e-Petitions: bad for democracy?

So, the Coalition have announced the return of the e-Petitions system previously in effect under Blair and Brown, with one clear change: petitions will be more readily be debated by Parliament. This is touted as a welcome change, where very few, if any, petitions under Labour actually changed government policy. The most notable one that did was a 2-million strong petition against the proposed system of road pricing in 2007, where Blair changed from “we support this” to “we still support it but we admit we’re not going to enforce it”. But with any sort of public consultation like this, it often falls by the wayside because of people being just uninformed on issues, such as a 250,000-strong petition to oppose a supposed “mega-mosque” in the London Borough of Newham that hadn’t even been proposed. And then there are the silly ones, like a 50,000-strong petition to make Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson the Prime Minister. Under the proposed rules, Parliament would probably have been forced to debate the latter two with a hard and fast rule of 100,000-supporters-means-debate-in-Parliament, wasting time that should’ve been spent passing actual laws.

The Coalition no doubt took cues from previous failures of direct democracy. For example, the failings of the Your Freedom website, where highly commented upon proposals were the repeal of the Human Rights Act 1998 and restoration of the death penalty (the latter outlawed by the former), and of course, withdrawal from the European Union. Three things that are pet crusades of the high-circulation tabloids such as the Sun, Mail, and Express, parroted by their readers with no sense of critical thinking, and actually not that popular even with their combined circulation of around five million. In several states in America, where direct democracy is already in action, the will of the public was quickly subverted by groups throwing money at the issue. $83million was spent during the Prop 8 campaign, more than any other ballot issue than the presidential election; it’s pretty clear that the public had less of a say in the system than people with money.

There is a vague mention of “eligibility” in this BBC news story as linked, but of what sort? Let’s say that the issues where Parliament has no real power, such as planning decisions, get declined with a note saying “Yeah, we can’t do that. Talk to your councillors.”  Even with this, there is going to be some uproar. But nothing in comparison to the uproar over a death penalty debate. Most likely, the first debate will involve one or more of the right-wing crusades as mentioned. There will be front pages, Littlejohn op-eds, and voodoo polls where the newspapers claim the common-sense population are on their side. Rejecting the petition will kill the process before it even starts. Voting it down will be disastrous, with the Press Harpies controlling the debate, opening the door for extremist parties such as the BNP.

This raises another point: at the last general election, the BNP polled 560,000 votes, a meager 2% of the votes. Only three candidates were able to break 10%. Even under proportional representation, they’d be unlikely to gain more than a dozen MPs (especially given as extremist parties tend not to attract transfers). But given that those who support the BNP are going to be more active for the party than the supporters of the Conservatives, Lib Dems, or Labour (as a result of the party’s more unified ideology bordering on cult-of-personality around Nick Griffin and his viewpoints), this means that it would not be that difficult for Griffin to abuse the process. While I agree that the BNP is entitled to some representation—indeed, he can show himself up to be a right tit in front of everyone like has been doing in Brussels and kill the party—the proposed system would probably give him more chance to have his proposals debated than the Lib Dems did all last Parliament!

However, I admit this post is in the worst case scenario: re-opening the Labour e-petitions system. What that showed us is that there needs to be democracy in the petitions system themselves. As Facebook readily shows, 100,000 supporting something is easy. Hell, “Flipping the pillow over to get to the cold side” has 4,500,000 people who like it. But any e-petitions system the government introduces, at the very least, needs to include the rating and comments section of Your Freedom. That way, popular ideas such as a review of drug policy (4.9/5) would get debated (if they don’t during the Great Repeal Bill debate), and the unpopular ones, such as bringing back the death penalty (1.8/5), would not get through. The system should also take measures against vote stuffing; one account per person on the electoral roll, perhaps?

And finally—this is somewhat off-topic—there needs to be better regulations on newspapers. Arguably, if newspapers were restricted from plain out lying (take, for example, any story the Sun/Express/Mail run on the EU), then the public would be more supportive of certain political viewpoints that have been marginalised due to their actions. The PCC should also be empowered with the ability to force retractions of egregious lying. There also needs to be some regulation of political advocacy akin to neutrality rules for television stations, but this is somewhat more difficult to reconcile with the concept of freedom of speech, especially as print media is not a limited resource like the television spectrum.

The issue of e-Petitions is going to be a double-edged sword for the Coalition to deal with, and I don’t think they’re going to do it justice. Still, empowering the voter is a good thing, as long as they can make sure that it’s the voter who is empowered.

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