The Iain Duncan Smith petition shows how social media can lead political debate

By seizing upon a moment of perceived hypocrisy, the petition made the welfare debate accessible to the public, says the UK director of Change.org.

Two days after calling on Iain Duncan Smith to prove that he could live on £53 per week, Dominic Aversano’s petition on Change.org has secured the support of well over 350,000 people. It has been a huge news story for two days, inspired radio phone ins, online polls and newspaper features. It’s by far the fastest growing and largest petition ever on Change.org in the UK and continues to grow.

The petition has been described as a "stunt" by Duncan Smith and as a distraction by some on the left. For the 350,000 people who have signed it, it’s become a people powered moment which, quite unexpectedly, has cut to the heart of the debate about whether politicians really understand the lives of people for whom they make policy.

In many ways, Dominic has run the perfect social media campaign. We’ve seen scores of petitions on Change.org about benefit changes and the welfare system but they haven’t, as yet, caught peoples’ imaginations. What Dominic did was seize upon a moment of perceived hypocrisy and give people a chance to have their say. In doing so, he’s shifted the media debate onto what it’s actually like to live on such a tiny amount of money. It may be unlikely that the Work and Pensions Secretary will decide to live on £53 per week but Dominic’s petition has made a huge and powerful point.

Some have, quite understandably, complained that campaigns focused on the impacts of the actual policies haven’t taken off as fast as Dom's petition. The problem with that is that it’s rarely the public’s fault if they don’t sign up to your campaign. Any issues can be made interesting and accessible, and campaigners should start with the audience they’re trying to get to. When the parents of one of the No Dash For Gas activists used Change.org to call on EDF to drop their civil suit against their daughter, the story struck a chord with people who hadn’t even heard of the original protest. No one, really, thought the petition would have any real impact but two weeks later after 65,000 people signed EDF dropped the suit. Victories like this don’t happen in a vacuum and can’t be attributed solely to a petition on Change.org, but the galvanising effect of a petition in its tens of thousands gives the media something to write about and shows the campaign target that they have a mandate to act.

The other thing we’ve heard a lot is "why didn’t Dominic post it on the government’s petition site". The Direct Gov site is predicated on a single, tempting, offer. The received wisdom is that if you get 100,000 people to sign a petition then it 'triggers' a debate in parliament. In campaign terms, there are a number of things wrong with this. First, it’s not true - as the people who signed this NHS petition will tell you. Second, it suggests that you need a magic number of signers to get access to your own democracy which, as the 20 ex-Conservative association chairmen who got to take their anti-equal marriage call to Downing Street will tell you, isn't true either. Third, and most importantly to me, it reduces genuine people powered campaigns into a fruitless chase for the 'golden 100,000'.

Campaigning is about changing things, it certainly isn’t a numbers game. In the case of the IDS petition, Dominic and his 350,000 supporters have changed the focus of the debate. In Lucy Homles's case, she's inspired a huge public debate about Page 3 in the Sun. It happens on a smaller scale too. Johnny Walker is a busker from Liverpool. Last year he took on Liverpool City Council over plans to restrict live street performance. He won his campaign and now works with other street performers fighting new restrictions in their areas. He told us that winning his campaign has changed his life. All in all, more than 50 campaigns have been won using Change.org since last September, powered by ideas, energy and social media.

Dominic Aversano was driven to start this petition because he thought what Iain Duncan Smith had said deserved to be challenged. It turns out hundreds of thousands agree with him. It won’t have a direct impact on the policy changes that underpin the story, but it’s an incredibly instructive case about how social media can enable the electorate to drive political debate.

Protestors hold signs as they demonstrate against the proposed 'bedroom tax' in Trafalgar Square. Photograph: Getty Images.

Brie Rogers Lowery is the UK director of Change.org

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation