There is something quite unusual about the e-petition to revoke Article 50. Well, there are a few things that are unusual about it but I’ll focus on this one for now: its supporters have a target to meet.
Usually, the goal with petitions of this kind is to reach 100,000 signatures. When that threshold has been reached, the Petitions Committee must consider the petition for debate in parliament. That number is now seemingly irrelevant for the Article 50 petition, which has already attracted millions of signatures. The goal now seems to be to reach 17.4m – which would match the number of people who voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum. It’s currently a long way from it, but if the petition did reach that goal, would it make any difference?
Substantive petitions are often very specific and relate to ongoing issues that have affected the petitioner(s) deeply, directly and for some time; their primary aim is to change specific policy, such as the one asking for British Sign Language to be part of the national curriculum.
Protest petitions also want to achieve change, but their primary aim is to show dissatisfaction. They’re the online expression of a mass demonstration. At least 255 e-petitions on Brexit have already been accepted in this parliament alone (adding to the 308 accepted in the 2015-17 parliament). At least nine parliamentary debates have taken place specifically on Brexit petitions, including another one on revoking Article 50, which received just under 149,000 signatures. That petition was published just nine days before the current one. However, it’s the current one that has broken all records, becoming the most signed petition ever to the UK parliament, attracting more than 5m signatures in just a few days. What’s new with this one is the political context.
As with some of the other Brexit petitions, the Revoke Article 50 petition actually struggled to get to the 20,000 mark at first. But that was before Theresa May’s speech on March 20, which provoked dismay and anger. After an extraordinary and widely criticised intervention, in which she openly blamed parliament for the current Brexit deadlock, the petition began growing and secured some celebrity endorsement (e-petitions usually skyrocket thanks to celebrity endorsements, which widen their reach considerably). This is what set it onto a path to achieve 5m signatures in just a few days.
Whether this petition makes a difference depends on how it is linked to other ongoing campaigning. Petitions by themselves do not achieve change – but they can be a powerful tool to harness support and parliament’s integration of e-petitions into its formal processes strengthens this potential considerably.
However, those petitions which do manage to achieve change tend to be about far more specific and non-partisan issues. See, for instance, the petitions on brain tumour research funding (which led to reinforcement of funding for research on this specific type of cancer), or the one asking for police officer status for police dogs and horses, which has now been turned into legislation and is in its final stages of consideration by parliament.
The Revoke Article 50 petition certainly doesn’t seem to be a specific and non-partisan issue. It refers to the most significant and divisive policy change in modern UK history, and it would affect the whole of society. This doesn’t mean the petition doesn’t have an effect though. While protest petitions can express a strength of feeling from a specific group of people, however, they can also act to reinforce divides.
Inaugurated in 2015, the e-petitions system is a collaboration between government and parliament. E-petitions are submitted online before being considered by the parliamentary Petitions Committee, which, as with other select committees, is composed of 11 MPs from different parties. All petitions achieving 10,000 signatures receive a response from the government and those with 100,000 are automatically considered for a debate.
My research shows that 100% of the petitions that have reached 10,000 signatures since the law was changed in 2015 have received a government response. The vast majority of them were also debated in parliament – as were many with far fewer signatures.
However, it’s important to remember that these petitions are merely a participatory democracy tool (or to be more exact, an advocacy democracy tool). They are not direct democracy, where the people make a decision on a specific matter (through, for instance referendums) and they certainly aren’t a substitute for representative democracy, which acts through elected representatives.
If nothing else, those allowed to sign a petition are not necessarily the same as those with the right to vote. One needs to be aged 18 or over and have British nationality to vote. To sign a petition, you simply need to either be British or reside in the UK. I’m not particularly worried about Russian bots, and people’s suspicions of a conspiracy when the site went down are laughable, if not sad. The system is in fact pretty robust, considering its rate of activity. The teams behind it are among the most dedicated staff I have ever encountered and have methods for spotting attempts to subvert the process.
A petition is no substitute for representative democracy, and it needs to be coupled with other activity to achieve real change. However, this should not diminish the role it plays as an expression of dissatisfaction, as the Revoke Article 50 petition clearly shows. And in a crucial a week for Brexit discussions, it is still likely to shape the political discourse.