“The blogosphere is not an area that is open to sensible debate” – Labour MP dismisses online petition plans

Yesterday I mentioned the moves afoot to replace the mothballed 10 Downing Street petition website with a new system, whereby if 100,000 registered electors signed a petition a debate could be secured in Parliament.

Labour MP Paul Flynn has since poured scorn on the idea:

This seems to be an attractive idea to those who haven’t seen how useless this has been in other parts of the world when it’s tried.

If you ask people the question ‘do you want to pay less tax?’, they vote yes. If we get the e-petitions in there will be some asking for Jeremy Clarkson to be prime minister, for Jedi and Darth Vader to be the religions of the country.

The blogosphere is not an area that is open to sensible debate; it is dominated by the obsessed and the fanatical and we will get crazy ideas coming forward.

His comments are, however, very misplaced. Getting 100,000 online signatures is not a matter for bloggers only. Indeed, given the far greater power of large emails lists at getting individuals to take action, such a system would be far more about giving an opening to organisations that have or can built up large email lists of supporters than about individual bloggers.

Under this system bloggers will be by a small side-show; it will be far more about the likes of pressure groups, trade unions, charities and trade bodies.

Even so, Paul Flynn’s comment suggest his definition of “the blogosphere” is drawn very narrowly, for there is all sorts of open and sensible debate to be found on blogs. It is far harder to find in the comment threads of the most popular political blogs, certainly, but Parliament’s remit covers topics over a broad range that sees a wide range of both bloggers and online cultures prosper. Political bloggers would be but a small minority of the bloggers interested in many of the potential petitions.

Moreover, the popularity of some less than serious petitions on the old system simply reflects the less than serious way petitions were treated. 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.

Under the proposed petitions system would there still be a few weird, uncomfortable and even risible results? Quite possibly. But then electing MPs gave us Jeffrey Archer and Robert Maxwell, to name but two, and no-one is suggesting that is a reason to remove the public from the process of choosing MPs.

A better question is whether the allocation of Parliamentary time in a democracy should be retained solely in the hands of Parliamentarians. There have been some good moves, started under Labour and continued under this government, to give more powers to backbench MPs. That is very welcome, but it is a very narrow minded perspective to see the question of who has power over what in Parliament as simply being a matter of moving power between Parliamentarians.

Hat-tip for the Paul Flynn quote: Dominic Campbell

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  • Andrea Gill 29th Dec '10 - 2:15pm

    Didn’t the #10 online petition thing start under Labour (but never put into action?)

  • His choice of words could have been better, but all in all I have to agree with Paul Flynn. But his point is just a minor one. This is just political gimmickry. If we were to have a successful petition for the restoration of the death penalty, Parliament could not debate it. If we had a successful petition for the ascension to the throne to skip a generation, Parliament would refuse to debate it. The process will be so controlled and manipulated, that all it will just be a glorified lobbying vehicle.

  • Grant Williams 29th Dec '10 - 3:14pm

    Were it not for the fact that the 100,000 figure is for registered electors I would say that Mr Flynn definitely has a point. We also need to be wary of, for example, demands for the reinstatement of the death penalty (remember cases like Hanratty, Ruth Ellis et al?). The risk is that we end up with a nation of Sarah Palins, strong on soundbites, popular in a broad but shallow sense, without the thought and analysis of the consequences of pursuing particular policy directions.

    Remember dangerous dogs? At one time it seemed that some innocent toddler was being shredded by evil hounds every couple of hours. Whatever is the flavour of the moment risks becoming the debate of the moment.

    It is interesting in terms of allowing a relative minority to influence debate. Groups who cannot get MPs elected representing their point of view. That is a double edge sword, it may mean that little known groups, organisations or philosophies gain the oxygen of publicity, giving voices to those who may otherwise remain unheard.

    It is the framing of the boundaries that is important. I’m sure the BNP could get petitions of 100,000 electors for all sorts of distasteful measures, and whilst most fair minded people wouldn’t support legilsation pursuant to those views, it would nevertheless afford an opportunity for them to hijack the agenda.

    We don’t have a perfect democratic system in this country, but then who does? Democracy is, of course, less imperfect than its alternatives, but we do elect Members of Parliament to represent us, and expect them to do so based on a popular mandate.

    Perhaps with AV the role of the MP would be strengthened. Personally I would prefer STV, but if we are not careful, we may start a trend of emasculating our Parliamentarians and have X Factor style democracy.

    I do believe that MPs should be accessible and accountable. Peers have still a long way to go in that respect, which is why Lords Reform remains vitally important.

    Remember a petition to replace Gordon Brown with Jeremy Clarkson?

    On that bombshell, I’ll say goodbye…

  • Cheltenham Robin 29th Dec '10 - 3:15pm

    Well said Paul Flynn.

    Daily Telegraph readership about 600,00 per day. Wouldn’t take much for any established media to organise an online petition.

  • Keith Browning 29th Dec '10 - 4:09pm

    Well as most Telegraph readers still have milk delivered in bottles and think a dog licence is 7 and 6, I ‘m not sure they would be a suitable group for on-line anything.

    My on-line petition would make it illegal to be appointed as a politician, journalist or have any job in the media if your parents also had one of these occupations.

    Might clear the decks a bit for normal people – like Jeremy Clarkson (and me) to have a go.

    It also might make ‘Who do you think you are?’ a more interesting program – about real British people instead of a relentless stream of emigrant eastern europeans.

  • Is this the same Labour party that passed laws forcing local councils to have an petitioning system for things to be debated at full council

    Or is that another thing they have conveniently forgotten

    Sorry as a Cllr I get rather annoyed at MPs of all parties forcing rules on Cllrs that are more strict than any MP has to face.

  • This proposal, along with that to allow recall of MPs, and the election of Police Commissioners, seems to me to be designed to give more power to Rupert Murdoch, and if that is not the direct intention it will certainly have that effect.

  • This idea is all nutty fruit-cake and circuses and rates as even crazier than Cameron’s happiness index.

    One thing I do believe, if it ever gets the go ahead, is that it shouldn’t just be supporters of a petition that get to vote but those opposed should also be able to vote. This might actually keeps some sanity in the results but I am dubious about that even.

    The ease of a determined and organised group subverting any controls are so obvious. How are they going to check if you actually are the registered voter casting the vote – gawd they can’t get on top of postal vote fraud let alone run an internet system. Still if they brought back ID cards that could solve everything.


    Careful Lloyd, you seem to be going off-message I might need to report you to Cameron and enforcer Pickles 🙂

  • @EcoJon no please not enforcer Pickles – he’d eat me alive quite literally. lol

  • Stephen W – so Rupert Murdoch being able to manipulate public opinion by printing smears, half truths and lies in the 40% of the press he owns is democracy, is it?

  • TheContinentalOp 29th Dec '10 - 11:07pm

    It’s a daft gimmick which intends to distract us from the real issues. I’m only amazed New Labour didn’t come up with it first as it us right up their street.

  • @Stephen W

    You’re being a little high handed aren’t you? Can you tell me how this measure can increase democracy when it bypasses MPs, the local representatives of the electorate? This proposal appears to undermine the representative democratic system in the UK.

  • Cheltenham Robin 30th Dec '10 - 10:44am

    @ Stephen W

    So you would think it a good use of Parliament’s time and money to debate Keith’s idea to make it illegal to be appointed as a politician, journalist or have any job in the media if your parents also had one of these occupations.

  • Tony Dawson 30th Dec '10 - 5:46pm

    The idea is meaningless pap, a trivial diversion from the serious business which faces government today

  • @Olly

    I totally agree with you re the LP and the road it went down.

    As a retired journalist, socialist and long-time LP member/supporter I often feel that ‘the road’ wasn’t so much chosen but was seen by those advising Brown as the only alternative left open because the party had lost touch with its natural support. I think it was a desperate and ill-considered attempt to widen their voting ‘constituency’ to prevent electoral defeat.

    I draw a distinction between Blair and Brown on this because Blair wanted to be in bed with them to promote New Labour and embraced their support with enthusiasm. As he was never a socialist he didn’t realise that the class enemies hadn’t gone away – they were biding their time as they always do best.

    However, when it came to the crunch the LP’s natural support didn’t totally desert it – there is enough bedrock left to rebuild on and this will be helped the more that the Tories conduct their savage ideological cuts. Milliband will be key to that rebuilding and I have nailed my standard to his mast as he wasn’t my first choice – his brother was but I now realise that that, if not a mistake, wouldn’t have been the best choice.

    I always felt that we would probably end up in an informal coalition with the LibDems brought about by a communality of interest and that because of all the major changes in society we would be unlikely to see any one party able to command a working Parliamentary majority. This was an idea that I had been coming to well before the last election btw.

    But I now realise that was wishful thinking because I didn’t realise just how far to the right that a significant portion of the LibDems had moved to. I can only assume that this factor was well known to the pre and post election Labour Leadership and presented a serious block to any serious LibLab Coalition discussions. I genuinely believe that if Brown thought that such a coalition could be brought about then he would have stood aside but it is a given that it would not have worked with him as leader.

    However I think another major factor was the exhaustion of Labour Ministers – they had quite simply run out of steam and become bogged down in detail and I don’t mean micro-management for its own sake or even for political ones. They had lost the big vision, the type of vision possessed by those who gave us the NHS, the welfare and education systems and much more. A vision that goes way beyond Cameron’s ludicrous Big Society.

    We ended up trying to please every special interest group and lost sight of the priorities in the morass. The economic and banking crises didn’t help because it occupied so much time and energy of the top Ministers.

    On top of that I think there were some after the GE who thought this was the ideal time to step aside as no one had won the election. I happen to support that position and I do believe we can renew, rebuild and attract disaffected LibDem voters many of who previously voted Labour.

    Will that be enough to form a government – I don’t know and we have to see how the AV referendum goes. Will we want to go into a formal coalition with the LibDems – I don’t know. We forgave them helping bring down a previous Labour government but will we forgive what they are doing to the poor and disadvantaged in Britain in cahoots with the Tories – Again I don’t know and, in any case, will the public?

    There’s also the question of whither the LibDem Party by the next GE – I don’t think anyone can even attempt to honestly answer that at this moment of time.

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