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A Branson Pickle - Can Online Petitions Shape Democracy?

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As of today, around 165,000 people have signed it. A very quick search throws up over 2,000 bits of media coverage about it. One of the great social injustices of our time? Nope. Richard Branson's lost the franchise for the West Coast Main Line rail service. Despite the huge outpouring of public devotion to Virgin Trains, it looks rather like the Government will press on with plans to give First Group the contract.

So this must prove, once and for all, that online petitions don't work right? Wrong. Ask Richard Branson. He didn't set up the petition on Government's own e-petition site but he's certainly scored hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of free media coverage with passengers telling the world how brilliant his company is. The pressure's on the Government here, and not least because they tell the punters that if 100,000 people sign a petition, this 'triggers' a debate in parliament. This isn't strictly speaking the case - but more on that in a bit.

On Radio Five Live on Tuesday night, (about 40 mins in) they had a discussion about online petitions. The debate went thus: Politicians don't listen, there's no intellectual rigour to it, and back in my day we stood out in the pouring rain and got signatures on a clipboard. THAT WAS PROPER CAMPAIGNING MY LAD - WHEN MEN WERE MEN AND... you get the picture. Then comes the usual but baffling line: "people just click sign and never think of it again." This perceived disengagement from the issue at hand is known by the cynical as 'clicktivism'. It does make me think though - when people used to sign petitions on a clipboard, in the pouring rain, when men where men etc - did anyone call that 'pen-tivsm' and bemoan the fact that people weren't using quills any more?

People engage with issues on different levels. Some man the barricades, some click 'like' on Facebook. But to say that something's less valuable because it's on the internet - the world's most powerful communication tool - is nonsense. To say there's no intellectual debate or discussion about them is just plain wrong - have you read twitter? Seen comment threads on Facebook? Blogs online news sites? Debate is everywhere, more than it ever has been.

So do they work? Jayne Linney thinks they do. After weeks of frustration that villain-du-jour ATOS wouldn't record her disability assessment she started a campaign on Change.org to get them to change their mind. It got just over 1,000 signatures - then MPs got involved and a bona fide campaign broke out. She won it.

Ask Derek Macabrey. Flabbergasted at plans by Newtownabbey council to build a huge cemetery opposite a childrens hospice, he launched a petition on Change.org. More than 6,000 people backed it. The council is now looking for an alternative site. There are hundreds if not thousands of these kinds of victories all over the world.

Do politicians listen? Well they listened to the half a million people who signed the 38 Degrees petition for a u-turn on forest privatisation last year. This campaign is a show-stopping example of the power of the petition to inspire debate, offline political engagement and well rounded campaigns that now mean our forests wont be provided in partnership with McDonalds.

As for the Government's site - if they don't have a commons debate on the West Coast Mainline issue people might, understandably, ask what the point of it is. The debate 'trigger' is the big selling point of the Government's site and while it's a great thing to have such an accessible tool for citizens to engage with government if it doesn't do what it says it claims to do then that's a problem. Thousands who may have never engaged in an issue in this way are looking to see whether the Government is actually listening to them.

Signing a petition is not a silver bullet for challenging those in power. But building movements of people is certainly a huge part of it. And what's even more important at a time when people are almost entirely sceptical of politics and politicians, is that it's putting power in the hands of the people - and that's what real change is all about.