Opinion: Overplaying the power of the “people’s petitions”

The e-petition mechanism to allow a new public petition service has gone live and media coverage about its merit and importance has gone mad. Let’s not over-emphasise the significance of this move and let’s not downplay the power of solid, rational argument.

I disagree with Sir George Young: this won’t give the public a megaphone as such and to say that it will is an exaggeration. What it may do is potentially provoke debate on contentious topics for which Parliament at present has neither the political will, nor the time, to dedicate to matters such as capital punishment, abortion, civil liberties etc.

This move is, in effect, a statement by the Government that more parliamentary time could be dedicated to topics of which there is strong interest. The Government has said that public petitions which secure the backing of 100,000 signatures will be eligible for debate in Parliament. It does not mean an introduction of direct democracy, whereby with 100,000 supporters on an issue we will change legislation. It is clear that the Government’s motivation is to appear more responsive to the public, not devolve law-making powers.

Ironically, it is likely that the mechanism will be used to raise issues which are of peripheral concern to most people. As a result, I don’t think that MPs will get overly exercised over this and we are likely to see flowery and contentious debates rather than legislation as a result of any successful petitions. MPs will rightly say that the issues they hear about on the doorstep are the economy, jobs, health and education. In contrast, issues of ‘conscience’ such as, capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia are issues that arouse passion at a national level, usually at the instigation of a tabloid media campaign, but do not generally lead to a substantial investment of political capital. Such issues do not tend define a political career or an era; David Davis’ stand for civil liberties being one notable exception.

On the issue of substance, whether we feel the topics raised should be at the forefront of parliamentary debate or not, we should not fear debating any issue. I remain convinced that on issues of moral conviction, most of our parliamentarians, are open to arguments that go against a simple, populist line.

One point of concern that I do have, and we can see it from the campaign by Guido Fawkes et al for the reinstatement of capital punishment, is that this will be used as a lobbying tool by the right-wing press. If this is the case, then let’s have the debate. We should relish the chance to dismiss the flimsy arguments in favour of our liberal, democratic approach and we should be confident that by sheer force of argument we will win.

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5 Comments

  • James Fearnley 5th Aug '11 - 1:49pm

    I think that is a good way of summing it up: it provides the potential for interest debate but let’s not think it shifts power or is likely to change the focus of our politics.

  • Jedibeeftrix/
    I think the difference is that there barely is a left-wing press and the left generally speaking is perceived as out-of step with the great unwashed. Also there isn’t a left of centre government at the moment. Though to be fair there is a danger from the preachy wing of the illiberal Left and the belief that people need protecting from unhealthy vices, urges and interests. But then again this is also applicable to certain strains of conservatism because they both attract busy bodies.
    Maybe we could start a people’s petition to curb the power of lobby groups and busy bodies? I actually think it would be pretty popular.

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