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Of petitions and parliament: whither democracy?

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Robin Lustig | 11:02 UK time, Friday, 5 August 2011

Democracy's a funny old thing, isn't it?

In the over-quoted words of the over-quoted Winston Churchill: "No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

So I wonder what you make of the government's relaunched attempt to encourage more of us to play a direct part in the democratic process by signing online petitions which could - note that word "could" - lead to a debate in the House of Commons.

Here's how it's meant to work: first, create your petition (the relevant website is here.) There are, of course, certain rules that have to be obeyed. Jokes, nonsense, anything libellous or offensive - not allowed.

So, presumably, no more petitions like the one three years ago, signed by nearly 50,000 people who wanted Jeremy Clarkson to be made prime minister. (He is a TV presenter, m'Lud, apparently well-known for his love of motor cars.)

Second, wait for 100,000 people to sign it. That's about 0.2 per cent of the 46 million people who are entitled to vote in the UK. Everyone who signs has to provide an email address, but I'm not sure how they'll stop people creating multiple addresses and signing up more than once.

Then, if you've got that far, and if you haven't broken any rules, your petition will be considered by the Backbench Business Committee of the House of Commons. If they like it, they'll schedule it for debate.

And then ... ah, funny you should ask.

Because if you've ever tried to follow the progress of a parliamentary proposal, you'll know that unless it has government support, it doesn't get very far. In fact, it doesn't get anywhere at all. In the words of the old saying: "You can have your say, but the government will have its way."

As of midnight last night, incidentally, it was the anti-capital punishment petitions that were in the clear lead, with about 7,300 signatures, compared to around 4,500 signatures on the pro-capital punishment side.

Other popular demands were: keep Formula 1 racing on free-to-air TV (3,800); withdraw from the EU (3,500); and legalise cannabis (1,200).

At the other end of the scale, a proposal that the UK should switch from driving on the left to driving on the right had managed to acquire only 11 supporters.

But suppose, in a few weeks' time, more than 100,000 people have signed up for the restoration of capital punishment - or for the UK to withdraw from the European Union. Suppose the Commons committee decides it's a proper subject for debate. And suppose a handful of MPs turn up for the debate, and most of them argue in favour of the petition.

The Leader of the House of Commons, Sir George Young, wrote in the Daily Mail this week: "If politicians want to regain the trust of the public, then they need to trust the public. Giving people more power is the right place to start."

But you could argue that a mechanism for triggering a parliamentary debate is not necessarily the same as "giving people more power."

Because what happens if after the debate, the government does precisely nothing? The Conservative MP Louise Mensch wrote yesterday: "The death penalty is interesting in terms of representative democracy versus referendums. I would not vote for it if 100 per cent of the public were for it."

So are the petitions going to usher in a bright new über-democratic dawn? Will MPs obediently follow the expressed wish of 0.2 per cent of the electorate? Or will they follow Ms Mensch's example and use their own judgement when it comes to voting on tricky issues?

And if they do ignore the views of the petitioners, will trust in our political system have been enhanced - or reduced?

Perhaps the very act of organising or signing a petition will in itself represent a welcome advance.

On the other hand, if you think it's all nonsense, you'll be pleased to know there are already petitions up and running to demand the ending of petitions.


  • Comment number 1.

    This is total nonsense, just as the previous regime's "Peoples' Panels" were.

    We cannot say we live in a democracy when so many do not participate. Legitimacy is zero.

    If Plato was correct we are in big trouble.
    One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.

  • Comment number 2.

    1. There has never been a democracy in any country that I know about. There is a thing called plutocracy: rule by the wealthy for the wealthy where people are allowed to vote for one wealthy person over another wealthy person. This type of Govt - because wealth is so important - could also be called Plutolobbyism.
    2. Plutocracy is the worst sort of govt. I am all for professional govt where elected persons get to keep their jobs for life, or until retirement (or more likely mischief e.g. claiming expense claims that never got expended) gets them fired, and therefore an election must be called for that particular seat.
    3. A major step towards democracy could be the elimination of the wealth factor by eliminating election expenditures, bribes (aka donations) and paying persons to run, which would mean a person born to a log cabin would indeed have some little chance of becoming PM.

  • Comment number 3.

    1. No online petition goes anywhere or will go anywhere because the interests of the wealthy are normally totally different from the interests of the non-wealthy, and the wealthy are too preoccupied with legislation that can make them wealthier (usually on the backs of taxpayers).
    2. Most working persons have little time to be reading rules and creating petitions. Even if one were to make it through the time factor, there is also the issue of literacy, making oneself clearly understood, and then, of course, waiting for 100,000 to create time to read the petition and sign it - likely having misunderstood the petition.
    3. The petition goes to Backbench Business Committee of the House of Commons, members of the plutocracy the interests of whom are highly unlikely to correspond to the penitent. Old saying: "You can have your say, but the government will have its way."

  • Comment number 4.

    There is already at least one newspaper (that I didn't have to look to far to find) that has used this new democratic tool to influence petition participation - likely sell newspapers too. The petition: EU membership. The paper even provides the email address where you can sign up.
    Mark Seddon, of the People’s Pledge campaign for an EU referendum, said last night: "Congratulations to the Daily Express – and to the thousands of readers who have already signed the national petition demanding a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. "
    So, I suppose this means, if you can get a public medium to support your petition, you may be able to shoot towards 100,000 rather quickly, or it may mean that that media petitions will literally swamp those Backbenchers. Old saying (Marshall McLuhan) "The medium is the message."

  • Comment number 5.

    Politicians will do anything when corruption is the primary issue. Doesn't matter if "the people" get this or that" as long as the big boys hold sway on the major decisions. Until some distance is regulated between banking/financial services and big business and the government, nothing will change. Legalizing drugs may help as one needs to be in some altered state to listen to the babble of the political and economists as they steal from the people to protect the wealth of the wealthy. It is not the political system, it is the corruption of that system.

  • Comment number 6.

    London´s Burning,
    London´s Burning.

    "So I wonder what you make of the government's relaunched attempt to encourage more of us to play a direct part in the democratic process---"

    Robin, ---- Your question has obviously been quickly answered.

  • Comment number 7.

    Democracy’s a funny thing, yes, it is after exclaiming to the world you own it.

    I fail to under stand how a demonstration at Tottenham Police Station concerning robust but justifiable police law enforcement action degenerated into a multi-city riotous mayhem. Is this a failure in democracy or what?

    It seems the aggrieved cannot participate in, and find satisfaction in ‘peaceful democratic forums’. Petitions are just so ‘slow motion’ to nowhere.

  • Comment number 8.

    With Churchill being fed with a ´silver spoon in his mouth´ such praising statements on ´British democracy´ --is hardly admirable and was intended to uphold the status-quo of the British elite and the ´Empire´.

    With (still) --Her Majesty´s -- government, Armed Forces, Police and Law Courts the oath of Allegiance required--


    -- There is no requirement to make ANY political decisions in the interest of the ´Subjects´ or ´Serfs´ ---

    "--Because if you've ever tried to follow the progress of a parliamentary proposal, you'll know that unless it has government support, it doesn't get very far. In fact, it doesn't get anywhere at all. In the words of the old saying: "You can have your say, but the government will have its way."

    --- and the ´System´ has already made clear where its Allegiances reside !

    A ´Democratic system´ which began (and still continues) with ´loaded dice´against its population --has nothing to do with ANYTHING ´Democratic´.

    The INTENTIONAL conflict of interests within the British society caused both the ´rise and fall´ of its Colonial Empire ---and its society. The class and wealth divisions have not changed. Those at the bottom (and higher) have no future --any work for them is low paid and temporary --especially for the young --and the previous ´escape routes´ to the Colonies are closed.

    With Her Majesty´s Police force in action, Her Majesty´s Law Courts prepared and calls for Her Majesty´s Armed Forces to quell the present riots --- What´s new ?

    As we have seen around the World, few power systems willingly change and then they blame their ´ungrateful Serfs´ who dare to question or revolt.


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