E-petitions: democracy in action, or a waste of time?

In the United Kingdom, anyone who can gather 100,000 signatures in support of an online petition can have that petition debated in parliament, under a new scheme introduced yesterday. So how worthwhile are the petitions entered so far that you might choose to support? Well, at the time of writing the first petition that comes up on the site, introduced by one Joseph Blurton, asks of the House of Commons: ‘Don’t listen to idiots signing e-petitions’. The proposer elaborates as follows: ‘We, the people, are idiots. Please, for pity’s sake, ignore us more often.’  In fact, about a quarter of the petitions showing up on the first page relate to the framework of e-petitions, a curious characteristic of the system.

When you look at the petitions that have so far gathered the most signatures, they relate either to capital punishment (both for and against) and EU membership (mainly against). Another reasonably well supported one asks that we should ‘make prison mean’, the proposer of which (Katie Wallace) elaborates:

‘I think that Prison should mean exactly that. It is defined as a place in which people are physically confined and, usually, deprived of a range of personal freedoms. To give such luxuries as gyms and time out for good behaviour is obviously not working so lets go back to the good old days of just bread and water. Will cost you and I alot less and will be a deterrent for people wishing to commit crime.’

E-petitions are not unique to the UK, nor indeed within it. Scotland also has an e-petition system, and currently open petitions can be found here. They are in general rather different from the UK-wide ones, sometimes local in intent, but with far fewer ones focusing on what one might describe as conservative impulses.

So how should we evaluate all this? Is Mr Blurton right, that this is just an outlet for ‘idiots’? Or is there a democratic purpose to the whole thing? We live is a representative democracy, in which we do not ask the people to direct specific policy initiatives, but where they are invited to elect politicians who will do so. Do e-petitions subvert that principle? Or are they useful guides for the politicians? Or are they just a kind of democracy wall on which people jot down some graffiti that enables them to get things off their chest?

The test will come, perhaps, when someone manages to collect so many signatures in support of capital punishment that politicians come under pressure. When that happens, if it does, I may finally conclude that this is not a good idea.

Explore posts in the same categories: politics, society

Tags:

You can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.

10 Comments on “E-petitions: democracy in action, or a waste of time?”

  1. ricky connolly Says:

    “The test will come, perhaps, when someone manages to collect so many signatures in support of capital punishment that politicians come under pressure. When that happens, if it does, I may finally conclude that this is not a good idea.”

    Why is it that you claim you would cease to support democracy when the government is forced to debate a proposal that obviously matters to a large number of citizens?
    It is strange that you would make such an obviously objectionable objectionable statement with no further exploration or reasoning.


    • Ricky, that really depends on whether you believe that what the majority wants must always be delivered in a working democracy. I don’t. If I am wrong, then a popular demand for the persecution of a minority, say, would place an obligation on government to act accordingly.

      I believe that capital punishment is morally reprehensible, and I won’t change my mind because someone tells me the majority of people want it.

      • ricky connolly Says:

        But you wouldn’t allow the ethical, moral and legal aspects of this proposal to even be debated in parliament.
        In other words, you have made up your mind on this issue, and you have decided that not only are *you* closed to debate and argument, but that society should be too.


        • Parliament can debate whatever it wants, though I hope they would retain the sense of moral seriousness that has always been the hallmark of debates on this subject. What I am against is the idea that citizens are encouraged to think they can bring about the reintroduction of capital punishment in this way – or any other measures that might be, say, racist, violent, discriminatory, aggressive, intolerant.

  2. Biocote Says:

    Lots of questions and very few answers. I’d ike to think that there is huge potential here, and why should the voice of the voting masses not be heard directly by gov, rather than going through the tired old lines that never reach anyone, unless they are worthy of a headline.

    Options for Wales below:

    http://oneeyeonwales.blogspot.com/2011/08/e-petition-to-welsh-freedom.html


  3. Dear friendly idiot,

    I enjoyed your post and heartily agree. I have tried to elaborate here:

    http://shrubhill.blogspot.com/2011/08/dont-listen-to-idiots-signing-e.html

    Yours,

    Joseph Blurton (with pretentious pen-name).

  4. Anna Notaro Says:

    *Or are they just a kind of democracy wall on which people jot down some graffiti that enables them to get things off their chest?* this makes me think of some great examples of graffiti on the walls of Pompei, Roman emperors/senators used to take such graphic expressions very seriously as far as political consensus was concerned, but the wisest among them knew that following the will of the crowd was not always the best course of action for the common good…

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      must be me but I’m not sure what you mean, mine was just a comment based on a simple cultural association since graffiti as an artistic/cultural practice has a history as long as humanity itself….for me the Pompei examples have a particular resonance and familiarity…that is all..


  5. in Ireland, if we want uninformed opinion we just turn on the Joe Duffy show.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: