Since the last general election in 2010, participation in digital campaigning has grown significantly. Six million people in the UK have signed or started a digital petition on Change.org, a global website with headquarters in San Francisco, which launched in April 2012. And 3 million people in the UK are members of 38 Degrees, a web-based activist organisation founded in memory of the late campaigner and founder of the Body Shop, Anita Roddick.
The rise of “clicktivism”, as it is often termed because people can support a cause at the click of a computer mouse, comes as membership of traditional campaigning organisations such as political parties and trade unions is at an all-time low. Less than 1% of the electorate – some 360,000 people – is a member of one of the three main political parties; a quarter of what party membership was 30 years ago. And only a quarter of the UK’s workforce now belongs to a trade union; half of the 13 million members in 1979. Yet according to the annual British Social Attitudes survey, interest in politics is on the rise. In 1986, 29% of people said they were interested in politics either a “great deal” or “quite a lot”. In 2012, this had increased to 36%. And as the 84.6% turnout at the Scottish referendum last week demonstrated, there is a huge appetite for politics.
John Coventry, Change.org’s communications director, puts his organisation’s rapid growth down to “stories of Davids and Goliaths – human stories of justice and fairness”. However, he is insistent that its 6 million people are “users, not members”. There is no manifesto and no central campaign direction, he points out: it is a campaigning tool, not a movement.