When the new e-petitions system went live all the talk was of the return of the death penalty. Those of us of a more liberal mindset braced ourselves for an outpouring of the most reactionary, kneejerk populism imaginable. But it hasn't come to pass. MPs are not having to debate the return of the hangman's noose (indeed, the petition against the return of capital punishment is well ahead of the one in favour, and neither will reach the 100,000 threshold needed to trigger a debate).
As we saw on Monday evening with the debate on the Hillsborough disaster, the new e-petitions system brought in by the Coalition empowers people to force MPs to debate issues important to them. Thanks to the 140,000+ people who signed the Hillsborough petition, it now appears inconceivable that there could be any further reluctance to release all official papers relating to the 1989 tragedy.
The e-petitions system, launched in early August, honours a promise made in the agreement that set up the Coalition Government. So, now that it has had over two months to bed in, with over 8000 petitions now open for signature, what kind of petitions have attracted the most support and what do they say about our political bugbears and foibles?
I have been through the most successful petitions (the ones on track to reach 100,000 before their self-imposed deadline) and they seem to fall into a small number of categories.
There are issues - illustrated by the most successful petition, on the riots - that are born out of the white heat of anger and frustration. No doubt if these petitions had been around at the time the MPs' expenses scandal broke we would have seen a petition with millions of signatures calling for the most draconian measures against the worst offenders.
There are the predictable ones, on the cost of petrol (already over the 100,000 mark) and leaving the EU. These are the Daily Mail-style ones that we surely expected to see. I wonder however if the creator, say, of the anti-EU petition expected it to do rather better than the 35,000 or so signatures it has managed to gather in over two months. Although it is on track to top 100,000 by its deadline, its humdrum progress has hopefully revealed to anti-Europeans that we are not as a nation burning with anger about straight bananas or the use of the metric system.
Finally there are the surprisingly progressive petitions. There is one on making financial education a compulsory part of the school curriculum, surprisingly the fourth most popular. Another is about a technical (albeit important) change to pensions, and another seeks to promote media plurality.
I should declare a personal interest in two e-petitions. I have my own (somewhat unsuccessful one) calling on the abolition of payouts for ministers - like Liam Fox - who are sacked or who resign. If you agree with me (and Quentin Letts of the Daily Mail) that Dr Fox shouldn't get a big payout then please take a look and sign.
With my work hat on I am also promoting one of the most successful, on midwife numbers.
I am a Coalitionist and a supporter of political reform, so I am pleased that this little improvement by the Coalition to how Parliament works is panning out well. It is particularly reassuring too that rather than revealing Britain to be a marshalling yard for hordes of angry, reactionary, hand 'em and flog 'em brigades, it turns out that many of us are actually quite progressive... the sort of people who put schooling children in the basics of running their own personal finances well ahead of a referendum on leaving the EU. I don't know about you, but that warms my spirit on this cold, autumn day.
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