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.
Tags: e-petitionsYou can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.