Eight days ago I started a petition hoping for a few thousand signatures. The petition is now not much shy of half a million. Yesterday I handed it into the Department for Work and Pensions. This is my short account of what happened.
It was created in a matter of minutes in response to a tweet by the Guardian journalist George Monbiot, suggesting for a petition asking Iain Duncan Smith to empirically prove his claim made earlier that day on the BBC Today programme, that if he "had to", he could live on £53 a week. I quickly wrote the text for it, keeping the copy straightforward and direct, and then sent it the link to George Monbiot, who tweeted it out to his 60,000 followers.
I was impressed by the first few thousand signatures, putting it down to the influence of a public figure with a large Twitter following, but from then on things progressed in a way opposite to how I thought they would. Instead of the rate of signatures slowing down, as I expected them to, they accelerated; larger and larger numbers of people were signing, until each browser refresh brought with it leaps and jumps of thousands of more people.
The sensation from that point on was visceral. It felt like an object gaining ever greater velocity, before lifting off, and flying out of obscurity into the public domain.
People have quite naturally asked what was my motivation, and the purpose behind it? Some people have pointed out there are petitions with far more worthy causes that have attracted much less attention, but I feel this misses the point.
The simplicity of the request of the petition is what I think gave it its power and resonance. Asking a politician to prove what they have said, is both reasonable and logical, and although I was not expecting him to take up the offer, I did not consider it impossible, since even though it may be unthinkable to us, there is nothing to actually stop it - or a variation on it - from happening. After all, why should a man with the power to affect the lives of millions, many of whom are in poverty, not share some of their suffering? Would that not be a more healthy situation than being buried away in the countryside, enjoying a life of luxury?
My second reason, is that I feel it pointed towards a much larger problem, far more important than the words or life of Iain Duncan Smith. It illustrated how divided a society we have become financially, and as a consequence, literally. That we are currently ruled by a clique of aloof millionaires, who feel entitled to blame a devastating economic crisis, created by the the most wealthy members of society on the poorest and most vulnerable, is a sick joke.
To illustrate this it should be kept in mind that benefit fraud is estimated to have cost the country £1.2billion in 2011-2012, out of a spending budget of £695billion. A lot of money in real terms, but a rounding error in context.
But facts are irrelevant when you are a failing government; where the requirement is to have an enemy, allowing for a narrative that depicts you as the nobel dragon slayer, who is vociferously supported by much of the media, more than happy to oblige in this tale, by working for years and years to create a febrile, irrational, and unstable atmosphere, where well meaning citizens are indoctrinating to the point where the very word 'benefits' is charged with such potent emotionally energy, that it cannot be spoken without inducing an argument. In this instability is lost the simple reality, that welfare is a highly enlightened and intelligent system which is a proud, healthy, and successfully achievement of civilization, and there is no rich country without it. If you want proof, just look at many of the poorest countries, where children are forced to work in the streets or starve. With current logic they should be propelled to success by their incentive to work, but they are not: they are trapped, working away in misery, unable to escape poverty.
Faced with such a distortion of facts and justice, I feel the internet has a unique capacity to allow ordinary citizens to respond. I think this is partly because it differs from traditional media in two important respects: it is inherently bidirectional, and incredibly fast.
This can been seen by the events this week: a politician makes an absurd remark, a petition is quickly assembled answering back, it goes viral, and then heads back towards that politician, changing the debate irrevocably, and all in just a matter of hours.
That is not to say it is inevitable, it takes people to do something, and this week 460,000 people did. I thank every person who supported this petition and took the time out to sign it and send me supportive messages, and I sincerely hope it has inspired you as much as it has inspired me. We brought the debate back to the doorstep of power, and even though they attempted to drag it into the gutter, their actions lacked conviction and confidence, reflecting an establishment rattled by a very modern form of democracy.
My gratitude goes out to John, Katherine, and Brie, at Change.org, who helped me at every step, and George Monbiot, the original trouble maker.
Although the petition has been handed in, the struggle will continue in fighting these destructive cuts, and I hope the events of this week have made it slightly easier for more democratic internet movements of every possible variety.
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