BP, oil sands and democracy
Since we seem to be talking about democracy and voting, it's as well to remind ourselves of one of the great democratic deficits - which is the yawning gap between the owners of public companies and their managers.
As I've bored on about for some years, each of the millions of us saving for a pension own tiny slivers of almost every big stock-market company on the planet.
Yet we're the worst kind of absentee landlord: for most of us, it barely enters our consciousness that we have a financial interest in the performance of these businesses, and that we have a right - albeit of a slightly indirect kind - to boss them, especially when they're letting us down or taking dangerous risks.
The rarity of our interventions is understandable: if our pension funds own shares in BP or Marks & Spencer, for example, the shares are registered in the name of the funds; they're held in trust for our benefit.
So there's no right for each pension-fund member to vote those BP or M&S shares. But fund members do have the ability to put pressure on pension-fund trustees to instruct pension-fund managers to vote those shares according to their wishes.
If you belong to a pension fund, have you ever thought about the lever you possess to influence how big companies behave? Have you ever used that lever?
Because as I've described it, the process of transmitting your voice into the boardroom of a BP or an M&S seems rather long and convoluted.
But here's the thing. The internet is transforming these theoretical democratic rights to put pressure on boardrooms into something more real and practical: online social networking allows support for a campaign to build rapidly; web petitions are a powerful tool for communicating views to decision-makers.
Now it's no accident that I've been talking about BP, because that oil giant has been on the receiving end of a pensioner campaign that comes to a head on Thursday at its annual meeting.
Organised by Fair Pensions, the lobbying group for "responsible investment", the campaign raises concerns about the environmental risks of extracting oil from tar sands, which are a massive potential source of crude oil, much of it located in Canada and Venezuela.
Fair Pensions' attention has been directed in particular at the activities of BP and Shell in Alberta, Canada, where tar sands cover an area greater than the size of England and Wales.
For BP and Shell, the important point is that the proven reserves in Canada's tar sands are the world's second largest source of future oil after Saudi Arabia's more conventional reserves - which they feel that they can't ignore at a time when demand for energy shows no sign of easing.
For Fair Pensions, the more significant issues are that the greenhouse gas emissions that result from tar-sands extraction are higher than for normal oil production, that there is the potential for significant damage to forests and wildlife, and that there is a threat to the livelihoods of Alberta's indigenous First Nations communities.
What Fair Pensions wants is a report by BP's audit committee or a risk committee into the first tar sands project being developed by BP, a joint venture called Sunrise.
This report would set out the "the assumptions made by the company in deciding to proceed with the Sunrise Project regarding future carbon prices, oil price volatility, demand for oil, anticipated regulation of greenhouse gas emissions and legal and reputational risks arising from local environmental damage and impairment of traditional livelihoods".
Under Section 338 of the Companies Act, Fair Pensions succeeded in forcing BP to include a special resolution to that effect for this week's annual general meeting.
And it then used the internet to rally support to its cause from individual members of pension funds: on a special tar sands web page, it's easy for individuals to send a message to their respective pension funds, urging those funds to back the special resolution.
According to Fair Pensions, in the last six weeks over 5000 people have emailed pension providers, mostly UK providers. Legal and General, which is the largest investor of pension assets in the UK and the largest single shareholder in both BP and Shell, is said to have received 3000 of the emails.
Other pension funds and investors that have been sent the protesting emails are the University Superannuation Scheme, Friends Provident, the West Yorkshire Pension Fund, Prudential, Standard Life and Aviva.
It would be wrong to overstate the significance of this popular pressure: those 5,000 emailers are a tiny minority of the millions of pension-fund members.
And the chances are that the resolution will be lost, by a very wide margin.
BP is urging its investors to reject it, on the basis that it would be inappropriate for it to commission a special board report on a single project; British pension funds have a habit (which some would describe as lazy and unfortunate) of voting the way that the boards of their companies would wish.
That said, some of the biggest US pension funds, led by the enormous and influential CALPERS of California, are backing the resolution.
Also, BP has - in apparent response to the protesters' demands - provided quite a lot more relevant information about the Sunrise scheme, including the greenhouse gas emissions it expects, the steps being taken to engage with local communities, the cost of carbon it incorporates into its assessment of the viability of such projects, and its expectations for future oil prices.
In that sense, BP hasn't simply ignored "the little people" - although, arguably, BP's non-executive directors are taking something of a personal risk in not acceding to the protestors' demand for a more rigorous evaluation of what by any standards is a significant change in the company's energy strategy that is fraught with potential financial and reputational dangers.