Direct democracy has this week supposedly gained a victory at the expense of parliament. “E-petitions” are now being considered by the government as a potential way for the public to influence parliamentary debate. Online petitions receiving more than 100,000 signatures could force a debate on its proposal. Whilst some, not least the government, hail the measure as a boost for democracy and responsive government, others have raised concerns over the political culture it could lead to.
E-petitions, on paper, allow greater involvement of the public in parliamentary debate, and potentially strengthen the link between government policy and the electorate. This is arguably all the more important due to Britain’s political system, one in which the government usually has a majority in the legislature and an effective whipping system. Governments are elected on a manifesto, and for four years possess the means to implement this, or indeed any new policy.
Indeed, Rousseau’s famous comment that the British are only free every few years arguably still holds true. E-petitions, however, would seem to challenge this state of affairs, by forcing parliament to respond to public opinion in between elections. What’s more, they present the average person with one of the easiest ways of participating in politics, provided that person has internet connection and a working mouse. But it is far from a perfect remedy.
Taking the spread of petitions as it is, parliamentary debates run the risk of being monopolised by what amount to no more than ‘joke’ motions. One petition to make Jeremy Clarkson Prime Minister currently has half the required threshold. Under the new system, David Cameron could feasibly be forced to debate this unrealistic and unconstitutional motion. This kind of potential scenario is a regrettable side effect of an otherwise commendable democratic initiative.
To get around this, raising the threshold which petitions have to reach in order to be considered for debate has been suggested. If the threshold were higher it would be difficult to mobilise enough support behind such a proposal. It is worth speculating, however, whether the idea of ‘joke’ motions would survive once a political culture developed that took petitions seriously. Many of the dafter proposals may currently attract support because people do not expect them to gain much parliamentary attention. If petitions became an established and effective way of influencing parliamentary debate then signing a petition would gain a greater significance, and would become a responsibility less likely to be abused.
One of the biggest fears with E-petitions is that they will spawn a ‘tyranny of the minority’. Particular interests attracting a particularly emotional response from a small section of the population may prompt unnecessary expenditure of Commons time. A petition gaining 100,000 signatures would grab the attention of parliament, but this may be a distorted picture of public sentiment as a whole, as the other 99% of the electorate might well passively oppose the proposal. As long as the debate is balanced, and there are groups or petitions on both sides then there should not be an issue. However, some issues may fail to attract counter-movements.
This is most prevalent in regards to laws assumed to be long-standing and of little contention. The obvious example is the death penalty, with 20 petitions in favour of bringing it back, and only seven ‘proposing’ to keep the law as it is. Thus, petitions allow a more active amendment of the constitution, but also require that it has a more active defence, something which may be harder to mobilise.
The new system could also allow a tyranny of the majority, with parliament swamped by unrealistic utopian demands. The majority of people, for example, would desire tax reductions if the opportunity presented itself – but it is surely better from an objective point of view for the government to decide what is necessary and what is best for the nation as a whole?
The state of California is a testament to this: their system of ‘initiatives’ (referenda on proposed proposals such as tax reductions) almost bankrupt the government. E-petitions may put damaging pressure on parliament to reject unpopular but necessary measures, and should therefore be treated with caution.
Several potential flaws of the new system can already be identified. But, as the government acknowledges, there may well be much trial and error involved in its implementation: concerns over sectional interests, waste of parliamentary time and unrealistic demands are not without justification. Furthermore, the initiative is perhaps likely to be seen by some as a cynical move by a government whose popularity is waning to strengthen its relationship with the public. The experiment with petitions may well be a short one.