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.