E-Petitions: Democratically Giving Voice to Average Citizens, So Why the Controversy?


The Coalition seems to have finally entered post-modernity with the new e-petitions system launch and how controversial it has been. The system crashed on the first day with so many individuals excited at the prospect of finally achieving a voice. If 100,000 people sign a petition then as it stands this will be debated in parliament. However, as one would imagine, this has given a platform to some slightly radical ideas and the death penalty is the main idea being debated. So many people wished to bring back capital punishment (for at least some repeated offences) that many of these petitions have had to be put in the “rejected” category to remove duplication. In fact, the whole first page in the “rejected” category is full of just petitions regarding capital punishment.

If we ignore those controversial, head-line grabbing ideas we can fully examine many which have gained little attention. Some are clearly ridiculous in nature i.e. “public hanging for those that propose public hanging” whilst some could be deserving of serious consideration such as establishing a written, codified constitution for the UK.

The reason many are rebelling against this new system is because the UK has a representative system and is not a direct democracy. This new system will give a voice to many minority groups that are currently overlooked and if you have an idea which is believed in by others, this may be the easiest way to get it heard by policy decision-makers. However, many feel this is not a benefit and could actually damage our system. Yes, parliamentary time is limited and already stretched, but surely there is room for some more debates if they really are desired by the public?

One article by John Hyde gave a very pessimistic view of the e-petition option, describing it as “the great unwashed” being invited to submit ideas and even said it was a “Blue Peter Totaliser for nutters”. Whilst I disagree completely with this, his point that people have the right to vote at the ballot box every five years is valid and I, too, find the level of apathy that exists around this frustrating. I do, however, think the government should always be looking out for new ways to attract the involvement and interest of the general public.

One interesting detail is that the most popular petition (currently having over 20,000 signatures) was actually started by Robert Halfon MP. This poses the question of whether this will be a new campaigning tool for politicians, a way to generate interest in their ideas among their constituents and whether it will minimise the isolated feel that many individuals have between themselves and their parliamentary representative.

Whether this exercise can be categorised as a success can only be decided when it is seen how long a petition takes to get to the desired number of signatures and how many petitions reach this number. The regulators have been busy so far though and there are currently more pages of rejected petitions than there are pages of open petitions for signing. At least this means that those that do not meet the strict terms and conditions will not be wasting parliamentary time.

To date though, I am satisfied that the Coalition is giving the people more room to debate, voice opinions and have their say. I believe that we can maintain a representative democracy whilst still not just assuming how the public feels but instead offering them the chance to tell us in their own words, on their own terms. I look forward with anticipation to a petition gaining 100,000 signatures and I unashamedly signed two myself this morning – let us see if my signature, along with the others who have cared enough to click, really make a difference.

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Posted on August 9, 2011, in Coalition Government, Comment, Looking Forward and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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