Speak your brains

When Tony Blair introduced the Number 10 petition site, critics and plaudits arranged themselves in formations not too dissimilar to those now reacting to the Coalition’s proposals to allow Parliamentary debate and even Bills from a website-based scheme whereby 100,000 signatures could be the gateway to Commons scrutiny. “This could open up Westminster”, claimed those in favour. “Magnet for obsessives and saddoes” decry the antis.

In reality, the Number10 scheme was not a total disaster. It did encourage debate; over 1 million people supported the proposal to scrap road tolls and vehicle monitoring, something the Labour government was forced to carry-out and something the Coalition has pledged not to introduce. I recall the issue coming up in conversation in the office at the time, which led to people spending a lazy afternoon creating and signing petitions of their own interests and persuasions. Although the Number10 model was flawed (and in some cases open to this sort of tin-hat oddity), it opened a door which subsequent Governments will find difficult to close.

(Labour have been very good at laying ‘traps’ for subsequent Governments, I notice, they may have been economically illiterate but they were as cunning….)

As Mark Pack points out over at LibDem Voice, the scheme proposed by the Coalition has some in-built ‘checks’ against viral campaigns and trouble-makers; the 100,000 minimum signature level should deter some of the usual suspects, and even then only those ‘deemed appropriate’ would make it to the floor of the House. I worry about how those which cross the 100,000 line would be ‘chosen’, and whether orchestrated campaigns for extreme or frivolous suggestions would be themselves encouraged by MPs who want the scheme ended, but from the groundwork of the original site I think a sound building has been proposed.

Asking our MPs to debate awkward subjects – maybe an immigration petition, possibly abortion law reform or tax evasion – cannot have a down-side. There is all to play for if the scheme allows the country to put pressure on MPs to debate those subjects which attract the attention of the increasingly politically inclined Twitterati and Facebook group creators?

There is something of the ‘novelty’ about all the recent attempts to – horrible word alert – ‘engage’. Nobody seems to have responded to “The Big Conversation”, and Nick Clegg’s ‘freedom from’ or ‘freedom to’ website has only been given a prod today thanks to the Independent on Sunday running a front page feature (with highlighted proposals running from the legalisation of cannabis and relaxing the Licencing Act, to scrapping the Racial and Religious Hatred Act. Out in the country is a genuine hunger for debate and discussion, one which is fired up with every newspaper comment column and phone-in. Petition sites with the ‘prize’ of a Bill at the end could be a great idea (I hope is it), though the path getting here is littered with forgotten schemes and redundant websites.

Democracy has not been fixed since the general election; schemes like this won’t repair everything, and must be attached to such ideas as the referendums in the Localism Bill and genuine work on fixing broken relationships between people and elected representatives. Has anything come from the Labour idea to make creating parish councils gone anywhere? “Estate Councils” would empower disadvantaged people build their local area far more than pressing ‘Like’ on the proposal ‘Give checkout girls nurses wages!’.

Critics bemoan all these ‘devolution’ schemes as gimmicks. They underestimate the power of the internet to collect and organise, to frame and focus debate and lobbyists. There’s a lot of constitutional reform being pushed through this Parliament, and the main focus seems to be on returning power to the people through direct democracy. This could be a massive opportunity for reform, one which will shake the certainty of ‘the establishment’, one which will test the doubters if its allowed to happen.

Doubters have valid concerns – the cost, the feasibility, how the valid petitions will be chosen, how much of this is ‘buck passing’. One interesting idea from the comments section of Mark Pack’s blog post is to have a “NO” vote reduction on the scheme, reducing the total of supporting signatures. That could dampen the viral campaigning of the troublemakers.

I have tentative support for the ideas, all told. It would encourage debate of some tricky subjects, introduce to the House the subjects so often called ‘those our MPs never want to discuss”. There’s a heap load of logistical nightmares to overcome, though I’m one for siding with the opportunities it encourages. Dealing with difficult truths could be Blair’s petition legacy…