Thursday, October 17News For London

Power to the People: Do petitions really work?

A petition banning Donald Trump from making a state visit to the UK has garnered more than 1 million signatures in the past 24 hours. The petition, made on the UK Parliament website, required only 100,000 signatures to be considered for debate in the Houses of Parliament.

Crown Copyright mapping the concentration of the petition

In response, Prime Minister Theresa May has said that she will not be withdrawing the invitation extended to US President Trump, part of the “special relationship” she wants to create between the US and UK with impending Brexit. In a statement, she said the visit remains “substantially in the national interest.” The situation is reminiscent of last year, when, following the Brexit referendum, a petition was created on the UK Parliament website, signed by four million people, asking for a second EU referendum. In response, the government issued a statement that since the first referendum received “overwhelming support”, it will not be debated any further.

This raises the crucial question: do petitions really work? Or are they simply symbolic, to pacify a public that believes in democracy? Their achievements in the UK have been substantial: ending the tampon tax, and convincing Asda, Tesco and Morrisons not to sell eggs from caged hens. Thanks to petitioners, Karl Andree, British grandfather with cancer and asthma, arrived safe and well from Saudi Arabia, avoiding 350 lashes. The list of successful petitions is endless. Yet the petition demanding a second EU referendum clearly didn’t have the intended result, despite being signed by over 4 million Brits, and neither, it seems, will the one banning Trump from the UK. We spoke to people in London to find out if they were aware of the anti-Trump petition and whether they had signed it.

Gaia (22), a student said she hadn’t signed petition but will because she thinks petitions are effective in raising awareness. “Petitions do work. There are many instances where they’ve worked. Maybe not to officialise the ban but at least to initiate a conversation about it in higher power politics.”

Andrea Giber (21), a student at the University of Westminster, has signed the petition, but is skeptical of the outcome. “I hope it  will work but also don’t think it will. I’ve heard many arguments that he should be banned from the UK because the country still have economic interests in a relationship with the US. My personal point of view is that, since he doesn’t share the same values that the UK share with most European countries, he should not be entitled to come to the UK.”

Rose Rome (20), student at the University of Westminster, 20 years old, from Boston, didn’t sign petition. She says, “I’m not going to sign it because I don’t want to get involved with that really. I just try to keep my nose out of politics. Anyone could just buy a ticket and go wherever. I think no matter what kind of a person you are, you should be entitled to travel anywhere. It’s nothing to do with him personally.”

Since medieval times petitions have been signed and rejected in their millions. With the advent of the internet we were promised that this would change. But the operative word in Direct.gov’s promise that petitions will be “considered for a debate,” is “considered.” Nearly half of petitions submitted are dismissed before they even reach the site and few of those that reach over 100,000 signatures are debated in parliament. Most often they are passed to a backbench, where, without the support of an MP, they are dropped into oblivion.

However, the functional importance of petitions are not always linked to their intended outcome: petitions also function to raise awareness among the general public about an issue, and help to engage people in recognising and exercising their civic duties in attempting to hold government or power to account.