I have concluded that the idea of on-line petitions to get debates in parliament or even – bless – a bill proposed is a load of patronising nonsense intended as a sop to those wanting a genuine extension of participatory democracy. Indeed the dire warnings about petitions for withdrawing from the EU (yes please) and capital punishment (no thanks) reinforce just what out masters really think of us. And remember that those besuited, well-connected BBC media types are our masters too – not our friends.
From next year, voters are to be guaranteed that the petition with the strongest public backing on a government website will be drafted as a bill and put before MPs.
The Coalition will also pledge that petitions which reach a fixed level of support will be ensured time for a Commons debate.
Sir George Young, the leader of the Commons, has indicated that he intends to press ahead with the concept, conceived in the Coalition agreement, in the New Year.
The scheme is intended to reconnect voters with parliament amid concerns of waning trust in the political system following scandals such as disclosures over MPs’ expenses.
However, there are fears that the proposals could become a vehicle for campaigners
promoting populist causes célèbre, such as a return of capital punishment or withdrawal from the European Union.
So what? MPs will just ignore any serious proposals and focus – as they do now with private members bills – on the Government’s agenda. That is all that matters. The petition driven debates will be frothy and exciting but will amount to nothing in the end, will make no substantive change to a Government’s agenda and will cover up the failure to introduce a real provision for citizen referendums.
Real citizen initiatives – resulting in a question on a ballot paper for us all to vote on – would challenge the basis of our court-centred government. Rather than policy – such as avoiding a referendum on our membership of the EU – being decided in a choreographed, gentile discussion between ministers, opposition leaders, the media lobby and the top of the civil service, we might get policies that people actually want. And a real debate not the pane et circenses we get from parliament.
If it is right – and it is – to encourage local referendums on levels of council tax, elected mayors and other matters, it must also be right to encourage citizen-led national referendums. Imagine if the government had to put tax increases to a ballot? Or signing treaties? And think of the real debate that referendums on legalising pot or abolishing inheritance tax would bring?
Wouldn’t that be good for democracy?