Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Yes and ho.

CAST your minds back to the summer of 2010.

A few months after the General Election which nobody was liked enough to win, there was a big announcement from our shiny new Coalition about how lovely our democracy was going to be.

We had shown great disenchantment with politicians and the political process, said our baby-pink Prime Minister Dishface, so we needed to feel more involved.

He announced that a system of epetitions set up by the previous much-hated administration would be expanded, given its own website, and each that passed 100,000 signatures would be debated by our representatives in Parliament.

Dishface said: "One of the points of the new e-petitions website is to make sure that if a certain level of signatures is reached, the matter will be debated in the House, whether we like it or not. That is an important way of empowering people."

Quite right too.

Then a few months later it was announced the whole plan was 'under review' because someone had noticed the epetitions could be a bit embarrassing as they had previously been used to call for the resignation of the Prime Minister and overturn of major policies.

We can't have that, can we?

Then this August it was launched again, by then Leader of the House Sir George Young, 6th baronet, convicted drink-driver, millionaire but with enough normality about him to rebel against the poll tax and go out to collect rubbish as a Lambeth councillor when the binmen went on strike.

Sir George said at the time: "This is part of a strategy of making the House of Commons more accessible and more relevant. And there's a wide range of subjects... banning smoking in prisons, an English parliament... it's really important people should find it easy to let Parliament know what their views are and what they would like to see us discuss."

Asked if this was just a shallow PR exercise and MPs would just ignore petitions they didn't fancy, he replied: "If MPs decide, at the end of the day, that we're not going to do what the petitioners want us to do then we're going to have to explain. I think rather than hope the issue goes away and duck it and avoid it I think it's right the House of Commons should address the key issues people are worried about at home."

He added that epetitions of 100,000 signatures or more would all be debated over 35 allotted days during the Parliamentary year.

Which all sounds great, doesn't it? They seem to have an admirable passion for engaging the electorate, finding out people's views, and acting upon issues which large numbers of people feel strongly about. Democracy in action.

Then yesterday, in Parliament, this happened:

Nick Dakin (Lab, Scunthorpe): Considering the need to preserve our Olympic legacy, what does the Secretary of State have to say to those 150,000 people who signed a petition against his plans which will come into force this Wednesday to scrap minimum size regulations for school playing fields?

Michael Gove (SoS for Education): I admire their passion, but they are wrong.

And that, dear Reader, was that.

No-one was surprised. No-one nudged their mate and asked "Is he serious?" Nobody in a room full - well, all right, containing some - of our elected representatives asked a Government minister if he had seriously just said democracy was done with. They moved on to talk about other things.

But he did. And it is. And they are quite serious about it, too.

In the past year 6.4million people have signed 36,000 epetitions, with 12 people signing up every minute. The website has 46,500 hits a day, which shows how involved voters would like to be.

By this time last year seven epetitions had passed the target to merit a debate, and two were dismissed out-of-hand by a group of MPs who decide on Parliamentary business. Of the remainder two were sent to Westminster Hall, where there is no vote, and three were discussed in the Commons.

Two of those - one calling for referendum on membership of the EU and another on fuel price rises - sparked backbench rebellions. More than 80 Coalition MPs defied the whip to vote for a a referendum and the fuel debate forced the government to do a deal with its own backbenchers.

One of those 'discussed' in Westminster Hall - calling for rioters to lose their benefits, which was backed by 240,000 people - was not mentioned by MPs when they met to discuss it for three whole hours.

And another backed by 180,000 people was closed, without any debate at all, because it called on the government to reverse its NHS reforms.

Epetitions are just as easily ignored as paper ones - they merely take up fewer trees. We haven't helped ourselves by starting petitions on Jeremy Clarkson being Prime Minister, using spare Buckingham Palace bedrooms for the homeless and the reintroduction of Saxon on roadsigns.

And while suggesting MPs have IQ tests was entirely reasonable it was hardly going to fly.

We're all grown up enough to accept that democracy is a deal - it's not absolute. We vote them in, to do roughly what they want, but in the knowledge that we'll vote them out again if we don't like it.

Most of us could see epetitions were little more than a way for the obsessive to let off steam safely, and we are well aware that politicians of every party think they're right and the other 62million of us are wrong.

But we did at least believe that, with a following wind and a big wave of public support, we could make our opinion known. We could do something more than have a Twitter spasm which gets reported in the papers, we could campaign, demand, insist, and by sheer weight of numbers might be able to prove we had a point.

Well, I admire our passion. But we were wrong.

We are governed by people who not only find it easy to ignore us, but actively seek to do so. There is not so much a sense of entitlement as a total lack of any doubt that we also accept the entitlement they think is too obvious to merit a mention.

I say this not to depress you, but because the truth is an important way of empowering people. And the truth is our Parliament is less accessible, less relevant, less transparent and more opaque, obtuse and filled with the socially obsolete than at any point since the Glorious Revolution.

Rather than hope this issue goes away, it is time we faced it. Our servants think they are our masters, and we are letting them get away with it. We pay them, we mutter under our breath about them, and fewer of us than ever before bestir ourselves to go to the ballot box and kick them hence.

The only thing I want to see them discuss is how, on £65,738 a year plus extras, with free housing and furniture and food, with subsidised booze and sandwiches, with scandal heaped upon disgrace feeding off shamelessness, with barely anyone bothering to argue with them and no-one expecting anything better, they find the time or inclination to destroy the democracy they squat upon.

Admire this.


Gareth Milner said...

Their pay and benefits package almost makes me want to get elected, just for one term, have some fun etc.

Still, 100k signatures isn't a lot in a country of 60 million people.

Anonymous said...

100k people would have been enough to win 4 parliamentary seats outright or swing at least 20 others. I'd say that's a big enough chunk of the population to at least listen to.

Anonymous said...

This article has a valid point, hidden amongst the hyperbole.

There is a way to go before parliament is as responsive as it needs to be to public opinion, but in all of it's faux populist outrage this article misses some important developments that the author ought to be aware of.

The public petition system has improved parliamentary responsiveness by the very fact that any debates have been prompted as a result of them. Look at any previous parliament since mass enfranchisement and you will not find that level of responsiveness.

That of course doesn't mean the system is currently working well, but it is better than it has been before.

The author also fails to recognise the less obvious changes in parliamentary procedure that is improving responsiveness. The success of campaigns like 38 Degrees and others who are utilising social media and the internet are prompting increasing amounts of questions and debates (through the auspices of back benchers and occasionally opposition front benchers) is entirely ignored in this article. The internet has vastly improved constituent to MP communications. The author, not being aware I'm sure of the daily business of an MP’s operation, will not know of the increased volume of communication between MP and public, and the resulting impact this has on parliamentary debates and political discourse out in the country. Some visible in the public, some restricted to correspondence between the MP and their constituents.

The recent introduction of the backbench business committee has given new opportunities for MP’s to have a hearing on topics that have not been decided by the government or party leadership. The Speaker has also shown a greater willingness to allow urgent questions, asked for at the last minute by opposition parties, to get a hearing. A number of important and embarrassing developments for the government have taken place as a result of an urgent question being asked for and accepted.

The author has a good point in this article, parliament must be more responsive. Leaving aside the need to quality control what gets debated (even the most ardent democrat realises the mischievousness of some electors) it is not right that some successful petition are ignored because they are inconvenient for the government. While the majority whips remain firmly in control of deciding parliamentary business, this will remain a problem.

However, the heavy populist hyperbole here misses the point that things are actually changing and have since 2010 made significant strides in improving the situation. They remain first steps, but the author would be well advised to recognise them and call for a greater rate of travel in that direction, rather than Fawkes-esque hang them all attitude she has displayed in this article.

Foxy said...

Thanks for popping in, Dave.

PS. 'Populist' isn't an insult.

SoupWaiter said...

it was going well until the terrorist attack on parliament, shame.

Alan Gardner said...

I've just created an epetition to make Cameron's promise to debate epetitions binding...

Anonymous said...

The 10K out of 60 million just goes to show that the politicians get away with it because most of the public can't be arsed to do something about it.

mrbrew said...

dave is too busy clubbing puppies with baby seals, he sent a faceless employee of Atos to discredit you.

Chris Ramsbottom said...

I sometimes wonder what happened to that other manifesto promise they made, that it would be possible for constituents to "recall" their MP? Or would that be too "populist"?

Anonymous said...

First time I've been on this site. Good article, especially liked the 'dishface' nickname. How do I get updates in my e-mail? I'd also like to comment as something other than 'anonymous', but have no idea what a url can be.

Foxy said...

Subscription box top right of front page. I think you can just put your name in, a URL is your personal website address if you have one.

Eeyore said...

This is a very fishy response - reads like a senior civil servant's don't-rock-the-boat view and is thus to be ignored.

Excellent article, Ms Foxy.

John M said...

What I find utterly appalling is that some of these petitions - I'll focus on the fuel price petition - should not even require an ePetition to invoke a debate of a backbench revolt.

If our elected representatives were doing thier job in the first place they would know the people's concerns and be forcing these debates and rebellions as a matter of course.

And they wonder why we regard them so poorly. Go figure...

Cat said...

True, but it's like complaints to the BBC - 12 complaints doesn't represent 12 people, it represents a certain % of the population (can't remember the algorithm the BBC use for this).

Similarly, 100k signatures doesn't show that only 100k ppl care about an issue, just that of the ppl who care, 100k signed. Like surveys, complaints, etc, there will be a way to calculate approx how many people in real terms care about the issue in question.

Anonymous said...

Ah, and don't forget that promise to introduce a "recall" mechanism, under which constituents unhappy with an MP were to be allowed to call the equivalent of a by-election in order to have him/her thrown out mid-term. Once Cameron and Clegg realised they themselves ran the risk of "recall", the idea was squashed.

Kim said...

When the Scottish Parliament was re-enacted, they brought in a petition system, which Westminster then copied. The difference is that in Scotland only one signature is required for a petition to be considered by the business committee. But then the Scottish Parliament was set up as a democracy (this time around) and not an oligarchy dressed up as pretend democracy. It is not perfect but it is better than the double speak that is the "Mother of Parliaments", who did John Bright think he was kidding? It a parcel of rouges, spivs and fraudsters, if only we could be rid of the lot of them.

Anonymous said...

Given how much I detest Gove and all he represents, I can barely believe I'm going to say this, but Blair ignored 1 million on the streets in the Don't Attack Iraq march, so after that, school playing fields are just a minor offence.

Anonymous said...

"...the author would be well advised to recognise.." etc. (Third last line of that lengthy posting) -- What a patronising prat!

And what an own-goal on behalf of all those politicians who feel so entitled, who think they really know better than anyone else -- after all, we're all effing plebs!.

prisonerTom said...

Gods, as a teacher, I hate Gove more than I have hated any other politician. This is why his response doesn't surprise me. "Democracy" in this country has become a joke. it is now simply the lace curtain by which our kakistocracy draws a veil over its contempt for the rest of us. Whether it is the spoilt trustafarian cameroons or the champagne socialist (a couple of cs at A level and still made Oxford/) Milibandwagon, the political classes have no knowledge, understanding or interest in the people of this country. We are merely vote fodder. More and more, "V for victory" seems like a call to arms rather than a lousy SF film.

blingmun said...

"They remain first steps"

You typed accidentally put the word "first". Obviously you should have written "token".

Anonymous said...

'V for Victory' a lousy SF film? Perhaps you mean 'V for Vendetta'. I wouldn't recommend the film, but the book was a fine imagining of exactly what can happen when, as FSF puts it, 'Our servants think they are our masters, and we are letting them get away with it.'

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