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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.

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

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.