Why we should ban e-petitions

If MPs want to connect with voters, they should get out and engage with them, not hide behind a webs

The government's e-petition web site is live, and the people have spoken. Well, not so much spoken as e-mailed. Or filled in an e-form, if you want precision.

And you do. You clearly do. At least, your government thinks you do. It's after proof, you see. Cold, hard, incontrovertible, silicon-generated evidence. Your thoughts, codified.

There was a time when politicians took the pulse of the public. Not any more -- now they demand a computer generated sample of our political DNA.

"People have strong opinions and it does not serve democracy well if we ignore them or pretend that their views do not exist," said Sir George Young, the somewhat unlikely standard bearer for this new populist cyber-revolution. But he's right, of course. Let's take the fashionable example of capital punishment. In the fifty years since it was abolished, the very fabric of British democracy has been rent asunder by the pro-hanging lobby. Not a week goes by without another enraged mob parading down the streets of our fair land, nooses in hand, bellowing that all too familiar chant: "What do we want? Death by lethal injection! When do we want it? Now!"

Thanks to Sir George and his e-petition, calm will hopefully now be restored. The savage breasts of those who would have the necks of their fellow citizens broken in a moment of premeditated vengeance will be soothed. "OK, we didn't get a change in the law," they'll will say, "But thanks to Sir George our voices were heard. They may have been totally ignored, but never mind. Our faith in democracy is now restored."

Let's, for a moment, take Sir George at face value. What does the e-petition system say about us and our priorities as a nation? Taking today as a snapshot, and moving away from the debate on capital punishment, we can deduce the following. We don't like the Human Rights Act. By "pm, 152 people had agreed with Peter Chuah that it should be abolished. People don't want their libraries closed. Over 140 of them signed Ruth Bond's call for the government to "ensure that a comprehensive and efficient library service is provided". And apparently we want to abolish the monarchy. 114 people agree with Brian Mendes that "The heredity principle of our head of state is inimical to the principle of the sovereignty of the people. The existence of the monarchy is therefore anti-democratic".

So there you have it. Britain speaks. And it when it does, it tells us to tear up the Human Rights Act, re-open all our libraries and get Kate and Wills to start polishing their CVs.

There are some things, though, that we don't seem to care about. We're apparently not all that bothered about Ben Needham, the 21 month year old boy who went missing on the Island of Kos in 1991. Scott Morrison's call for a full police investigation into his disappearance, similar to that being undertaken for Madeleine McCann, had attracted one signature. That's eight fewer than the number of people who agreed with Stuart Loades that 26 October should be designated King Alfred the Great Day.

Nor can we seem to agree on a solution to the problems in the Middle East. The number of people calling on the government to force Israel to lift the siege of Gaza, seven, was closely paralleled by those urging the Palestinians to recognise Israel as a Jewish state, six. That said, those expressing concern over the centuries old conflict between Jew and Arab were somewhat overshadowed by the 6,000 people who want to keep Formula 1 on the BBC.

"Anything that helps to put parliament at the centre of national debate has to be a good thing," said shadow leader of the House, Hillary Benn. No Hillary, it doesn't.

The e-petition system is a grubby, tacky, sordid, sleazy, headline-grabbing gimmick. It is the worst sort of X Factor style politics, cheapening and debasing our politicians and our political process.

Far from placing power in the hands of the people, e-petitions serve only to put more power in the hands of those who have ways of influencing the people. The lobbyists, the activists, the business interests; those who have the time, money and resources to manipulate them in their favour.

If our politicians want to demonstrate empathy with those who elected them, they should get out into the country and engage with them, not lock themselves in the Cabinet Office, hiding behind a website. And they can explain face-to-face how they have absolutely no intention of withdrawing from the Human Rights Act, re-opening our libraries or abolishing the monarchy.

I've just submitted an e-petition calling on the government to ban e-petitions. I hope you'll sign it.

All photos: India Bourke
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“They cut, we bleed”: activists Sisters Uncut protest closures of women's services

 “Our blood should not pay for our rape.”

Over 500 domestic violence survivors and support workers processed through central London this weekend. The protest, staged by the feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut, mourned the women’s services that are losing out as a result of the government's austerity drive.

Since November 2014 the group has occupied streets, burned copies of the Daily Mail, and hijacked the Suffragette film premiere. But on Saturday the mood was somber. In Soho Square the group staged a symbolic funeral service. Attendees stood in a protective circle, fists raised, while members took turns to read out the names of the scores of women who’ve been killed by men in the past year:  “Anne Dunkley, 67; Nadia Khan, 24; Lisa Anthony, 47…”. The youngest was just 14 years old.

The service culminated in a promise “to never forget” the dead, and also to protect the living: “We must love and support one another; we have nothing to lose but our chains".

As the protestors passed St Martins in the Fields Church, dressed in black veils and funeral attire, the crowd of passers-by broke into spontaneous applause. “It gave me goosebumps”, Caroline, an activist and former victim of abuse told me. “You expect people on the march to be supportive but not the people on the street. I’ve been on other marches and people normally complain about you being selfish and blocking up the streets but this response makes you feel like people do  care.”

The show of public support is especially welcome in the aftermath of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. Cuts to local authority budgets have already led to the closure of over 30 domestic violence services since 2010, including Eaves, a charity that provided services for single, low-income and vulnerable women.

Further erosions to local council budgets will only put more services and lives at risk, activists say. Also of concern is Osborne’s decision to devolve responsibility for raising a social care tax (of up to 2 per cent on council tax) to local authorities. This tips hostility to tax increases away from central government to local authorities, and could place greater pressure on women’s services to compete for funding.

The Chancellor offered a supposed silver lining to the cuts with the promise that VAT money raised from the EU’s compulsory tax on sanitary products will be ringfenced for women’s charities, such as the Eve Appeal and Women’s Aid.

The implication, however, that only women are to pay for helping the victims of domestic violence was met with derision from Sisters Uncut. As the marchers approached their final destination in Trafalgar Square, red dye turned the square’s famous fountains the colour of blood. “This blood won’t wash the blood from Osborne’s hands,” read one tampon-draped banner; “Our blood should not pay for our rape”, read another.

For those on the march, the cuts are an affront on many levels. All those I spoke to worked in some form of public service; everything from housing to foster care. But some have had to move out of the women’s services sector for the lack of funding.

Louisa used to work for a domestic violence service in London until it was forced to close last month. “I’m here because I’ve witnessed first hand what the cuts are doing to women and how much the organisations are having to squeeze what they can provide.”

All public services have legitimate claims to support - from the 14-strong police team that escorted the marchers, to the sweepers who were left to dredge the protesters’ roses out of the fountains and brush away the tampons that had fallen from their banners.

The danger, however, according to Caroline, is that the needs of domestic violence victims are all too easy to sideline: “This is by its nature something that goes on behind closed doors,” she says. As funding tightens, these voices musn’t be squeezed out.

Sisters Uncut is an intersectional group open to all who identify as women. The national domestic violence helpline offers help and support on 0808 2000 247. Members of the LGBT communities can also access tailored support from Broken Rainbow on 0800 9995428.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.