Democracy, petitions and agendas

Last Thursday, the British government launched a new e-petitions site to replace the one that used to live at number10.gov.uk. The Guardian‘s report of this was headlined Death penalty could be debated in Commons after e-petition calls, and a surprisingly similar story was later printed in The Metro. At least the latter story had been printed after the launch of the site, and the journalist had done a little checking. The article made reference to the number of signatures on the petitions, which were failing to support the suggestion that “a groundswell of voters” support the return of capital punishment.

The Guardian story, by contrast, gave every appearance of being that laziest form of journalism, the recycling of press releases (often dubbed churnalism). I visited the site as soon as I read the story, to find that it was not yet live. A notice on the front page informed me that it was to be launched that day. Just a little endeavour on the part of The Guardian might have have led them to conclude (as I did) that there was no substance behind the headline. Since the site has been live, the most prominent Petition to retain the ban on Capital Punishment has had significantly more signatures than the top three petitions to restore it. As I type, the figures stand at 15,780 signatures against vs. 10,743 for. We shouldn’t be complacent about this, and I would encourage everybody to add their e-signatures to Martin Shapland’s petition, but as it is the hopes of “Guido Fawkes” seem to be fading.

A more interesting aspect of the story, though, are the words of the leader of the Commons:

Sir George Young warned that it would damage democracy to ignore strong opinions among members of the public “or pretend that their views do not exist”.

The government has, apparently, set a threshold of 100,000 signatures. Any petition passing this figure will go forward to the Backbench Business Committee, who will consider whether it gets debated in parliament. Clearly, George Young was hoping for a stream of reactionary petitions, that would give the government legitimacy to push through measures that are a Monday Club member’s wet dream. Here, they may have shot themselves in the foot.

On March 26th this year, between 250,000 and 500,000 people marched through London to protest against the government’s savage cuts to jobs and public services. If the trade union movement can get such numbers to travel from across the country, to make their voices heard, it should be an easy matter to get less than half that number to sign a petition online. Prominent petitions in defence of the NHS, against cuts, against tax avoidance could be propaganda victories against the Tories. Even if the petitions never get debated, business committee papers should be available, where they will have to give a reason.

However, all that assumes that the system is administered fairly. Will those (potentially embarrassing) petitions ever make it onto the site? It is instructive to look at those petitions that have been created on the NHS. It beggars belief that these petitions represent the true feeling of the British public on our health service:

  • NHS should not be free to all (19 signatures)
  • NHS Priority for Workers (8 signatures)
  • NHS Rules for eligability for free healthcare. (14 signatures)
  • Stop suing the NHS – an alternative petition with a solution (71 signatures)
  • STOP THE NHS’S DISCRIMINATION AGAINST ALZHEIMERS SUFFERERS! (45 signatures)
  • Opt-Out Organ Donor System (55 signatures)
  • Fine patients who fail to attend hospital/gp appointments without giving prior notice. (35 signatures)
  • (four petitions that were not really about the NHS have been omitted from this list)

I am sure there must have been petitions created on the site, calling on the government to withdraw the current Health and Social Care bill, and reverse the process of creeping privatisation that has led the NHS to its current crisis. In fact, I know there has, because I created one titled “Keep Our NHS Public”, yet I am still waiting for the promised email about this.

My petition may simply be stuck in a queue, alongside tens of thousands of others. Maybe the bias in the current petitions can be easily explained by the government inviting a few of their mates to create petitions for the launch day. Or maybe not. I’ll keep you informed…

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