In Jon Snow's interview with Russell Brand last week the presenter accused the comedian of inconsistency for rallying against parliamentary democracy while asking people to sign a government e-petition. I think Jon missed the point. Russell Brand didn't play by the rules of our parliamentary system, he hacked it.
The petition Brand was promoting had been on the government e-petition site for almost a year. It was lurking with around 40,000 signatures, a lot of people, but according to the rules not enough for Parliament to bother with it. The rules state it needs 100,000 signatures to be put forward for a debate.
The 100,000 number is just one of the ways the government petition site sucks momentum out of campaigns. You can't contact anyone that supports your petition to encourage them to share it with others. Government officials choose whether they will accept the petition, they hold the right of reply and even if your petition meets the criteria they can still decide to ignore it.
That's what was happening to the petition for a debate on drug policy, it hadn't achieved the arbitrary number of signatures those in power say is needed to unlock our own democracy so it was going to be closed.
So what did Brand do - powered by Avaaz - he emailed hundreds of thousands of people and asked them to f**ing sign. Overnight the 100,000 target was smashed. And now the petition must be considered for a debate. With 100,000 people and the high-profile backing of Brand chances are it will get one.
This isn't playing by the government rules - it is hacking them. And it's not just Brand that's disrupting our democracy in this way.
In Glasgow people are campaigning against what they feel are draconian new rules about how their park can be used. The Head of Communications at the council wrote to a national paper complaining that people were signing a Change.org petition instead of filling in the form on the council's website.
Many people's experience of engaging with democracy is just this; "follow the rules or you'll be ignored". The trouble is even if you follow the rules you are often ignored, and who has the right to set the rules anyway? There are many very worthy petitions on the government petition site that deserve a discussion in the halls of Westminster but don't get it. Email your MP and you get an automatic response with a list of reasons why the MP is unlikely to reply. It is not exactly a way to welcome people to political engagement. So people turn to other methods to force a response and play the system to their own advantage.
The government ignored repeated calls to discuss the issue of food banks at Christmas. That was until Jack Monroe started a petition and gathered huge public momentum for a debate. This time instead of begging politicians to listen, Labour MPs lined up to support and call the debate. It was within the parliamentary system but Jack and her 140,000 supporters were running the show.
On the face of it engaging parliament may not seem a very revolutionary act but the smart revolutionaries use the system and dictate their own terms. People use sites like Change.org, Avaaz and 38 Degrees to force politicians out of the comfortable process they set up and into the real world. Real democratic engagement doesn't fit into a neat little box on a form. It's messy and noisy; petitions, emails, tweets, public meetings, protests. That noise is harder to ignore and can be uncomfortable for those used to setting the terms.
Smart politicians are realising there is a shift and are embracing the potential for a new level of dialogue with the public. Politicians, local councillors and even CEO's are responding to petitions on Change.org every week and the people that started the petition decide if they accept the response. Here playing field is different, the rules are laid out by the people not those in power.
To engage with the political system but to do it on your terms and not theirs, is a very important and powerful shift. It's hacking the system from the inside. Viva la revolution!Suggest a correction