On line petitions and democracy

 

            The government has said it will allow voters to petition the Cabinet Office website, and arrange for Parliamentary debate of the most popular petitions. Some of my correspondents seem to think this will allow a referendum on the EU, or permit the public to legislate for popular causes which Parliament itself has in the past been unwilling to take up. I suggest the public does not get too full of expectations.

             Let us take a relatively easy case. It is quite likely that the public by a large majority think that UK contributions to  the EU budget should be cut long before domestic programmes that voters value should be cut. Let us suppose a petition to this effect gained a large number of signatures. There might then be another debate on the topic of the EU budget, though the governemnt could say that it has already been debated so there is no need.

               The last time this matter came up only 42 of us voted against the EU budget, on the grounds that it was too wasteful and expensive. All three main political parties advised their MPs to vote for it, and most did. There is no reason to suppose that an on line petition will get Labour or the Lib Dems to change their support for the EU budget. Even more sceptical Conservative Ministers are likely to argue that they cannot reopen the budget with their partners on the continent.

                 Let us take the issue of a referendum on the EU. Before the General Election and before the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty Labour was against any referendum, the Conservatives favoured one on Lisbon, and the Lib Dems said it would be better to have one on in or out of the EU. The Conservatives announced before the Election they no longer thought a referendum possible once Lisbon was ratified.  After the election the Lib Dems backed away from an In/Out referendum.

                 If a large number of people request a referendum, it does not change the votes in the Commons. Unless one of the two main parties officially comes out in favour of a referendum on the EU issue, there will definitely  not be the votes in the Commons to pass a Referendum Bill. If only Labour supported a referendum it would require a lot of rebels from the government side. If the referendum proposal is to attract official Conservative support it effectively has to be agreed with the Lib Dems as Coalition partners.

                 If by any unforeseen chance of  Parliamentary arithmetic a Referendum Bill on In/Out was passed, all three political parties would probably campaign together to promote staying in. They might succeed in securing a Yes vote, as they did in 1975. I speak as one who voted No in 1975, because the Treaty of Rome always said it was about creating  big European level government and not just about a common market. It also made clear the UK would be sent a big bill for it all, though Margaret Thatcher did renegotiate that in our favour.

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41 Comments

  1. lifelogic
    Posted December 28, 2010 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    If the on line petitions get close to doing anything serious, other than window dressing, they will certainly be abolished.

    Democracy yes we should try it rather than just pretending the UK has it already.

    • lifelogic
      Posted December 28, 2010 at 9:00 am | Permalink

      The today program seems to be excited this morning about the different brains of socialists discovered in some recent research. This is hardly surprising after all are the brains of cuckoos not programmed to push out of the nest the other eggs and the brains of spiders programmed to make webs despite having no parental training.

      So be nice to them as they cannot help the triumph of wishful emotion over logic it is just how their brains were formed.

      It should save the BBC a fortune though as they can now just do a quick brain scan to check that potential employees have the requisite “big state socialist thinking” and the low maths, science and logic levels needed for a typical BBC job.

  2. alan jutson
    Posted December 28, 2010 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    I seem to recall a similar request for a list of Departments and Quango’s which could be listed for removal.

    Thousands of ideas sent in !

    RESULT ?????????.

    We no longer have a real Democracy, have not had one for years.
    We have an Elected Dictatorship which comes up for renewal, now every five years.

    As the decades have passed we have had ever larger Government, higher Tax rates, a larger Benefit culture, lower Education standards, more EU involvement, and larger debt.

    The common thread:
    Politicians believing that they have all of the answers.

    Conclusion: Scrap the present system, its not working.

    Talking here in general terms John, you and one or two others seem to be the exception to the rule.

    • Posted December 29, 2010 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

      Dear Alan,

      Scrapping the present system is logical, but would suggest we have an alternative in place prior to demolition.

  3. Andy
    Posted December 28, 2010 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    You’re right: all a waste of time. The last Government had a similar idea. They got a petition calling on Gordon Brown to resign. He didn’t.

    • lifelogic
      Posted December 28, 2010 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

      Good job Brown didn’t resign or we would still have a real labour government not just a half labour one.

  4. Colin D.
    Posted December 28, 2010 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    The first duty of an MP is to represent the interests of those that put him/her in power. As it stands – and your blog confirms – MPs once elected simply ignore the will of their electorate.
    It is time that MPs were elected on the basis of putting the will of their voters FIRST and the party line SECOND. MPs should also be required to hold regular public meetings in their constituency at which they would have to PROVE they had voted in Parliament on a basis that did represent the will of those that put them in power.

    • lifelogic
      Posted December 28, 2010 at 11:21 am | Permalink

      Absolutely but clearly the interest of the voters are largely irrelevant. Even an MP as excellent as John Redwood would not get elected easily without party backing.

      The system generally forces them to be more loyal to the party than the electorate or their principals and since MPs are the only protection against excessive tax, regulation and an oppressive state (and they are not any real protection) then we get an oppressive state. And parties who say one thing to get elected then do the exact opposite and sell your democracy to the EU.

  5. Stephen Almond
    Posted December 28, 2010 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    “If a large number of people request a referendum, it does not change the votes in the Commons…”

    Is there ANY way in which politicians think they should reflect the views of the electorate?

    • Stuart Fairney
      Posted December 29, 2010 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

      No, and this is the remarkable thing, our MP’s find the idea that they should represent the will of the people, truly odd.

      There is no supposed democracy in Dubai, but then no income tax either, I think they have the better deal.

  6. Posted December 28, 2010 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    It’s a small step in the right direction, much like the previous step of introducing online petitions for the PM to dismiss out of hand; a few more small steps in this direction and we might have made some actual progress.

    Really, we should have this in the constitution, that any petition receiving sufficient expression of support is put to a referendum, bypassing and overruling the government of the day entirely – much as places like Switzerland and California have. The ability to recall and repeal legislation the same way would also be good.

    I’m sure I wouldn’t agree with all the results of this, but quite certain I would agree with more than I do under the present system.

  7. oldtimer
    Posted December 28, 2010 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    From your comments we may conclude that this proposal for petitions and Parliamentary debates is merely a smoke and mirrors measure without real meaning. The reason is that it will have no impact whatsoever on Parliamentary groupthink. Not an encouraging start to the New Year.

    On the other hand my expectations of this Coalition government have come to be set very low. By this standard your blog post did not disappoint.

  8. Posted December 28, 2010 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    As usual in politics, the proposal is one of those things which sound good, but is totally meaningless.

  9. Posted December 28, 2010 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    I cannot disagree with your thoughts on this as you have described the divide between the voter and the MPs, so much for democracy. Why should we even bother voting for any party, as the essence of your piece is that the people have no say because the power lies firmly in the hands of anti democratic cross party political elites.

    The only question is what then are we the people supposed to do, take our wishes to the streets? Then of course they same MPs will be shouting about the rule of law and the sovereignty of parliament.

    • Simon
      Posted December 28, 2010 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

      Ken ,

      Mr Redwood appears to be telling us that it is pointless to vote liblabcon .

      This is hardly a revelation but it is refreshing to have a member of parliament confirm it .

      We have the power in our hands to end this by voting UKIP or independents …. assuming , and it’s a big one , that the votes would be correctly tallied up , collated and adhered to .

      There are so many vested interests that I imagine the results would either be aided and abetted or a state of emergency declared or EuroPol would send policeman to “assist” ours .

      Reply: I have told you in the past that voting UKIP gives you the opposite of what you want.

      • Posted December 29, 2010 at 9:43 am | Permalink

        Yes Simon that is clearly the message a vote for LIBLABCON is pointless, nothing will ever change as they are all fully signed up to the EU nightmare.

        That is why Mr Redwood’s reply makes no sense, his argument being that a vote for UKIP would split the anti EU vote. As the Conservatives do not offer a single anti EU policy who exactly is splitting the vote?

  10. A.Sedgwick
    Posted December 28, 2010 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    “I suggest the public does not get too full of expectations “- quite so, it would be too close to the will of the people.

  11. Posted December 28, 2010 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    This is all about creating the illusion of democracy.

    • Simon
      Posted December 28, 2010 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

      Just like the charade which is held every 5 years .

      Makes everything seem normal when the actual decisions are taken in Brussels and then just implemented by the regions .

  12. Electro-Kevin
    Posted December 28, 2010 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Petitions should be ignored in all except the most parochial of matters – such as an unpopular local building development, pub or a gipsy encampment.

    So 100,000 people sign a petition to get us out of the EU. It could be infered just as easily that 59 million people DIDN’T sign it. Even I (a Eurosceptic) would see the iniquity of that. A special interest group gets itself organised and runs a successful on-line campaign and as a sop to ‘democratic process’ it’s subject is discussed at cabinet level – the result foisted on the rest of us unlikely to have been aware that it was going on and having no chance to counter it with negative petitionning.

    It’s a pathetic idea and no compensation for the loss of democratic representation in Parliament.

    There are very simple and crucial core issues which the majority want dealt with and which politicians flatly refuse to tackle.

  13. Damien
    Posted December 28, 2010 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Politicians should balance a number of interests when deciding to vote in parliament not simply those interests from say a petition in favour of this or that.

    That said with technology its a relatively simple thing to oraganise and collate the information. MPs would be morally obliged to give serious debate to petitions that secured the requisite number of votes, and then free to decide how to vote.

    On the plus side it might be a useful tool for party managers deciding on future policies and in might even take some of the protesters off our streets. People once having voted in a petition might feel that they have contributed sufficiently to the democratic process and leave it there!

    Personally I would hope that this would herald the era where the politicians invite the public to indicate online their preference on all sorts of things, not just the big referenda topics.

    As for the EU it is a flawed concept that you can have monetary union with fiscal union so I now expect that they will interpret the existing treaties to make the necessary alterations without further a referendum. Its interesting that with all its democratic noise the EU is now being decimated by its least democratic member, the financial market.

  14. norman
    Posted December 28, 2010 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    The only thing that can energise democracy in this country (short of tearing the whole lot down and starting again) would be to introduce some kind of open primaries, so that MP’s at least feel they have to pay lip service to the electorate they are there to serve, rather than exclusively listen to the Party whips.

    Didn’t both the Lib Dems and Conservatives support this pre-election?

  15. Keith McBUrney
    Posted December 28, 2010 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    WE COUNTED THEM OUT AND WE COUNTED THEM BACK IN< BUT CAN WE COUNT ON THEM?

    If "we, the people" were minded to set about exercising self-determination of the forms of governance best suited to our mutual needs – a tenet of both UN human rights declarations – by calling on full recognition, acknowledgement and provision for the sovereignty of our nations' people in being our individual, joint and several free wills and supreme above all save our elected head of state(s), judicial and legislative authorities of our self-governance, then yes, an e-petition alone won’t overwhelm the gatekeepers of little enthusiasm.

    But if it were to take the form of an affidavit inviting the elected and electors – as by definition then would be one and the same – to sign up to the declaration and affirm their commitment to our ownership of the process giving voice to our ideas, proposals and preferences as of natural right,

    … and the declaration was part of the preamble to a fuller "People's Sovereignty and Democratic Participation Bill", wherein the body made provision for statutory assent to a full suite of measures enabling any repeat any cause for concern to be raised at any time with any public, private and/or voluntary body, by drawing attention to the nature and extent of deficiencies being unfit for the public purpose of the common good in seeking just remedy through resolution primarily by consensual means,

    … starting with a People's Convention to debate, deliberate and determine direction and guidance on the owned process, including further examples such as People's Initiatives, Petitions & Bills, non-binding Preferenda and binding Referenda,

    … would you then think it perverse if the pervasive problem of the exclusive British political system, its elected and non-elected officials and representatives from the LabLibServative party political hegemony, their paymasters and fellow travellers – including the monopolistic public and private media captivated by the Whitehall and Westminster village – might bestir themselves from being in thrall – albeit less enamoured than of late – to the City of London, once aka UK Plc (hah!) – and concentrate with us in serving the true debt we owe each other:

    …. namely, our just and so strong in being autonomous and harmonious societies and communities of interdependent interests emanating from our families, friends and fellows in a family of friendly fellow nations, wherein we Britons – English, Scots, Irish, Welsh, Manx, Channel and Cornish – realise our personal and plural freedom, attendant duty and potential to do as we would be done by,

    …. in finally throwing off the Norman hungover yoke and donning the inattentively unexamined for far too long in not being our fully participative emancipation, culminating in a constitution or constitutions of, by and for the self-governance of our organically evolving societies instead of the high-handed imposition of corporate vested interest?

    How else are we to be in anything together other than our realm of highlands, lowlands and islands when seeing off the enfeebling tribalism that called in the IMF, fell out of the ERM, enabled Big Bang and failed to prevent Big Bust and Bankrupt Britain being bailed out of administration by mortgaging our own and our children’s children’s future?

    If it’s too big to fail, it’s too bloody big. And Big Society will go the same fuzzy wuzzy way unless it is defined by fully participative popular sovereignty recognising what is at stake being masked by political parties on ever present manoeuvres with a four/five year horizon based on fudging issues and forecasts in passing the buck back and forth, to and fro, with the latest leveraged power that came with the never to be fully unpacked and put on display parcel.

    If nothing else then, an e-petition linked to an initiative or bill would be useful as a complementary signature counter in the foregoing case amid many others, especially when it comes to deciding our preferences for being part or not of incorporating federal or non-incorporating confederal Unions here in our isles and in the continent.

    But self-determination from bottom up first, yes?

    Cheers!
    Aye Ours
    Keith

  16. Geoff not Hoon
    Posted December 28, 2010 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Redwood, I think you may have to think of getting rid of us all and to acquiring new bloggers. I read today that the ‘respected’ MP Mr. Paul Flynn has said that “the blogsphere is not an area that is open to sensible debate; it is dominated by the obsessed and the fanantical and we will get crazy ideas coming forward” Will you send my P45 and final salary cheque to the usual address in Santaland please.

    • Posted December 29, 2010 at 5:16 am | Permalink

      Or how about we change that to:

      “Parliament is not an area that is open to honest debate; it is dominated by special interest groups and the EU and we get crazy legislation coming out”

    • norman
      Posted December 29, 2010 at 7:41 am | Permalink

      Ideas like small government, controlled government spending, letting people keep more than 50% of what they earn, democracy, etc. are now seen as fanatical and crazy. These things are best left in the hands of people who know what’s best for us, our politicians (they are now even telling us how to spend the money they do deign to let us keep with the new ludicrous ‘Big Society Charity Drive’ – how much lower can things go?)

      We should be all at home giggling at the TV and wolfing down unhealthy snacks as some third rate ‘celebrity’ is forced to eat bugs in the jungle or perform a waltz.

  17. The ESSEX GIRLS
    Posted December 28, 2010 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    John, why is it in your view that against the background of loss of sovereignty, costs and firm public opinion that the government of the day continues to back our membership? There does seem an illogicallity to the commitment and there must be a basic reason which escapes the broad public?
    They can’t ALL see themselves climbing aboard the gravy train can they?

  18. janet
    Posted December 28, 2010 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Is it beyond the ability of technocrats to ask the question ” Should the UK be in the EU? Answer yes or no The second question being ” Who is your M.P.? After a free vote in the commons it would be possible to see who has betrayed their voters

  19. Denis Cooper
    Posted December 28, 2010 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    It was clear from the start that there was no intention to allow the petitions to have any legal effect.

    Therefore they will only have any immediate practical effect when they’ve been started by some campaign group, usually funded by the government, in order to generate public support for a measure which the government already wants to push through.

    The same with the EU-wide system set up through the EU Constitution, aka the Lisbon Treaty.

    So the UK variant of the EU-wide system can very fairly be dismissed as “a gimmick to fool the people”, “tokenism”, “another PR stunt”, “a ploy to fob off the electorate”, etc …

    But, on the other hand, once in place as a sop it could eventually backfire when people try to use it, realise that it was just intended to be a worthless sop, and demand that it be replaced by a real, legally effective, petition system.

  20. BobE
    Posted December 28, 2010 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    Britain is a dictatorship run by four or five people at the top. Every five years the leadership is replaced in a show election and the state rolls onwards. The drone MPs mearly vote as dictated by the current party group and continue to feather as big a nest as possible.

  21. Alte Fritz
    Posted December 28, 2010 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Our membership of the EU is about the one remaining taboo subject; to say that we should be out is tantamount to ‘coming out’ as a foaming racist bigotted little Englander (add other pejoratives to taste). The British establishment has been committed to the ‘project’ since our first unsuccesful application in ’63. So, short of some truly revolutionary event, there will be no referendum unless the referendum, like that in ’75 is held on a wholly unfair basis. Many will remember that there were no spending caps and that the EU side had ten times the funding as was available to those who wished to leave.

    It may be ill mannered to say so, but, in reality, only the collapse of the EU can liberate Britain, and other nations. The project has the wholehearted support of the establishment in each member state, and now has such policitical substance that the idea of secession is intolerable. If anyone doubts that, then why is any country such as Denmark or Ireland compelled to hold referendum after referendum until the desired result is procured?

    There is only one event which will rock the EU sufficiently to bring it down, and that is the Euro. Mr van Rumpuy made the very point in the run up to the Irish bail out. Let us, therefore, hope that in 2011 the markets manage to send the dominos falling one by one.

    If the future really belongs to behemoths like China India the USA or Russia, then so be it. The EU will not be in that league just because a few figures add up. That is the joke. As much as we mock the EU as a colossus, it is really no more than a troublesome bureaucracy. The characteristics which mark out the behemoth nations are not present in the EU and never will be. The EU is engaged in a futile mission and we in the memebr states are bound up in this futility because our elites refuse to listen to the people.

    • just me
      Posted December 28, 2010 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

      China are coming to the aid of the EU, wonder where there money is coming from, oops sorry forgot we give money to China…..silly me and I’m an ordinary person…

  22. Posted December 28, 2010 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    Who else hears the Tumbrels

  23. Alan Wheatley
    Posted December 28, 2010 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for explaining so clearly the need for UKIP.

    • just me
      Posted December 28, 2010 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

      1/01/2011…membership of UKIP myself and my youngest daughter, son, husband and older daughter, will never vote again.

  24. Gary
    Posted December 28, 2010 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

    (Apologies I misposted this reply on an old thread. Time for me to wake up from Christmas indulgence)

    “If a large number of people request a referendum, it does not change the votes in the Commons.”

    Well then we had better bypass the commons. If they are so out of sync with the wishes of the people then they serve no purpose to the people. And if we are supposed to have democracy by the people, the Commons must get out of the way. If they don’t oblige the people may nudge THEM.

  25. JimF
    Posted December 28, 2010 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

    There are two deficits in democracy here:

    First, promises made by parties before an election can be ditched afterwards +for the sake of the Coalition+
    Second, there is no way for a majority of folk in the Country wanting a referendum on a specific issue to actually achieve that.

    Neither of these two will be altered within the current system of Party Politics. A sufficient number of politicians within the system, sensing that the end result of the fudge and muddle which has been going on for perhaps 50 years will be economic and social collapse, need to stand up for a different, better and more democratic way forward. Perhaps AV is no bad thing in that a lesser number of mortals will need to step up to the pedestal as catalysts of change to effect change.

  26. Lindsay McDougall
    Posted December 29, 2010 at 1:05 am | Permalink

    A rather more effective way of communicating with MPs will be to ensure that UKIP becomes the largest single party in the next European elections. Let’s do it. Whatever else happens, it will ensure that the Conservative Party will have to think hard about what their European policy will be going into the NEXT general election. Yes, repeal of the Lisbon Treaty should be there. If it means that we have to get a new leader, so be it. If it means a diplomatic bust up, so be it.

    • Boudicca
      Posted December 29, 2010 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

      Well I am now an ex-Conservative and will be going all out to help UKIP win the next EU elections.

      If enough of us ditch our loyalty to the Party which ignores our opinions, and instead become activists for the one that does, we CAN make it happen.

      Vote UKIP; join UKIP; campaign for UKIP.

  27. Del
    Posted December 29, 2010 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    Unless Party whips are discarded, in both houses even the vestiges of democracy do not have a chance..Should we not vote for a parliamentary rep. eg an MP the media will have an even more say in the running of the country.Possibly lady gaga would get enough votes to be Prime Minister!!!!

  28. Winston's Black Dog
    Posted December 30, 2010 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    We are now effectively a one party state with 3 different coloured covers.

    My new Conservative MP (elected 2010) stood for Labour in the 2005 General Election.

    That one example tells you all you need to know about the effectiveness of our Parliamentary democracy.

    The problem is that far too many people would vote for a pig if you stuck a blue or red rosette on it because “it’s what we’ve always done and our parents before us.”

    Time to remove the majority of supine MPs who roll over to have their tummies tickled by the EU and replace them with people who represent the UK rather than a foreign country called EU.

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, He graduated from Magdalen College Oxford, has a DPhil and is a fellow of All Souls College. A businessman by background, he has been a director of NM Rothschild merchant bank and chairman of a quoted industrial PLC.

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