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.

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How austere will Philip Hammond be?

The Chancellor must choose between softening or abandoning George Osborne's approach in his Autumn Statement. 

After becoming Chancellor, Philip Hammond was swift to confirm that George Osborne's budget surplus target would be abandoned. The move was hailed by some as the beginning of a new era of fiscal policy - but it was more modest than it appeared. Rather than a statement of principle, the abandonment of the 2019-20 target was merely an acceptance of reality. In the absence of additional spending cuts or tax rises, it would inevitably be missed (as Osborne himself recognised following the EU referendum). The decision did not represent, as some suggested, "the end of austerity".

Ahead of his first Autumn Statement on 23 November, the defining choice facing Hammond is whether to make a more radical break. As a new Resolution Foundation report notes, the Chancellor could either delay the surplus target (the conservative option) or embrace an alternative goal. Were he to seek a current budget suplus, rather than an overall one (as Labour pledged at the last general election), Hammond would avoid the need for further austerity and give himself up to £17bn of headroom. This would allow him to borrow for investment and to provide support for the "just managing" families (as Theresa May calls them) who will be squeezed by the continuing benefits freeze.

Alternatively, should Hammond merely delay Osborne's surplus target by a year (to 2020-21), he would be forced to impose an additional £9bn of tax rises or spending cuts. Were he to reject any further fiscal tightening, a surplus would not be achieved until 2023-24 - too late to be politically relevant. 

The most logical option, as the Resolution Foundation concludes, is for Hammond to target a current surplus. But since entering office, both he and May have emphasised their continuing commitment to fiscal conservatism ("He talks about austerity – I call it living within our means," the latter told Jeremy Corbyn at her first PMQs). For Hammond to abandon the goal of the UK's first budget surplus since 2001-02 would be a defining moment. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.