Reactions to e-petitions

The reaction to the UK Government’s introduction of a new e-petitions initiative has been quite interesting. You can read my original post about the e-petitions initiative here.

Government House Leader Sir George Young wrote in this piece in the Daily Mail that:

The site has been widely welcomed as a realistic way to revitalise public engagement in Parliament. But there have been some who have been concerned by some of the subjects which could end up being debated – for example, the restoration of capital punishment.

The last time this was debated – during the passage of the Human Rights Act in 1998 – restoration was rejected by 158 votes.

But if lots of people want Parliament to do something which it rejects, then it is up to MPs to explain the reasons to their constituents. What else is Parliament for?

People have strong opinions, and it does not serve democracy well if we ignore them or pretend that their views do not exist.

Young concludes that “if politicians want to regain the trust of the public, then they need to trust the public. Giving people more power is the right place to start.”

However, a former Tory MP disagrees. Paul Goodman writes that e-petitions could actually harm the House of Commons. Goodman asks what would happen if the House did debate, and then reject, a petition which received the requisite 100,000 (or more) signatures? While Sir George Young argues that the simple fact that the House would debate a petition would help demonstrate that Parliament was listening to the voice of the people, Goodman believes that rejecting the premise of a petition would only demonstrate that the Commons was “even more remote from voters than it was before the scheme was launched”, especially so if “it denies debate on the motion in question”:

All would depend, in my view, on the number of signatories.  (I’m assuming that the overwhelming bulk of those who sign a petition backing a debate on capital punishment, for example, want it restored.)

A hundred thousand signatories is not, in my view, a significant percentage of a nation of roughly 50 million adults.  However, five million (say) would be: others will cite their own figure.

Goodman isn’t calling for the required number of signatures to be increased to five million from 100,000, he’s simply indicating that 100,000 people does not constitute overwhelming support for a given cause in a nation of 50+ million adults (read voters – the actual population of the UK is over 60 million). Goodman concludes while some petitions will be popular, demand for whatever cause they espouse won’t be overwhelming. Because of that, the move to e-petitions will do no harm and might even do some good if only because “[I]mportant matters are likely to be debated that wouldn’t be otherwise.”

The Independent, however, is rather dismissive of the whole e-petitions idea. The editorialist dismisses Sir George Young’s claim that ignoring people’s views damages democracy:

This is a bogus notion. In a civilised society, important issues are decided after diligent research, considered debate and the careful weighing up of arguments and counter arguments. That is what we elect our MPs to do. Of course those signing e-petitions on the Government’s official website may do that. Or they may vote out of knee-jerk prejudice. Inspect the latest round of petition subjects and you may form a shrewd idea of which approach dominates. The subjects raised include the return of the death penalty, withdrawal from the European Union, a householder’s right to kill burglars, restricting prison diets to bread and water, and more of that ilk.

The editorial concludes: “The only online petition that deserves to succeed will be the one that demands an end to these exercises in specious democracy.”

New Stateman blogger Dan Hodges isn’t any more supportive of the idea:

The e-petition system is a grubby, tacky, sordid, sleazy, headline-grabbing gimmick. It is the worst sort of X Factor style politics, cheapening and debasing our politicians and our political process.

Far from placing power in the hands of the people, e-petitions serve only to put more power in the hands of those who have ways of influencing the people. The lobbyists, the activists, the business interests; those who have the time, money and resources to manipulate them in their favour.

If our politicians want to demonstrate empathy with those who elected them, they should get out into the country and engage with them, not lock themselves in the Cabinet Office, hiding behind a website. And they can explain face-to-face how they have absolutely no intention of withdrawing from the Human Rights Act, re-opening our libraries or abolishing the monarchy.

Meanwhile,  over at the Guardian, Anthony Barnett has a rather bleak view of all forms of petitions – paper and electronic:

Parliamentary petitions modernise and intensify the old reactionary political culture rather than replacing it. The notion of the petition takes us back to the “popular touch” of monarchy with cult of supplication. It is a device of subjecthood, not citizenship. It delivers neither democratic power nor popular deliberation. It reproduces the backwardness of Britain in constitutional terms. Indeed, by taking the UK in a plebiscitary direction, it infantilises voters and weakens understanding of democracy. For this does not mean the rule of majority, which has long been known as another form of tyranny; “democracy is constitutional or it is nothing”. It protects minority rights and entrenches fundamental laws. To take a current issue it is illegal to torture people. Even if 90% of the public supported British officials torturing people, those 90% would be supporting something illegal.

Most of the UK media coverage has focused on the petitions calling for the reinstatement of capital punishment. As of writing, there are approximately 25 e-petitions currently active calling for the return of the death penalty, with total signatures adding up to 8,415. There are seven e-petitions opposing the reintroduction of capital punishment, and together, they have a total of 12,635 signatures (note that I opted to not include in this count a petition which calls for public hanging for those who call for public hanging, since, if you read it, it’s more of a joke petition). Indeed, the petition with the most signatures at the moment is this one, which calls on Parliament to retain the ban on capital punishment.

Obviously, the Government will have to do something about the number of duplicate petitions. While some of these may well be attributable to the problems the e-petition site was experiencing yesterday, which meant that many weren’t able to search to see if a petition on a given subject had already been created, I think it’s fairly clear now that people aren’t bothering to search at all and simply going ahead and creating new petitions.

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