E-Petitions: first as tragedy, then as farce

The resurrection of the idea that the UK's citizens should appeal for political change online confirms how cut off the elite is today.

Patrick Hayes

Topics Politics

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Gimmicks aside, the most striking thing about the launch of the government’s new e-Petition initiative last week is how similar it is to the failed New Labour version. This reveals that the gulf between the political elite and the masses is reaching almost medieval levels.

‘If you collect 10,000 signatures, your e-petition could be delivered to the House of Commons.’ It sounds almost like a game show. If you collect enough points, then you may win the prize of your idea being taken seriously by politicians. However, it’s important to note the small print on the e-Petition website: even if you hit the magic number of 10,000, it’s still only a possibility that it could be discussed.

Parliament could, after all, become unworkable if people could have any weird and wonderful idea discussed simply by getting enough people to make the very minimal commitment of signing a petition. As one Liberal Democrat member points out, ‘we would have endless debates on hanging, flogging and banning immigration’. In the minds of certain politicians these topics are, it seems, all many members of the public seem to care about. And even though Commons leader Sir George Young, who is driving the petitions initiative, has said that he expects capital punishment to gain substantial votes on the e-Petition website and to be discussed in parliament as a result, it seems this is just a sop to the ignorant masses. Young said ‘we need to explain to the country why, in our view, that is not the right way to proceed. We have to relate to public opinion and explain why we may come to a different decision…’

So, basically, the best a proponent of capital punishment can hope for is for politicians to explain to them why they are wrong. The same is likely to go for the anticipated petitions on leaving the EU. Such comments reveal the tension among the political elite at present: they know they are right on such political issues, but still feel the need to ‘relate’ to the ignorant masses to gain a smidgeon of legitimacy by using the internet to take the nation’s pulse. And, who knows? Maybe through the process of trawling through the thousands of suggestions put forward by the plebians, such as introducing sterilisation for paedophiles and compulsory burning of witches, someone may have an idea they can actually latch onto and make their own.

There’s something about the e-Petitions initiative that reveals the contemptuous nature of many politicians towards the public. If they are not seen to be concerned with capital punishment or immigration, then it’s something even more farcical. As Labour MP Paul Flynn claimed earlier in the year, when the e-Petitions site is set up, there will be ‘some asking for Jeremy Clarkson to be prime minister, for Jedi and Darth Vader to be the religions of the country’. Such a view has been echoed by Conservative MP Mark Pritchard, who recently asked ‘do we really want debates about UFOs and Big Brother?’

The promising of the possibility of a parliamentary discussion over successful petition issues is a bigger carrot than that offered by New Labour with their similar e-Petitions initiative, which notoriously backfired when 1.8million people signed up to a petition against road taxes, leading to a government minister declaring: ‘whoever came up with this idea [the petitions website] must be a prat’. Indeed almost the only substantial reply the public got from the earlier e-Petitions scheme was a jokey video response by Gordon Brown to the suggestion that Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson should be made prime minister.

This pretty accurately reflects the level of seriousness with which e-Petitions are taken by politicians. Young may claim that the new e-Petitions site will act as a ‘megaphone’ to ensure the public’s voice is heard in parliament. However it seems the primary reason for having this megaphone is to amplify the political classes’ sense of superiority over the ridiculous, ignorant masses and serve as a loud reminder that they shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Given this contempt for the electorate, it’s hardly surprising some who choose to set up petitions don’t take it seriously and put forward jokey ideas as a way of giving two fingers up to their ‘superiors’ in parliament. It’s also no wonder that influential right-wing blogger Guido Fawkes has mischievously launched one of the first campaigns on the e-Petitions site calling for capital punishment to be re-introduced for child and police killers. This petition – doubtless self-consciously – reflects what the political elite seems to think preys most on the public mind, and will doubtless attract the signatures of many wanting to put politicians in an awkward situation (as well, of course, as those who may support the idea and feel patronised by parliament’s refusal to take such an idea seriously).

It’s apt that someone with the moniker of Guido Fawkes should be taking the lead petitioning the government in such a way. There’s something of the pre-Civil War, even medieval, era about the resurrection of petitioning by the government. Rather than taking to the streets and protesting, or engaging in a voting process, the preference instead seems to be to encourage the justice and grace model of expressing interests and common people pleading with their superiors to consider their case.

It’s likely to only be a matter of time before David Cameron – and others in parliament – are cursing the ‘prat’ who came up with the idea of reintroducing e-Petitions, as history repeats itself as farce. But it’s telling that, like a moth to flame, politicians keep returning to the e-Petitions initiative: devoid of any real ideas of their own, politicians can’t help but trawl for any Big Ideas the public might come up with, while reserving the right to ignore every one.

Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked. He is producing a debate at the Battle of Ideas called The rise of the clicktivists: will the revolution be digitised? on Sunday 30 October.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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