Virtual petitions are no substitute for real politics
In trying to connect with the public via the web, the Lib-Cons have only exposed how utterly cut-off they are.
‘Whoever came up with this idea must be a prat.’
So declared a government minister in 2007 of the online petition section of the 10 Downing Street website. His anger wasn’t without reason: 1.8million people had used the petition section to register their discontent with the then New Labour government’s road-tax proposals prompting the government to make an embarrassing policy U-turn.
For much of the past year, under the new Lib-Con government, the petitions website has been put on ice pending a review. In December, however, things finally started moving again with the leader of the House of Commons, Sir George Young, announcing that he was ‘anxious to make progress’ on the initiative and that plans would shortly be outlined as to how the Lib-Cons would ‘bridge the gap between House and country by taking forward the agenda of petitions’.
These plans seem to involve pimping up the eDemocracy initiative by upping the incentives. Previously, the best someone setting up a petition could hope for was an email in response if the petition got more than 500 votes (usually consisting of little more than ‘computer says no’). Under the new proposals, if a petition gets 100,000 votes, it will be ‘guaranteed’ time for debate inside the Commons. Perhaps to add an element of competition, the Conservative Party’s 2010 manifesto also suggests that ‘the petition with the most signatures will enable members of the public to table a bill eligible to be voted on in parliament’.
While some in the Labour Opposition may sneer at the Lib-Cons’ proposals, even Labour hasn’t completely fallen out of love with the ‘prattish’ initiative. In the party’s 2010 manifesto it also announced that members of the public would be able to ‘trigger’ Commons debates through petitions – all in the name of ‘stronger accountability’.
It’s clear politicians across the board share Young’s anxiety about how detached today’s parliamentarians are from the public. And what better way to connect with the ‘Facebook generation’ than getting them to participate online? Tim Montgomerie, editor of ConservativeHome, champions the proposals, arguing that there are a ‘huge number of issues now where the main political parties in parliament all think the same: Europe, the war in Afghanistan, prisons, climate change… There’s a whole range of issues where the public may have different views from the MPs but no mainstream party represents them. [Petitions would ensure that] parliament will no longer be as disconnected from the things that they worry about.’
Yet, despite the claims made for eDemocracy, the reality is somewhat different. Since its launch in 2006, the petitions website has done nothing to reconnect parliament with the concerns of the electorate. It seems unlikely, therefore, that a new coat of paint and a few extra gimmicks will suddenly enable it to solve the problem of public disengagement from parliamentary politics. Indeed, the very fact that the Lib-Cons seem willing to try to flog this dead horse once again reveals just how estranged they are from the public and the depth of the crisis of governance that the political elite is facing.
Devoid of any big ideas of their own, the government seems to have nowhere else to go but to trawl the online public sphere for ideas, doing the political equivalent of taking our pulse, hoping that there is more life in those sections of the population that use online petitions than there is in parliamentary circles.
Of course such trawling exercises are completely phoney. As the road-tax debacle showed, even if the pulse-taking exercise reveals a heartbeat, the government doesn’t really want to listen to us. As Montgomerie has pointed out, just because the public get their worries discussed in parliament that doesn’t mean anything will be done. But, ‘at least by it being debated people will feel their concerns are aired. Petitions that are soundly rejected like capital punishment probably won’t be raised again as people will realise that they are futile.’
So even if nothing comes of a petition, the argument runs, at least the electorate will have had their concerns aired and can feel like they’ve been acknowledged. It looks as if these petition-inspired debates in the Commons are likely to be little more than showpieces conducted by a smug political class aiming to show the bigoted masses why they are wrong and placate them just enough to stop them joining UKIP or the BNP.
Indeed, there are those who hold the public in such contempt that they oppose the exercise on the grounds that the only things proposed will be wacky, madcap initiatives. Leading the charge is Labour MP Paul Flynn. According to Flynn, the web – accessed by 60 per cent of the UK adult population every day – is ‘dominated by the obsessed and the fanatical… If we get the e-petitions in, there will be some asking for Jeremy Clarkson to be prime minister, for Jedi and Darth Vader to be the religions of the country.’
What could better typify the contempt of the political elite for the public? We are seen as incapable of taking ideas seriously and, if consulted, apparently we would only respond in a jokey fashion as if we have nothing better to do than lobby for our right to worship fictional characters from 1970s sci-fi movies. And if we’re not arguing for ‘Vader for God’, other critics reckon that we, the ignorant, reactionary masses, will instead sign petitions calling for ‘populist ideas’ like the castration of paedophiles, the return of hanging or the revival of National Service.
The revival of ePetitions by the Lib-Con government, and the reaction to it, show how far removed it is from the public. Far from bridging the gap, however, this initiative promises to make it wider still.
Patrick Hayes is a co-founder of the Institute of Ideas’ Current Affairs Forum and one of the organisers of the Battle of Ideas festival.
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