Are petitions fit for purpose?

In which Stuart Bourne ponders just how effective petitions can be as a means of campaigning..

Whether someone annoying you in the street with a clipboard in hand, or the image of a cart of signatures being wheeled to the doors of Downing Street, petitions can mean a lot to different people. They have always formed a link between public opinion and the government since medieval times. The greatest of these was the People’s Charter, the petition from the 19th Century Chartists movement that led us towards universal suffrage and modern democracy. The digital age has now revolutionised the petition, but has this led to more effective democracy or a simple distraction from real power.

At the moment, there are two major ways of creating an online petition in the UK. The first is to use one of the private websites. The most famous being Change.org. On the site, anyone can set up a petition on any subject, whether you’re trying to save your local scout hut or change government policy on fracking. Then you can either let the website promote it, or more often than not you promote it yourself through social media. It’s hard to judge their effectiveness, especially with some of the smaller petitions, as there is no real information on all of their outcomes. However, the Change.org do promote many notable victories. Two years ago, a petition was set up to request the government to have a dedicated minister responsible for suicide prevention. After 392,718 signatures, Thersea May appointed a Minster for Suicide. Three years ago there was a petition setup by the mother of Alfie, who wanted the NHS to issue medical cannabis. After 717,955 signatures the law was changed and you can now apply for a license for the use of medical cannabis. There are also some notable failures, a petition to put pressure on Iran to free Nazanin Ratcliffe has gathered 2.7 million signatures so far, but she is still being held.

The other main form of online petition is run by the Houses of Parliament. Started in 2011, any member of the public can submit a petition on their website. If it gathers over 10,000 signatures the government has to respond, and if it gathers over 100,000 then it may then be considered for discussion in parliament. Now I know what you are thinking, ‘Wow, democracy in action! Power to the people!’ But obviously this being politics, it’s not as simple as that. Firstly, if you get the 10,000 for a response, it may not be a positive one. Secondly, if you get the magic 100,000, the committee may not give it time to be discussed in parliament. And finally, if you even get debate time, there is no reason why the government has do anything about it. 

As a little test, let’s look at the five petitions from the previous parliament that received the highest number of signatures. I have taken all the petitions regarding Brexit out, including the recorded breaking ‘Revoke Article 50’ petition that received 6.1 million signatures. There is no reason why we should make this anymore contentious.

Title Signatures Government Response Debated
Ban all ISIS members from returning to UK 598254 British citizenship can be removed if it does not render the individual stateless. Any risk posed by those who return from Syria will be managed and they may be investigated for criminal offences. 18/3/2019
Make ‘netting’ hedgerows to prevent birds from nesting a criminal offence. 365508
Causing suffering to birds is already criminal. Planning authorities have enforceable powers to protect bird habitats and will soon be able to mandate that developers provide biodiversity net gain. 13/5/2019
Ban the sale of fireworks to the public. Displays for licenced venues only. 307897 Government takes the issue of safety of fireworks very seriously. Legislation is in place to control their sale, use and misuse. We have no plans to change legislation. 26/11/2018
Ban fireworks for general sale to the public. 305579 The Government takes the matter of fireworks safety seriously. This includes protecting consumers and the public. Laws are in place to control firework availability and use. Waiting for Committee decision
Put pressure on Libya to take action to stop enslavement of Black Africans. 269157 The Government shares the public’s outrage and welcomes the Libyan government’s commitment to investigate these reports and to ensure that those involved are brought to justice. 13/12/2017

Now even if you don’t agree with the issues in them, it’s fair to say they are all a reasonable demand from a segment of the British public. However, we can all see that the government responses were all slightly dismissive and I’m not aware of any further action was taken in any of them. This is not a lone example, an article in the New Statesmen in 2017 said that of the ten campaigns with the most signatures in 2016, four were denied a debate and none of them produced a clear victory. Many other commentators say that are simply a gimmick, and the whole scheme is a waste of parliament’s time.

So where does that leave this new age of digital democracy. Well a petition is only a manifestation of public opinion, and the fundamental weapon of the public is its power to vote. And governments tend to listen if they believe the public will then change how they vote. This means that you have to link the petition to a much larger and wider campaign. The victories with the Change.org petitions was where they had support from other forms of media, possibly swaying the opinion of large numbers of people, and creating greater pressure for their issue to be heard. Therefore a petition cannot be allowed to be a campaign in itself, just merely one of many tools at their disposal. 

So next time you’re stopped in the street by someone with a clipboard, you might want to mention that there is an easier way.

Stuart Bourne became politically active in 2005, helping to re-elect the Chatham & Aylesford MP Jonathan Shaw. He became the branch secretary for Chatham Labour Party, and stood as a Labour candidate for the local council elections in 2007 and 2011. He moved away from Medway in 2012, but has now moved back as a Liberal Democrat.

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