What do e-petitioners want? Not the death penalty.
If you had listened to the news last night, you would have been under the impression that the government's new(ish) e-petition scheme was shortly to be landing us with another full scale House of Commons debate on the restoration of the death penalty. It was echoed over the world and in this morning's papers. There was a mixture of glee on the one side and other other (mine) some shaking of heads about the consequences of government by click.
The point about democracy is not that we take every silly idea seriously , it is that we take every worthy idea seriously -- and that those should not be the ideas of the rich or the privileged or the men or the old, but ANYONE's ideas. That's what's democratic about it. Democracy isn't something done at your lap top after a glass or two late at night (even the Athenians wouldnt have liked that... and even a referendum should demand you making some effort, with the rival positions laid out for consideration).
But may be we shouldnt have worried quite so much. When I got onto the site this morning, it wasnt quite as I had been led to believe. True, there were over 40 petitions calling for the return of the death penalty for various shades and varieties of murder (by paedophiles, by Class A drug dealers, of children or police...) in various shades of muddle:
"Restoration of capital punishment for certain murders only is unacceptable. Capital punishment should be restored for all crimes of murder without exception. However, in conjunction with this, legal and court measures must be introduced to ensure that the innocent are not convicted of murder; it is better to let the guilty sometimes escape to ensure that none who are innocent shall be convicted."
Or this (providing an over-optimistic answer):
"RE-INSTATEMENT OF THE DEATH PENALTY. With new technologies and DNA etc, the excuse of getting the wrong person convicted is no longer applicable."
Compare this to the fact that there were no petitions at all submitted on areas covered by the Department of Education or the Department for International Development (which is itself one reason why government by petition is so dangerous).
But a second look offered a slightly different perspective. So far, more people have signed up AGAINST the death penalty than FOR.
On a quick calculation there were just over 6000 for some form of capital punishment, and almost 8500 against, albeit in far fewer individual petitions -- one of which had attracted 7300 signatures -- more than combined total of those wanting a return to hanging. (Either way it is still a long way from the 100,000 signatures required for consideration for debate in parliament . . .)
But an even closer second look suggested a signficantly different practice among the petition administrators across the different government department. Go to the petitions submitted to the Foreign Office, and you will find that 18 calling for some form of referendum on withdrawl from the EU have been rejected by the authorities on the grounds that "There is already an e-petition about this issue". So far (though perhaps the civil servants have not got to work with their electronic blue pencils) none of the various petitions for return of the death penalty have been rejected.
Maybe that is because the site administrators reckon that they really are significantly different: the man wanting death for paedophiles may NOT in fact want to hang Class A drug dealers (whereas, by contrast, everyone who wants an EU referendum wants much the same thing).
Or maybe there is something more subtle going on. As I understand the rule, an individual petition has to score at least 100,000 signatures in order to qualify for consideration for a debate. Could it be that the young mandarins in charge of this site are doing their quiet best to make sure that they dont reach that target). The divide and rule principle.
If so, I'm all behind them. But it somehow undermines the government hype on the scheme.