Monday, 2 March 2015

Are petitions democratic?

Saturday saw a reversal of recent trends as online petition builder 38degrees unleashed newly recruited local groups not into cyberspace but High Streets. This suggests awakening to the self-limiting nature of digital platforms, as Internet-savvy sought to sign up real live shoppers to their petition to save the NHS. Worthy? Perhaps. Effective? Possibly. Meaningful? Probably not.

38degrees, Avaaz, and others have recently provided another release valve for those of us who rail at the TV, despair of the papers and are disenchanted with those supposed to represent us. They have been more useful than this, too, in helping those who look to determine which of the issues proffered may make best petition fodder, by virtue of attracting the most support (at least from those taking the trouble to engage with their processes).
But when a signature chaser seeks to win over a doubter with a dubious claim that this type of petitioning is nonpolitical, what is the point; why sign? Where do the thousands of signatures seeking to protect the NHS get us unless they influence politicians with the power to change or defend?

I confess to rather liking these alternative ways of connecting non-geographically. It is interesting to note now, though, this migration to offline organising. This is surely a sign of political intent? It suggests an appetite for a new way of gathering like-minded opinion, both on the part of the promoters and of their members. But again, what is to be done with the evidence or their demands? Lots of agreement going nowhere?

Surely the best lessons to be drawn from this exploration of the capabilities of the Internet are that (a) (some) people like them and (b) political parties ought to wake up and make greater use of them. Only elected, accountable representatives, can really be said to have our permission to make decisions, either for or against change, on our behalf. When we do not like their decisions we must be able to replace them. Petitions, single issue activism and shouting at the TV all have their place but only as tools to help us to have our representatives listen and respond, instead of serving their own narrow experience. They cannot replace elected parties. Maybe they aim to become them but right now this is far away.

1 comment:

  1. Hi this is Nick from Eastbourne 38 Degrees local group. Our group has been going about a year now, so quite well established though admittedly still learning! We have done several on-street campaigns, usually linked to a petition but also just giving out information, e.g. about the dangers of rampant marketisation to the NHS and the anti-democratic nature of TTIP.
    I'm not sure though where you get the notion that 38 Degrees is non-political. It is actually highly political, but chooses to be non-aligned in relation to the party system. So non-party-political rather than non-political. We have people from across the party spectrum attending our meetings, and we have agreed simply to leave our party affiliations 'at the door' and to focus our discussions and actions on the issues of concern.
    Noting that some MPs are elected on substantially less than 50% of the vote, and often with a turnout of less than 50% of the electorate, it is clear that the result of our present party-based electoral system is very far from representative of the will of the people. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that we still have an antiquated 'first-past-the-post' system, but it is also a reflection of the constraints of the party system itself. It has several disadvantages: firstly, that it is inherently polemical and conflictual in nature, meaning there are winners but also always losers (where is the space for creativity? For thinking outside the box in search of completely new, win-win solutions that everyone will be happy with?) secondly that the freedom of an MP to represent the will of the constituency is greatly constrained by the party whip system; and thirdly that policies and decisions are based largely on a political ideology or dogma (or even worse, on the self-interest of the decision-makers) rather than on a rational evidence-base gained from research or from observation of the different policies being tried out around the world and at different times in the past. Party divides mean that policies also have a tendency to become more extreme with time (to maintain party distinctiveness) and to serve the needs of only one sector of society.
    I'm not sure how it would work exactly, but I would like to see politics based on values such as inclusion, equality and fairness, working to meet the needs of people generally. I would like an MP to feel a real responsibility towards the well-being of all her or his constituents, and to have the freedom to vote and act accordingly, independently of any party line or ideology. I would like to see the electorate in frequent touch with the representatives (and vice-versa) rather than stepping back into apathy again for another 5 years. I suppose I am looking for a system that is increasingly participative, actively devolves decision-making as near as possible to the local level and that seeks broad concensus rather than simple majority support.
    To come back to the subject of your thoughtful piece, I too am unsure of how effective 'petition-power' really is - but at the very least it may serve to show politicians how much out of touch with the voters they really are, and it may also nurture the spark of activism in the broader population. Many of us are becoming more active because of the growing realisation that even when the people speak, the decision-makers are simply not willing to listen.