There follows a guest post by Dr. David Seedhouse, Honorary Professor of Deliberative Practice at Aston University, who says the public are being fobbed off with a Government petition website that never brings about any change.
For the last year I have run a website promoting participatory democracy: Our Decision Too. We have a small group of loyal supporters on the site who debate topical issues, providing examples of how citizens might be involved in direct decision-making, were we to have the opportunity. One of our members, concerned about the one-eyed mainstream media framing of the Ukraine-Russian conflict, asked if we might create a petition on the Government petitions site. Her original suggestion was:
We request that the House of Commons holds a full, emergency debate on the Government’s policy on the war in Ukraine. The war in Ukraine is a complex issue, not a simple matter of Russia = bad, Ukraine and the West = good.
While any U.K. citizen can start a petition, only 80 characters are allowed in the title so we agreed this version: “Debate the history of Ukraine-Russian relations to inform U.K. policy.”
The petition was rejected on the ground that it was “not clear what the petition is asking the U.K. Government or Parliament to do”. Apparently, one of the rules is that petitions need to call for a specific action and it seems a debate doesn’t qualify. So we had another go: “Hold a referendum on sending deadly weapons to Ukraine.”
This time the petition was published, but it was an edited version, altered without permission to this: “Hold a referendum on sending deadly offensive weapons to Ukraine.”
I received no explanation and have no opportunity to challenge the Government’s amendment since its email address is a ‘no reply’ address.
Were I able to, I would tell the Government:
- Adding ‘offensive’ significantly changes the meaning of the petition, implying that ‘defensive’ weapons (whatever these are) are acceptable.
- My name is now associated with a statement that I didn’t write and do not believe. I believe the Government should not fund any weapons to Ukraine without the informed consent of U.K. citizens.
A little digging reveals a depressing picture. Almost 40,000 petitions have been posted, three quarters of which have been rejected outright. The House of Commons has debated 126 and responded to 658, though the comebacks are largely bland and non-committal. Sometimes the Government claims to be doing what the petition asks already or makes blatant value judgements without apology. For example, the petition “make parking at work permanently free for all NHS workers” prompted this retort:
Free hospital parking for NHS staff was a time-limited measure during the pandemic. It is right to end this now as we learn to live with the virus. Free parking for staff working overnight remains.
While it is a relief to learn that the pandemic is officially over, there is an unmistakable sense of a jaded schoolteacher reprimanding a recalcitrant pupil, “Not again Jamieson, how many times do I have to tell you I make the decisions around here?”
In fact none of the 40,000 petitions have succeeded in bringing about their desired change. As Amelia Tait reports in the New Statesman: “Despite accumulating millions of signatures and hundreds of thousands of shares, not a single one of these campaigns succeeded in obtaining its intended outcome.”
The Government argues that petitions have occasionally been a catalyst for policy change, but can point to just four rather slight examples. Even granting these, a success rate of 0.01% is hardly an example of productive public engagement.
So why bother with a Government petitions website at all? If you are going to prohibit most submissions from the get-go, fob off almost all that do pass scrutiny with a vacuous response, and even change the wording of some without consent, is it really worth the effort?
I can only guess why the Government continues to run its weird petitions site but suspect that it is partly self-delusion and partly deliberate subterfuge. By running a website open to any U.K. citizen the Government reinforces its own myth that it really does believe in democracy. At the same time, by minutely managing what is allowed, it runs no risk of any group of citizens actually exercising what should be a basic democratic right – asking the Government to represent the will of the people.
Of course, we know from the past two years of repeated assaults on our fundamental freedoms that the U.K. Government, like many others, has no interest whatsoever in including citizens in any part of its decision-making processes. We have a practically meaningless vote once every five years, and that’s about as far as it goes.
Yet there are readily achievable alternatives. For example, instead of ‘possibly’ debating petitions if they reach 100,000 signatures, it would be a relatively simple matter to guarantee a vote on any petition over a threshold of say three million:
Petition → Threshold passed → Informed debate in the House → Free vote → Law passed or rejected
This form of direct democracy, though less immediate than the Swiss version, would require a radical divestment of power by the handful of people who guard it so jealously. At the moment there seems little chance that this will happen. To those outside the self-congratulatory Government bubble, inclusive citizenship seems as far away as ever.
The bottom line is the Government doesn’t trust us. It claims to be delivering what we want and thinks of itself as a world-leading example of democracy while doing everything it can to prevent representative change, including micro-managing its petitions process.
If we are ever to have meaningful democracy, superficial non-solutions like token petition sites and antiquated first-past-the-post elections must be seen for what they are and replaced by systems where we can reflect, debate and make our own decisions without Government censorship.
David Seedhouse is creator of Our Decision Too and welcomes new members. The site is free of charge.