I still haven’t worked out in my own mind whether e-petitioning is on balance a useful tool or not. On the positive side, giving people greater say on issues that concern them, and reducing the barriers to their having their voices heard is exactly what we should be doing.
Similarly, the idea that people can have a contentious idea like banning immigration debated (even if rejected) might reduce belief in the inaccessibility of politics (and the impenetrable veil of silence on immigration, on which the tabloids report every day).
On the other hand, getting a hundred thousand people to sign an electronic form isn’t necessarily hard, if you have a media organisation or something similar behind you – do e-petitions produce anything more valuable than opinion polls? In fact, given the absence of a scale of dissenting voices, are you even getting the useful information of an opinion poll?
Here’s an example of what I mean from this morning. Guido Fawkes celebrated the e-petitions launch by beginning a campaign for the restoration of the death penalty. Let’s assume that, as Guido gets about sixty thousand readers a day, the hundred thousand signatures won’t be too hard to come by.
What will it tell us, and tell the Parliamentarians who have to then debate the issue?
That lots of people support the death penalty? We know that – most polls (though not all polls, as Guido claims) show that a little over half of people still support the death penalty, though the number has declined over the years.
That a hundred thousand people want hanging back enough to fill in an online form? What does that add to the knowledge that twenty-five million or so want it across the country?
And what if Parliament debates the issue and rejects it by a large margin (as happened in the ’80s and ’90s)? Will signers, and Guido, go away happy that the issue has been given a good airing in the democratic forum of the nation? Or will it just be used as another example of the perfidy of elected politicians in refusing to do what fifteen-hundredths of one percent of the Great British People tell them to do?
In which case, what’s the point?