-making, highlighting that efforts should be concentrated on raising voter awareness on these important issues.

What became known as the ‘Save Our NHS’ campaign took a number of forms. As is typical for the movement, the internet played an integral role in its strategy. For example, two videos were shared on social media, one which featured the actor Michael Sheen, and the other amplifying 38 Degrees members’ own experiences of the NHS. With over 900,000 views, these viral videos were an effective way of both encouraging people to register to vote whilst also sharing the priorities of 38 Degrees. An e-petition was also created for each of the 650 constituencies. These localised e-petitions marked a key turning point in switching the spatial focus from the national to the local-level.

Through the use of an online election hub, members were given the tools to organise meet-ups and plan campaign activities within their constituencies. While the central team provided videos and materials to assist in the formation and running of these groups, they were otherwise independently managed and autonomously run. On April 25th a national day of action was held. While the majority of 38 Degrees activists did take part from the comfort of their computer screens, over 11,000 members took to high streets the length-and-breadth of Britain to advocate their cause. The staff of 38 Degrees intentionally design their campaigns in this staggered manner to enable members to select their level of involvement based on their own personal context.

The organization also used phone-banks to talk to voters in marginal constituencies. Volunteers were recruited, online and offline, with emphasis placed on involving those with links to the health services. Members were not canvassing for candidates, given that the movement is nonpartisan, but instead were informing voters about what different parties stood for on key issues related to the NHS.

Therefore, it is important to recognise that 38 Degrees is not an online-only campaigning organisation. Given their success in mobilising citizens online, they are labelled as such. But this reductionist approach masks the real-space actions that the movement organise. The ‘Save Our NHS’ campaign illustrates how digital communication supports a diverse repertoire of political actions. With a network of over 2.5 million disaffected ‘zombies’, expect 38 Degrees to play a prominent role in opposition to the Conservative government and in politics more generally over the next five years.