04/08/2011 11:18 BST | Updated 04/10/2011 06:12 BST

E-Petitions Stir Debate Over Death Penalty But Online Activists Give Cautious Welcome

The launch of the government's new "e-Petitions" website, which from Thursday allows the public to collect signatures online on issues they care about in order to trigger parliamentary debates, has gathered cautious support from existing online campaigners.

For 38 Degrees, the UK-based online activism collective who for about two years have campaigned on issues raised by its members using tools such as online petitions and email drives, it is about time the government caught up.

The early signs are that the new official site could be an interesting new tool, they say.

"This could be a real opportunity," Hannah Lownsbrough, 38 Degrees campaign director, told The Huffington Post UK.

"When our members have heard about it by and large it's something they are interested in finding more about, because it seems like it might have the potential to be another way to build closer connections between people in parliament and the people who voted for them to be there."

If anything, 38 Degrees' success has proven the case for online activism of the sort that the e-Petitions website tries to harness.

The group's members now number at more than 800,000, they say. Their influence was first demonstrated through a campaign to stop the privatisation of England's forests, for which 38 Degrees received much credit from MPs. The group's 'Save Our NHS' petition has received 430,000 signatures and resulted in 80,000 emails to politicians, and the group also worked effectively in recent weeks to focus the huge public reaction to the phone hacking scandal towards campaigning for new media ownership standards.

Previous attempts at similar petitions projects by governments, however, have tended to demonstrate that politicians have less of a talent for this than people like 38 Degrees.

A similar website set up when Tony Blair was prime minister saw many petitions that were either intentionally silly or else just embarrassing for the government at the time.

More than 70,000 signatures were gathered for a one-word petition calling for Gordon Brown to "resign", for instance, while 50,000 called for Jeremy Clarkson to be appointed PM.

However, it was also hard to deny that people took an interest in the idea. And in the first few hours of the new site's operation it felt as though it had almost buckled under the sheer weight of traffic, displaying as it did error messages for many visitors.

Petitions have also started to arrive, and while not all of them were accepted - at least ten petitions about the restoration of Formula One to the BBC were rejected based on the fact they did not meet the terms and conditions - others have created serious debate.

In particular, petitions on whether capital punishment should be restored have seen hundreds of signatures on both sides of the argument in just a few hours.

On the death penalty issue 38 Degrees said that the early signs were that its members did not support its restoration. However, the group did welcome the debate as a matter of principle.

"The signs from 38 Degrees members, perhaps not hugely surprisingly, are that very few people who are involved with us feel that the death penalty is something that we should even be thinking about bringing back," Lownbrough said. "But our members feel pretty happy to have debates about those sorts of issues. Having an open debate about all sorts of issues is generally something that 38 Degrees members are willing to do."

In general, then, 38 Degrees says, its members are taking a "wait and see" approach to the site.

But do they worry the project will make 38 Degrees and other groups redundant?


"Petitions are only one thing that 38 Degrees members do together," Lownsbrough said.

"We've also had campaigning success through emailing our MPs on the days of key votes, we've done in person petition deliveries to MPs, we've also paid for newspaper ads and more, so while petitions are a really important part of what 38 Degrees members do together it is only one aspect of what we do."