Is 100,000 a big number?

Even I would concede that 100,000 maltesers would be quite a large number, but what about when it comes to signatures on a petition? The fear that all sorts of humorous and trivial ideas could get 100,000 verified signatures from people on the electoral register is one of the reasons some people have given for criticising the government’s plans to give proposals that get 100,000 signatures some debating time in Parliament.

I think those criticisms are misplaced because, as I said previously, “The usual tiny number of votes deliberate joke candidates get at election time (unless there is a serious point hiding under the joke) show that the public is quite capable of distinguishing between the serious and the frivolous as the context requires it”.

Maltesers (lots)Another piece of supporting evidence for this view is the record of the No.10 Downing Street petitions website when it was up and running. It allowed anyone to sign a petition with only minimal protection against multiple signatures and allowed people not on the electoral register to sign too. Although it was therefore easier to get 100,000 signatures on those petitions than it would be under the new proposals, the list of topics which got to 100,000 gives some idea of what topics and how many of them might make the cut.

The Downing Street petitions website ran for just over three years, during which time only eight petitions breached the 100,000 mark and they were:

  • Scrap the planned vehicle tracking and road pricing policy – 1,811,424
  • Create a new public holiday, the National Remembrance Holiday to commemorate The Fallen and our Nation, with the holiday falling on the second Monday in November each year, the day after Remembrance Sunday – 531,400
  • Allow the Red Arrows to Fly at the 2012 Olympics – 502,625
  • Reduce Fuel duty to bring fuel prices back to an acceptable level – 304,641
  • Abolish plans to build a £100 million mega Mosque 281,882
  • Fuel duty reduction, now VAT has increased to 17.5%, please deduct the duty which was levied when VAT was reduced to 15% 170,378
  • Ensure that inheritance tax is scrapped in this year’s Budget – 128,622
  • Create a dedicated Military & Veterans Hospital within the UK – 113,979

What to make of those eight? Most importantly, there were only eight. Also, the topics chosen are all pretty good choices for what Parliament should spend time on – caring for the armed forces, debating tax types and rates and so on. None are of the comic or frivolous variety, though one (the Red Arrows) was based on an urban myth – one that was widely reported elsewhere, so even in that case, flushing out the myth in the glare of publicity does no harm. Another (the mosque) may make many liberal feel uncomfortable, but setting the Parliamentary agenda simply on the basis of what topics are liberal is hardly a democratic approach.

Compared to the sort of topics that many MPs choose for Westminster Hall debates or even early day motions (they do not get debated, but are a form of MP petition), it is a list that makes the public’s choice of topics look no worse than the choices MPs have made themselves.

Of course the past is not a certain guide to the future, but this is another piece of evidence which casts doubt on glib assumptions expressed with utter certainty that a 100,000 threshold would somehow obviously see the silly or trivial rise to the top.

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15 Comments

  • Anyone who says that the public are the source of ‘wasted time in the house’ and ‘frivolity’ should read EDM 1255 from Tony Banks, made on the 21st of May, 2004.

    “That this House is appalled, but barely surprised, at the revelations in M15 files regarding the bizarre and inhumane proposals to use pigeons as flying bombs; recognises the important and live-saving role of carrier pigeons in two world wars and wonders at the lack of gratitude towards these gentle creatures; and believes that humans represent the most obscene, perverted, cruel, uncivilised and lethal species ever to inhabit the planet and looks forward to the day when the inevitable asteroid slams into the earth and wipes them out thus giving nature the opportunity to start again.”

    It got 3 signatures, including his own.

    While some of us may agree with his conclusion, for other reasons as well as the one named, is it really worth spending parliamentary time on this? How does the country, or even his constituents, benefit from his actions?

  • @Jackyboy86

    Perhaps the pigeons in his constituency were reassured to know how their MP felt. I always remember as a 7 year old when my tortoise died and I asked the priest if he would go to heaven and was told ‘of course not he’s not got a soul’. When I asked how the priest knew that when he’d never met him he changed direction slightly and said there wouldn’t be enough room in heaven if you let pets and animals in. I decided more or less there and then that Heaven didn’t sound much fun and I suppose my journey to the ‘other place’ began way back then :)

    However, I digress.

    @Mark Pack

    I think something you are missing Mark is that anyone with any sense realised the Downing Street site was a waste of time although it is interesting that 4 of the 8 relate directly to financial self-interest.

    The two referring to the military hospital and the new public holiday may just be a genuine general expression of support for our armed forces or it might point to an organised machine behind the petitions. Also possible that the extra public holiday should be added to the self-interest pile.

    And then the Mosque – well I wonder how many locals were on the petition for genuine planning concerns or perceived housing blight and how many were further afield and driven by other more dangerous ‘isms’ than localism. So should ‘local’ issue petitions be restricted to the relevant constituency.

    From what you say the Red Arrows is a red herring so I make no comment on that one.

    We all know that no matter how many sigs are obtained that there are taboo subjects that will never be discussed in Parly. However, unlike the Downing St Petition there is a ‘prize’ to be won under this proposal by special interest groups havong their ‘issue’ debated in Parly and no doubt a whole new industry of net petition lobbyists will spring into existance.

    Perhaps the biggest threat to Democracy is that no one is talking about allowing the public to vote proposals down while they are still on the internet. A simple mechanism to allow NO votes to be deducted from the 100K target would be ideally suited to the internet and some of the negative votes might be an interesting study.

    Of course even if a petition makes it to Westminster how can they find the time to debate it as the current system would need to be radically altered with longer sittings, less holidays and changes to procedures to talk-out private member bills as is commond at the moment.

    Of course pehaps when Clegg destroys ‘the other place’ as a revising chamber through elected members we could let them use their new power by handing the internet petition bills to them and, if passed, send it to the Commons for revision. Now that would be worth seeing :)

  • 100,000 is a small number, and I think you are silly if you don’t think that it would not be abused.

    Imagine the debates, that just the irate students could force, never mind the viral campaigns you would have to deal with, I can remember C4 and big brother and the viewer protests, all the emails that were sent, but just imagine all those wanting to be heard, all very important to them.

    Or were you thinking of picking and choosing which to debate, if so, where is the democracy there, the one with the most gets debated… hmm see above

  • It’s a minuscule number, about 0.3% of the number of people who bothered to vote in May.

    Compare that to thresholds in the US (granted, that is for laws, not debates, but still).

    Some random states:

    Missouri- 5%
    Oregon- 6%
    California- 5%
    Arkansas- 8%

    I’m not sure it needs it be that high, for what will amount to a nothing 2 hour debate on a Thursday afternoon. but 0.3% seems a very very low bar.

  • The ability to sign but no ability to vote “NO”, while being slightly undemocratic, will allow unpopular minorities to present their case.

  • @Rich

    The ‘unpopular’ minorities you refer to have the advantage of pre-planning and mobilising their support and then launching their petition with argument to bolster their case. I think it highly undemocratic for those opposed not to be allowed to express their opinion or are you saying that Democracy can only be served by Parliamentary Debate and not that of ordinary citizens?

    @Mark Pack – I certainly do believe that media coverage can be useful to campaigns and it can destroy them as well. Someone mentioned the students and that would be a classic with millions of names. Nick Clegg avoided Aaron Porters repeated demands to debate tuition fees in public with him – so maybe this is a good idea or would we bar any petitions that Parliament had already debated?

  • What worries me about this proposal is that it will do nothing to actually create real participation and thus strengthen democracy. It is also wide open to abuse and being skewed by the media and others.

    People who have genuine concerns will end up getting brassed-off because this go go nowhere – whose time will be used for debate – government or back bench. Who will sponsor the bill and prepare it. Will they all be treated as matter of conscience voting or will three line whipping apply. Get down the BDSM lobby – not that kind of whipping :)

    Forget the old Downing Street site – what have been the size on real online petitions on facebool/twitter and the likes and what were the petitions.

    How do you check that it is the actual registered voter who is casting an electronic vote – I don’t think there’s an existing mechanism for that and quite honestly even in good times it would be a waste of public money to provide it.

    It reminds me a bit like Telly news who ask people to get in touch and air their views – what that is all about, as only a few c omments are ever used, is actually to build a habit of responding to news items so that when anything actually newsworthy happens then people will send in video clips by phone or give eye-witness accounts. A totally hidden agenda – nobody cares about what joe bloggs has to say but if joe bloggs can supply exclusive news coverage – possibly with an actual media value of thousands of pounds – for free and beat the opposition well that’s a truly different story.

    After Joe Bloggs wakes up and realises how stupid they’ve been well they can feel good about the thanks they’ve had from the news provider but usually they don’t get a brass halfpenny.

  • 100,000 seems too high, in my opinion.

    Consider all the drama and backlash regarding the Digital Economy Act – only 30,000 signed that petition.

  • Tom Papworth 3rd Jan '11 - 2:18am

    “The usual tiny number of votes deliberate joke candidates get at election time (unless there is a serious point hiding under the joke) show that the public is quite capable of distinguishing between the serious and the frivolous as the context requires it”

    This is a false analogy, Mark. At elections one only gets a single vote and one must choose whether to waste it on Lord Dustbinhead or use it to shape how the country is run. On the No. 10 website, I am not prevented from signing a petition supporting the introduction of road-user charging simply because I have also signed one calling for Gold by Spandau Ballet to replace God Save The Queen as the national anthem. (That was a real petition, btw!).

  • Andrew Suffield 3rd Jan '11 - 7:45am

    To be fair, we all very quickly learned that the outcome of a petition on that website gaining a large number of signatures was that the government would send an insulting email to all of them which said they were all wrong.

    This probably reduced interest a fair bit.

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