Wednesday, December 29, 2010

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There is a plan to allow online petitions to be debated in parliament and for those which attract the support of MPs to form the basis of new laws or amendments to existing ones. To filter out the really daft ones it is likely that only petitions with 100,000 ‘signatures’ will take up precious Commons time. So the current petition to make a law for teenagers to pull up their trousers and not walk around showing their pants will probably not hit the House as only the author has as yet signed up for it. The one to stop chronic hunger throughout the world has just a handful of supporters (despite an impassioned plea by an actor), possibly because no solution is offered; whereas the one to give the job of Prime Minister to a TV presenter reached 50,000 signatures. Over half a million petitioned for a national holiday to commemorate our war dead and 2½ years later it is still ...(wait for it)... being considered. The facility to e-petition on the official site of the PM’s office was suspended earlier this year, pending review, but will be re-opened.

The government’s plan is commendable for giving more power to the people, letting us 'have our say', and encouraging more interest in the generally so unimpressive parliamentary debates. But it has serious flaws. Apart from the exclusion of many, e.g. the very elderly, who have not embraced the online world, internet conversations, however well meaning and rational to start with, are often grabbed and then dominated by the irrational, the fanatical, the inarticulate, the profane and those wannabe comedians who are just so unfunny. (A petition banning them from the internet would be a laugh.)

If 100,000 signatures are needed for a nonsensical proposal that is crazy enough to capture the imagination and the anger of the anarchic and revolutionary then they will be gained, and more, quite easily. The new gateway to parliamentary debate will fall into disrepute.

And what will become of the old gateway, the route to the ear of government via our MPs ? Even the sketchiest idea of promoting the use and importance of petitions signifies the undermining of this route and acknowledges that contacting our MPs directly to protest, to solve a problem or to bring about change are usually going to fail if not already on their agenda and politically beneficial to them. The initial thrill of receiving a response is deflated when discovering it was a standard script sent out by any MP who was asked the same or similar question by one of their constituents.

As an MP’s relationship with his/her electorate is increasingly by way of email and web site, and decreasingly by face to face, with communications often dealt with by staff, and with the vast majority of the constituents never wanting any MP time at all (partly because many of the issues of relevance to most people are created by local rather than national government) the question is begged as to whether we have too many of them.

Our current alloctaion of 1 MP per 90,000 population is generous and if each one represented 200,000 people instead then we would need only 300. In the US there are just 435 members of the House of Representatives, each one representing on average 700,000 people. Even adding the 100 Senators from their Upper House, there is just 1 member of their national parliament for each 580,000. And the comparison does not take into account our Upper House, though exactly how it represents anybody is another discussion.

The US, along with many European countries, does though have far greater local (including US state) representation. We should follow suit but with unpaid councillors and greater accountability to their electorate, replacing the selfish, intimidating power that some of the more dictatorial council leaders like to wield with a democratic and monitored responsibility to do good.

So to increase the influence of wisely moderated petitions may be a way forward, but should be coupled with a recognition of a reduction in the need for so many MPs. The rest of the public sector is facing huge cost savings & job losses and MPs should bear their rightful share.



At January 06, 2011 10:15 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Think they should allow people to also downvote ideas with only those getting a net positive vote of 100k getting debated. i.e. if 100k vote yes and 10k vote against the idea then that would only be net 90k and wouldn't be debated. Might bring some sanity to the whole thing.

At January 11, 2011 9:09 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I concur with the suggestion above, we should definitely have yes and no sections on petitions!

At April 19, 2011 6:05 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is an interesting idea that a lower legislative house should be roughly the cube root of the population, or about 395 members for the 61,000,000 in the UK. I guess one reason is that it means that it is likely that I know someone who knows someone who knows the member. (It is possible that the cube root idea works better when you have single-member districts and require a member to be resident therein. Probably might not work so well with the person who represents the Gorbals, for instance.)

At April 19, 2011 10:53 pm , Anonymous call it justice said...

An interesting idea. The reduction to 395 MPs is attractive.


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