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19 February 2007

Petition power cannot be brushed aside

The road pricing crisis should be seen as the first challenge of the Gordon Brown era. It will be Br

By Martin Bright

As I write, more than 1.3 million people have signed the online petition on the Downing Street website to “scrap the planned vehicle tracking and road pricing policy”. After Douglas Alexander, the Transport Secretary, went on the radio to denounce the petition’s organisers for peddling “myths”, an extra 200,000 people signed up. By the time you read this article, the figure will be much higher still, and cabinet ministers will be even more infuriated with the British public than they are already. The petition deadline is 20 February, by which point it is possible that the numbers will have reached the level of those who marched against the war in Iraq.

It is not that two million people cannot be wrong, but the government cannot afford to be entirely dismissive of this level of public feeling. Alexander may be right in saying that, as a country, we have no choice but to deal with congestion, but being right is not enough.

This is the first time Alexander’s mettle has been tested as a minister. As one of the Chancellor’s trusted allies, he will play a prominent role in any post-Blair government. The road pricing crisis should therefore be seen as the first challenge of the Brown era. It will be Gordon Brown, not Tony Blair, who will have to deal with the consequences of this decision, whether or not ministers decide to cave in to pressure. This may not be “Labour’s poll tax”, as the Daily Telegraph would like it to be, but it will give an indication of how a Brown government will approach mass opposition to its policies.

Alexander is one of a group of young politicians around Brown who are defined by the power of their intellect and convinced of the wisdom of their views. The Transport Secretary’s frustration at the apparent stupidity of his opponents has been evident in recent days as he has struggled to put across an argument that, to him, must appear blindingly obvious: if we are to reduce congestion on our roads we must persuade people to leave their cars at home. A series of pilot schemes for road pricing must seem to Alexander an utterly reasonable way of going about this. But people are rarely convinced by an argument which begins with the assumption that the person making it is cleverer than they are.

Old right-wing causes

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It can’t have gone unnoticed in government circles that the most popular petitions on the No 10 website are either the old right-wing causes or Tory party policy. This may explain why one minister is said to have described the Downing Street adviser who came up with the idea for putting petitions on the website as a “prat”.

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None has attracted anything like the number of signatures on the road pricing petition, but the next three in order of popularity urge the government to scrap inheritance tax in the next Budget, to repeal the Hunting Act 2004 and to scrap the proposed introduction of ID cards. In all, 60,000 have signed the inheritance tax petition, set up by Macer Hall of the Daily Express as part of his newspaper’s campaign on that issue. Roughly 25,000 have signed the hunting petition and around the same number have signed up to oppose ID cards.

But this is not the whole story. Other petitions that have received more than 3,000 signatures espouse liberal and left-wing causes. The opposition to ID cards is not a Tory monopoly. There are also popular petitions to oppose the renewal of Trident, ban faith schools and scrap tuition fees. Admittedly, there are also petitions to replace the national anthem with “Gold” by Spandau Ballet and to make the Prime Minister “stand on his head and juggle ice cream” which have more than 3,000 signatures, but for the most part the suggestions are serious.

Those around Brown will be sorely tempted to scrap the online petitions as a crazy Blairite innovation, but they would be unwise to do so. They may be an expression of public frustration at conventional politics, but they also point the way forward if politicians can avoid the temptation to sneer. The e-petition system was set up by Tom Steinberg, though he is not being blamed for the idea itself. Steinberg is a web evangelist and political activist, whose projects such as NotApathetic.com and TheyWorkForYou.com have been designed to re-engage people with politics. His thinking is close to Our Say – set up by Saira Khan of the TV series The Apprentice – which campaigns for increased use of referendums on issues of public interest.

It is too easy to dismiss this “citizen politics”. Governments know too well that the problem with giving people too much say is that sometimes they come to the wrong decision, as would almost certainly be the case if local referendums were held on individual road pricing schemes. But if ministers take the approach that petitioners are just wrong-headed or “spreading myths”, people may choose to make the ultimate bad decision and vote them out of office.