Amongst the excitement of fresher’s stalls, on-campus gliders and Domino’s staff dressed as pizza boxes, one may find a few who use the hullabaloo of Fresher’s Week to draw attention to a situation they are eager to change. As crowds flock to them, they simply ask you to type your name onscreen and become part of their e-petition, their petition for something we all value – human rights, justice or freedom. Yet in this feel-good motion for change that takes only seconds, do we ever stop to ask: to what extent can a digital collection of names really change the world?
In August this year, the Government introduced an e-petitions page on the Directgov website which allows any person on the electoral roll to create and sign any petition their heart desires. Those highly supported petitions with over 100,000 individuals clicking on in agreement, if considered appropriate, will then be debated in the House of Commons, potentially leading to the passing of a bill. It all seems so simple, with the website itself describing how, “it’s an easy way for you to influence government policy in the UK”, and the concept seems to encompass all that the petition and even democracy stands for – with enough backing, each individual can get their voice heard. But how successful has the site proven to be?
Political parties were hesitant as to how sensibly people would approach the idea, with Labour claiming that “crazy ideas” would end up having to be discussed by MPs. Labour MP Paul Flynn seemed to view the notion as idealistic, describing it as “an attractive idea to those who haven’t seen how useless [it] has been in other parts of the world…”.
Yet, if one examines the site now, it is not filled with requests for three-day weekends, John Snow for Prime Minister or rocket-bottom petrol prices. In fact, most petitions have turned to be deadly serious. At the time of going to press, 22,370 are currently campaigning for the reintroduction of capital punishment, almost 31,000 have signed a counter petition to this motion. Other popular demands are for the teaching of evolution and not creationism, more basic prisons, greater policing and the ending of the ban on gay blood donation. Since the riots, nearly 250,000, have petitioned for London rioters to lose all benefits, and the website affirms that this notion will be considered for parliamentary debate, as promised.
However, the cynic might say that since the decisions are ultimately down to the few in power; the public can never have that much influence, petition or no petition. As students, we only have to think of the uproar surrounding the rise in tuition fees to lose confidence in our say. Despite the extent of the protesting, and the firm opposition to the idea in universities across the country, there was very little one could do to amend the oncoming bill and all remonstrations were futile. A petition simply reaching the ears of those with influence is hard enough, without it immediately being disregarded. And if it is so hard to make our own Government listen, we surely cannot expect foreign governments to alter their policies and laws just because a number of people disagree with them from a great distance away.
Yet, it is a well-known aphorism that the first step to solving a problem is to admit to having one, and if people are simply unaware of an immoral practice, it cannot be expected to stop. The chances of effecting change with a petition are low, but the chances of change without one are undoubtedly lower. It seems that the awareness created by a petition has value in itself.
Change.org, a site in which individuals are invited to sign online petitions for a variety of causes, claims to have many success stories. A restaurant in Arizona agreed to stop selling lion meat burgers, Obama agreed to impose sanctions on whaling, and in the biggest change.org campaign in its history, the South African Government agreed to help change the practice of ‘corrective’ rape, in which homosexual women are raped in an attempt to make them straight. It’s a website, which describes itself as an “online advocacy platform” that highlights the power of the petition and the power of the people, with both local and global issues finding resolution.