Petitions: a shrunken view of democracy

New Labour's vision for popular engagement in 2008 bypasses the ballot box in favour of just getting us to beg for government intervention.

As politicians increasingly believe they cannot change society as a whole, so they are desperate to involve us in taking responsibility for making do with what we have. Afraid to have their lack of ideas exposed at the ballot box, politicians see petitions as a way to get us to beg them to intervene.

Hazel Blears, UK secretary of state for communities and local government, ushered in the new year by publishing proposals that would legally require councils to respond to petitions. Blears said: ‘New petition powers would put more influence, power and control in the hands of communities, leading to greater action to tackle their concerns and improving the health of our local democracy.’ (1) While Blears wants to flatter us by suggesting we Britons are all modern-day Chartists, she thinks the problem with democracy these days is that the ‘listening government’ is just not listening enough.

The UK government launched its own e-petitions website at the end of 2006 - but it clearly isn’t too keen on the views expressed there. For example, 1.8million people signed a petition opposing government policy on vehicle tracking and road pricing - effectively scuppering the plan, for now. Currently, the biggest open petition has a quarter of a million signatories: ‘Allow the Red Arrows to Fly at the 2012 Olympics’ (the petitioners are apparently concerned the government thinks the Royal Air Force display team are ‘too British’). Sixth on the list, with nearly 29,000 votes, comes ‘Make Jeremy Clarkson Prime Minister’ - beating a petition that we be granted a referendum on the EU constitution. Nothing there that the government much wants to hear.

Does Blears think that local initiatives will not be as susceptible to such cynicism and time wasting as the national e-petitions? Are local issues safer territory for the government to experiment with direct democracy and a little bit of populism? As it happens, it doesn’t look as if councils need any encouragement. A cursory scan of recent press releases from my local council, the London borough of Islington, suggests that it may already be run by petition, given the extent to which it mirrors contemporary concerns: school kids at the cutting edge of food recycling; how to be green with your Christmas tree; wave goodbye to canal graffiti; tree is saved; launch of safer drinking campaign, etc (2).

Broadsheet reaction to the proposals has rightly pointed out that this kind of dalliance with direct democracy on single-issue concerns can only undermine representative democracy. While there is always a place for committed campaigners trying to force change on specific issues, the latest proposals seem simply to empower professional petition-mongers (3). Blears herself seemed aware but careless of this danger when she set out her stall on the issue last autumn: ‘Now of course I’m not suggesting an automatic change of policy - democracy defined by Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells is no democracy at all. But if enough people agree, I think there’s a very strong case for the council to take a hard look at their policy.’ (4). A disingenuous ‘now of course’, a hardworking ‘but’, and unqualified adjectives like ‘enough’ or ‘very strong’, give the lie to her professed concern for the health of democracy. This is no call for collective action: collections of opinions will be fine.

These proposals are much more dangerous than even their flirtation with parochial populism suggests. They reflect the view that politics in the twenty-first century is only about community activism and competing lifestyle choices and not about big ideas or collective action. Blears’ enthusiasm for ‘participatory budgeting’ in the same speech is revealing. ‘It means giving them the choice over whether they want to prioritise street cleaning, leisure facilities for young people, traffic calming or whatever the local concerns might be.’ Washing her hands of the problem, she leaves us with the exciting choice between a) clean b) quiet or c) whatever streets. You can’t have it all, she thinks; instead we get ‘transparency to the way difficult decisions about how to use limited resources are made’. Thanks.

Since Tories and Lib Dems are fully committed to empowerment, participatory politics and local government for local people, this is an abdication of responsibility by the whole political class. Lacking solutions to society’s problems, declaring there is no alternative, they hand it back to us. The patronising attitude extends to renaming the tiny budget the council gets to play with. As Blears noted in December: ‘I see no reason why…there shouldn’t be a ‘community kitty’ in every local authority.’

This shrunken vision of democracy in Britain was there last summer in the Green Paper The Governance of Britain. As the first act of the new Brown government, the paper set out an agenda to create ‘a shared national purpose’ by initiating a ‘national conversation’ which will ‘forge a new relationship between government and citizen’ (5). This included a rolling programme of devolving powers and responsibility from central government to local authorities, select committees and citizens’ juries. As noted on spiked in August, this is not power-to-the-people but much more about ‘distancing central government from the electorate: in short, it is profoundly anti-democratic rather than properly empowering’ (see Why does Gordon Brown hate politics?, by David Chandler).

Contrary to all this talk of ‘listening’, the government has already decided what is best for us. Every aspect of our lifestyle is increasingly regulated by government diktat. That means smoking bans, restrictions on healthcare for those who smoke, vetting of anyone who wants to work with children, invasion of our private lives in all manner of ways. And the upshot of these things is the opposite of the community spirit supposedly encourage by petitions; instead, policy turns us against each other, leaving us more dependent on government to step in to protect us. The result is not that we can hold the government to account, but that we seek its indulgence to modify policies. The narrower and more trivial our demand - and the more they reinforce existing policy - the more likely we are to be indulged.

We shouldn’t accept that changing society is impossible and that all we can do is tweak the policies laid down by people who know better than us. It’s time we put politics back on the agenda and conducted an adult debate about the kind of society we want to live in. If we don’t, we can expect democracy in 2008 to be a matter of signing petitions to beg scraps from the table of limited resources.

Angus Kennedy is a technology consultant and freelance writer.

Previously on spiked

Tessa Mayes discussed an e-petition the government was ignoring because it was out of step with the paedophile panic. Jennie Bristow showed how the appearance of consultation, rather than the substance of arguments, lay behind the election turnout debate. Dave Clements argued that government attempts to increase community activity only revealed the isolation of politicians. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.

(1) Petition power kicks off new year of community action, Communities and Local Government, 27 December 2007

(2) December 2007 Press Releases, Islington Council website

(3) For example, 250 names is not democracy, The Times (London), 28 December 2007

(4) Confident communities, Communities and Local Government, 17 September 2007

(5) The Governance of Britain, Green Paper, p. 5

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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