Peter Hoskin

Government by signature

Government by signature
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Remember this petition to have Gordon Brown resign as Prime Minister? It secured 72,222 signatures in the end: not quite enough to have it debated in Parliament under the coalition’s new plans, but enough to make you think. I mean, will we see parliamentary debates about whether Dave and Nick should step down at the public’s request?

Not going to happen, I’d say. But these latest ideas for involving voters in the legislative process could certainly provoke one or two embarrassments for our political class. Take the obvious example of withdrawing from the EU: that petition could probably attract any number of votes, but is unlikely to be met positively by Parliament. Ditto an entire spectrum of political matters, from MPs’ pay to immigration. By opening up the process to petition, the government could inflict a grim irony upon itself: that an attempt to close the gap between Westminster and the Real World only widens it further.

That’s no reason to abandon this policy, though. Even with John Redwood’s caveats attached, this would still be totemic stuff. Here we have a government willing, at the very least, to give the public a louder voice, in spite of the difficulties it might cause them. The process may not work perfectly, it may not deliver the empowerment it promises to, but that basic motivation has to be welcomed.

There are, of course, legitimate questions about who will step up to these new platforms. Will we see widespread representation of views, or will these petitions become the preserve of determined, and insistent, interest groups? Labour have been sniffing around these points this morning – but in the clumsiest possible fashion. Listen, for instance, to Paul Flynn on the Today programme earlier, booming that the realm of online discourse is “dominated by the obsessed and the fanatical and we will get crazy ideas coming forward.” Not the most ingratiating choice of words, you’ll agree.

So, for now, we have one side talking about “the public,” and the other talking about “the obsessed and fanatical”. As presentational dividing lines go, that’s one that favours the coalition.