If you’ve spent more than 5 minutes on social media recently, chances are you will have come across at least one e-petition. Online petitions are great for many things such as figuring out which of your friends are closet racists, telling everyone you like whales and calling David Cameron a dick but what does any of it actually achieve?
Downing Street launched its first e-petition website in November 2006 which saw 2,860 active petitions in its first 6 months but eventually had to re-launch after a slew of joke petitions such as ‘Jeremy Clarkson for Prime Minister’. This new website set up by the coalition government in 2011 stated that any petition receiving over 100,000 signatures COULD be debated in parliament. Now, this surely sounds like a good thing, a triumph for democracy one might say; However, as the British public showed during the Boaty McBoatface incident, we can’t seem to do anything without it turning into a joke. Countless joke petitions have gained traction and effectively cheapened the value of serious petitions that focus on genuine issues.
Despite this, effective petitions can happen and are usually down to support from organisations such as 38 Degrees and Change.org such as in the case of the national forests where 500,000 people signed. 38 Degrees brought together these people to fund a YouGov study, speak to their MPs, put advertisements in national newspapers and apply pressure on an independent panel. This whole process was 27 months long and led to victory when the government was forced to revoke the policy. Despite this, the sad reality is that the decisions made in Parliament are far more influenced by MPs and their social circles than the people genuinely affected by them who sign these petitions
Perhaps the most poignant example is the Donald Trump case where an E-petition calling for everybody’s favourite egomaniac to be banned from entering the UK gained 584,249 signatures. This one is particularly interesting as it strays the line between the comic and the serious with Trump himself being like a cartoon politician to the point where he almost seems funny until you pinch yourself and remember he is running for president. The claim might seem like a bit of a joke but when you consider that the Home Office banned rapper Tyler, the Creator because he ‘posed a threat to public order’, based on lyrics he wrote when he was 19 assuming an alter ego, banning someone like Trump suddenly doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Consequently, the issue was debated in parliament where they came to the conclusion that we should simply ridicule him which brings us full circle again. Isn’t it much easier to just laugh off our problems? David Cameron does it all the time, why actually use the power of democracy to change things when we can just have some shit banter instead. This is a way of displaying to the public that ‘yes, your petitions do go noticed’, whilst quietly brushing aside the fact that almost half of the requests submitted get straight up denied.
So, basically if you have enough money, enough support and your cause isn’t too radical, for example; asking an MP to stay true to their word, then you should be good to go.