“The blogosphere is not an area that is open to sensible debate” – Labour MP dismisses online petition plans

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.

5 responses to ““The blogosphere is not an area that is open to sensible debate” – Labour MP dismisses online petition plans”

  1. I think Paul Flynn has been rather harshly treated for his one-liner about the blogosphere – he’s been blogging a long time, through thick and thin, so going after him is rather rough. (For the record – he used to be my MP and I know him)

    As for the idea itself – you seem to sit neatly on the fence about what the implications might be. It *might* work, but the chances are higher that it’s going to be a complete mess, and people are going to game the system in the same way as has been done in the USA and elsewhere. More here.

    • Hi Jon: It’s a fair point that he’s been blogging for a long time, so knows something about blogging – but isn’t that also a reason to expect him to know how there’s much more to blogging than his soundbite? That narrowness of vision of his about the online world (which he seems to collapse to all being about a narrow form of political blogging) is perhaps also reflected in the way he uses Twitter – as a one-way, broadcast medium.

      As for the idea itself: I like the principle and await the details. Done right I think it would be a really good move, but there are many ways it could be done wrong.

  2. I’ve got replies from Flynn on Twitter… might be because I know him though.

    As for the idea itself – how are you going to stop people simply gaming the system, and drawing attention to stuff that’s unpalatable or simply not do-able? Or do you rather a system where all ideas are treated equally initially, but the chances anything sees the light of day are small?

    • Jon: I took a look through a good few of his tweets and didn’t see any replies, but fair enough if he does sometimes. As for the system overall – 100,000 people, verified against the electoral register (which looks to be the plan), is a pretty high hurdle in itself – plus of course MPs can always vote something down in the end. So I don’t think there’s need for much extra protection against gaming the system, or do you think that 100,000 doesn’t offer much filtering in practice?

  3. 100k is a high-ish hurdle (and indeed is higher than the UK component of a European Citizens’ Initiative), but there are two questions:
    1. What is the value of a number of signatures these days anyway? If all the signatures can easily be submitted online (fill in 4 or 5 questions) then I don’t think this hurdle is especially high. Question will also be how the verification is done, and who does that verification – does the petition submitter have to manage that, or does a civil servant somewhere do this?
    2. What do organisations (Greenpeace, Amnesty, Shelter – the large NGOs) do with this system? Do they judge it’s worthwhile to use this system to highlight issues, or do they choose to turn their back on it? The more involvement of larger NGOs the better, as they are more likely to be able to mobilise in favour of things government could actually do, as opposed to groups who are angry but seldom heard (equivalents of the medical cannabis people in the USA)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All comments and data you submit with them will be handled in line with the privacy and moderation policies.