British Government e-Petitions – 21st century democracy?

HM Government e-Petition Site

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Warning – this post is about the processes of democracy. If this kind of stuff causes mild catatonia in you – or worse – then you should get out of this post now while you still have the chance.

So I may well now be addressing the cyber-void but hopefully there are a few of you out there who share my dark interests and that will persevere with me.

Onwards then. You may be familiar with online petitioning and even if not assuming you know what a petition is I think you can quite easily imagine what their online version involves.

Perhaps the most well-known e-petitioners currently are Avaaz whose remit and reach is global. They don’t just petition though they also campaign, fund direct actions and organize many protests online and offline.

The subject of this post is the e-Petitions site, a British site only, being the initiative of the current UK Coalition government arising from its main Conservative partner’s election manifesto. And this manifesto promise at least was kept.

When this was first introduced the opposition Labour Party opposed it saying ‘some crazy ideas could be debated’! Resists urge to say that MP’s are quite capable already of their own crazy bill propositions and implemented legislation!

In fairness to the Labour Party a similar initiative by them when they were in power and Tony Blair was the PM resulted in 50,000 signatories asking for Jeremy Clarkson to become Prime Minister – the horror! – stick to Motoring journalism Jeremy, please!

And another condition of this site that should predicate against any malcontent madness was that if a petition received over one-hundred thousand signatures it would then be debated in the House of Commons. So one would hope that even if a crazy idea was petitioned for it would not find 100,000 crazy petitioners – but then refer back to previous paragraph!

Because such a petition could then become law you have to be a British Citizen therefore to participate – whether setting up a petition or as signatory to it.

This post is not going to reflect on petitioning as a form of representative democracy, or the use of technology in our voting. Nor is this post going to consider Referenda either let alone e-Referenda – issues of interest to me but far to complex and digressive for this post.

In this post I merely want to see what the state of play is on this site – what are the issues currently exercising we Britains?

HM Government e-Petition Site

Current most popular petitions

It is not simply a matter of creating a petition on the site and it immediately appears awaiting expectant 100,000+ autographs of we the British people. It first must be checked by the relevant Government department to ensure that it is of an issue that falls within government remit along with the usual horseplay of we the people not taking these things seriously and initiating facetious and or parodic petitions, or indeed more seriously libellous or discriminatory. And indeed ensuring that something is actually being petitioned for and not just someone sounding off without aim! The other check is that it is not a duplicate of an existing petition. Though having seen the petitions I have some credulity on this latter point – many just seem variations on an existing petition.

And before I move on it should quickly be noted that some e-petitions have already met this 100K threshold and have been debated in parliament such as one for the full disclosure of documents relating to the 1989 Hillsborough disaster and another for a reduction of duty on petrol and diesel for motorists.

I am not going to offer too many thoughts about each of the petitions themselves, whether I agree with each petition or not , as many of the issues that they raise are worthy of at least a posts worth of serious discussion in themselves.

The most signed petition currently I will though share some words over as I think by its popularity it so merits this.

HM Government e-Petition Site

Preamble of Rioters to lose Benefits Petition

Perhaps it is just the pedantry of someone who enjoys writing but the immediately striking thing about the current most popular petition is that it has spelled ‘lose’ as ‘loose’ – arghh  – and has over a quarter of a million signatures despite that! Clearly this petition relates to England’s Summer riots. I am also not sure though why it restricts the loss of benefits to London rioters – rioting having taken place among many other English cities such as Birmingham and Manchester and indeed many of our smaller towns too.

This is not a petition I would sign. Most of the crimes committed during the rioting are covered by existing laws – I am always concerned when political parties in a pique of populism, usually pandering to the press too, advocate for new heavy (handed) legislation. It creates a cycle where one in order to be seen as tough – or rather not soft – proposes ever more draconian solutions. I am waiting next for someone to propose that convicted rioters should be tied to a trebuchet and catapulted into outer space!

I am also concerned at retrospective legislation – a contract is a contract – this is what we hear when a fired head of a failed bank holds onto their generous pension despite calls for it to be reduced or withdrawn altogether – think Fred Goodwin – and so it should apply to those receiving benefits too.

And then we are saying that it is not enough that someone is fined but they should have their income removed too. It being implied that all those rioting were on benefits. But a proportion were in work too – should their salary also be confiscated? I feel this proposal and the petition itself are part of the culture that sees al those on benefits as being undeserving of those benefits and on the take. Among the more extreme sections of the right wing are those too that oppose the whole idea of the welfare state.

I don’t though want to make light of our fears over the riots. A riot in place is a terrifying and unsettling event – should you find yourself in the thick of it your very life and livelihood could be at stake – naturally the responses to it are visceral and intense. And a political response to it is inevitably going to reflect that. Acts of shoplifting and arson become more than just shoplifting and arson when not individual acts but part of a collective (un) civil action of a riot. But then it is our very own PM that said the riots were about crime, pure crime and nothing else. Comforting statement to make so as not to have to reflect on the social, economic and political context that such events took place in.

So clearly I am on the other side of the fence as it were where this petitioning request is concerned. What is noticeable though is the diversity of views expressed on these petitions.

HM Government e-Petition Site

Process

For example let us consider the emotive issue of Capital Punishment which is currently outlawed in the UK. It is not a party political issue – Conservatives and Labour oppose it, Conservatives and Labour support it. Any votes regarding it have always been left to the conscience and discretion of the MP with no party line prevailing upon them. And the majority of those MP’s have opposed its restoration.

And on this issue by so doing have not taken a populist stance, because most British people when polled support the restoration. On this issue I am in the minority. I am used to having minority political opinions though but that’s another story!

These opposing camps are reflected on the e-Petitions site too. However surprisingly to me the petition calling for the ban to remain has the most signatories at 32,000 as oppose to 24,000 for those seeking its restoration.

As part of this post I thought I should sign one of these petitions by way of seeing what process was involved. And so what better to join the 32,000 and sign the petition for the ban on capital punishment to remain.

Each of the listed petitions are in fact hyper-links to further details about each petition. This particular petition not surprisingly had been assigned to the Ministry of Justice. In addition to those further details about the petition the person responsible for it is also listed – in this case a Martin Shapland. No further details are provided about him and I wonder if there should be by way of transparency and accountability?

The site also allows us to share and thus further promote the petition with three social media sites – Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. As an aside I had one of my Facebook friends share a petition with me which was a little awkward as though I agreed with its propositions I thought it was a bit vague and did not want to get into a political spar in the public space of Facebook. I treat Facebook like a family dinner table – I will not discuss politics, religion, money and sex – I will however discuss all four of these things anywhere else and most certainly on this blog! – but I digress!

HM Government e-Petition Site - Signatory form

Signatory form

When you click that you will sign the petition you are asked for certain information such as whether you are a British citizen, your name and postal address. Additionally your Email address where you also have the option to be updated about the progress of the petition. I can understand why a postal address is needed to discourage multiple entrants from a single individual and other fraudulent misuses. Incidentally it also has a Capture Spam option – so in addition to soliciting us for Viagra and anti-virus software Spam Bots may now have an interest in campaigning for a political issue – spam bots are growing up! The final process is to wait for a confirmation Email where a link needs to be clicked on by way of confirmation. Done!

This though brings me to one of my, if not reservations about this site, then concerns, namely that has any one can set up a petition there will then be thousands of such petitions in circulation – as indeed there are and all well and good – but what causes one petition to hit a popular nerve and another to sink without trace is not necessarily the merits of the issue being petitioned but how well that issue is publicized. And the most organized in this field are already established groups and special interests with links to Parliament and the mainstream media. Additionally the popular press can easily trawl these petitions for ones that strike a chord with its interests – quite a reasonable thing for them to do don’t get me wrong – but we are still then left with a situation where it is those with most media influence calling the shots as to our political agendas.

On the other hand I don’t want to go all Noam Chomsky on you here and spiel on about the Manufacturing of Consent – and reader I could! – but it is a sobering reminder that some issues are not as popular with the public as they are with our ruling politicians and certain sections of the press. And yet because of the press-coverage we ourselves start thinking that a particular issue – let us say leave the Euro-zone! – must be on the minds and in the hearts of most British people when in many cases they are not – just a buzzing sound in our ears from all their incessant jaw-jaw! A point of view endlessly repeated does not become true because of that – alas it can become the conventional wisdom. Okay so I have gone a bit Chomsky on you!

And yes there is a petition currently popular about leaving the Euro-zone too!

Nonetheless I do not decry this initiative of the Government. In spite of my reservations I really do welcome it and will be trawling it myself too see if there are any petitions that resonate with me for me to then get behind. I may even start a petition myself – though I am betting I am not as original as I like to think I am and that anything I might want to start a petition about is already being petitioned about!