Fintan Munnery

Naked Politics Blogger 

On Monday, Parliament debated whether or not to allow Donald Trump’s State Visit. Triggered by two petitions which between them received over 2.2 million signatures, many were optimistic that such a significant participation would provide meaningful debate and reconsideration. Our Brexit government talks of “carrying out the will of the people” yet when nearly two million of us call for his state visit to be blocked, we are met with, as Paul Flynn MP put it, “a manufactured civil servant briefing” from the government. The question then, is if one of the most signed petitions in history falls on deaf ears, is there any point in signing petitions in the first place?

E-petitions on the government website, provide an opportunity for debate if they receive 100,000 signatures. This may conjure up images of packed debates in the House of Commons chamber, but the reality is much different. Most petitions end up in front of a small group of MPs, whose only obligation is that they have “considered a petition”. As in the case of the Trump petition, there is a debate, a government minister tells the committee that there will be no reconsideration and the petition is consigned to parliamentary archives. There is no obligation on the government to change the law.

However, don’t lose hope, there are many other ways to be a “clicktivist”. In recent years, online petition sites such as 38 Degrees and have connected more people with the issues they care about than ever before. Topical, realistic petitions are promoted, yet these sites have an agenda to push (38 Degrees describes itself as “progressive” and, a for-profit company relies on donors buying “petition adverts” for revenue). Much as these websites claim to be championing good causes, the need for these sites to show off their success to gain further support, means the petitions they feature are inherently populist. Small victories are converted into big ones by the power of likes and retweets.

So where are we going wrong? One of the main problems with online petitions is that they’re too easy to sign. In the minutes it took you to read the last paragraph, you could have gone to the government’s website and signed a petition to allow vegans to opt out of paying certain taxes, visited and helped get Kylie Minogue to tour Belgrade, and hopped over to 38 Degrees to save theatres in North Devon. Compare the ease of online activism with traditional, in the street petitions, signed by hand and it becomes clear to see the value of each signature. Whilst I agree that democracy should be easy to participate in, online petitions have to separate genuinely passionate people from “slacktivists”, those who feel they are contributing to society with a few clicks and keystrokes.

Secondly, when it comes to online petitions, the ease of creating a petition means there are simply too many of them. On the government’s website since July 2015 there have been 68 petitions demanding a reduction in levels of immigration, 8 calling for lower tuition fees and 18 separate petitions calling for some kind of second EU referendum. The government’s petitions website is crowded with the same issues. This is where online campaign websites get it right; anyone is allowed to create a petition, but certain topical or interesting ones are featured. A way to reduce the number of wasted petitions would be to increase the required number of signatures before a petition goes public (currently, if you find yourself 5 friends you too can start a petition calling for lower tuition fees).

In a similar way, the ease of creating a petition means that often petitions do not properly address key issues, or any issue at all in some cases. One of the most popular petitions after the launch of the government’s new petitions website was one calling for a vote of no confidence in Jeremy Hunt, Health Secretary, something the petitions committee is not able to do. Yet this petition received over 200,000 signatures. The current petition against tuition fees, despite replacing adequate explanation with spelling errors, is on over 150,000. Populist, whimsical petitions make up far too many of the online petitions and get in the way of real action. Again, organised e-petition websites are able to counter this by selecting specific, focussed issues to promote. In other words, ones which have real prospect of success.

Online petitions make it easier than ever for people, especially young people, to participate in democracy. For anyone under 18, signing a petition online could be one of the first chances to engage in politics. But if you want this participation to lead to a dry three hour debate, sign a government petition, if you want a big media storm (and for to make a load of cash), use a petition website. But if you want real change, stop filling up my news feed and get out in the streets to make your real voice heard.

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Last Update: April 27, 2018