Are E-petitions a direct democratic illusion?

Within the representative democracy we have in the UK, we can notice the increase use of direct democratic methods as the political system evolves. This has been most noticed in the wider use of referendums under Labour and the introduction of e-petitions by the coalition.

But what exactly are they? Well, e-petitions are citizen initiated online petitions that pose a question or solution to the public. If the petition gains 100,000 or more signatories then the subject matter can be debated in the House of Commons. By the end of 2011, 2.6m people had signed e-petitions and this has generated good debates in the commons – including an impassioned debate on the Hillsborough football stadium disaster, which was described by one MP as “one of the best debates we have had in this Parliament”.

e-petitions is an easy way for you to influence government policy in the UK. You can create an e-petition about anything that the government is responsible for and if it gets at least 100,000 signatures, it will be eligible for debate in the House of Commons. HM Government Website.

Unfortunately, there are too many problems with e-petitions that trump the positives. Recently, e-petitions have been focused on far-fetched moralistic issues. An e-petition suggested that rioters who were involved in the 2011 London Riots should be stripped of their benefits.  Similarly, Paul Staine’s e-petition urged the return of capital punishment has also received 100,000 plus signatures and was subject to debate in the House of Commons. Here, one can see how e-petitions can become a vent for moralistic aspects that politicians will never change. These moral petitions merely give voice to the discontent of some of the public.

Can we really call it the discontent of the public though? In proportion to the overall population 100,000 signatures is not representative of all the population, but rather an active few. Therefore can e-petitions be taken seriously? Or is it an example of ‘mob rule’, where a vocal minority forces a narrow agenda upon the public.

Although e-petitions have been used more widely, some members of the public often don’t take them seriously. This was especially evident in the 50,000 signatures  received on a different kind of petition re-calling Gordon Brown’s position as PM, urging government to replace him with Jeremy Clarkson. Do e-petitions open up a gateway to political participation or does it encourage the public to form a cynical view of politics?

Interestingly, e-petitions with 100,000 plus signatures have led to debates in the House of Commons. However these debates are merely debates. There is no guarantee of legislation or constitutional change and therefore many subject matters of e-petitions can be shrugged off with cursory discussion in the Commons. As a result can e-petitions harm democracy? Causing disillusion, increasing the lack of political participation? Backbench Business Committee chairman Natascha Engel said there was a “real danger” that people were being given a false expectation about what would happen when a petition hits 100,000 signatures. Unlike Switzerland, where the system of initiatives guarantees a referendum, in the UK it guarantees nothing but a debate and that’s if the chair of the Backbench Business Committee agrees.

This article can be used in Unit 1 ‘democracy’ topic in assessing ways to increase political participation or it can be used to assess the validity of implementing more direct forms of democracy in the UK.

Tobi Oke

Further reading

What are e-petitions

Anger at e-petitions rejection


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