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Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote what in Vox Political terms was a blistering indictment, in which I tore metaphorical strips off of any reader who had failed to sign the government e-petition then known as Pat’s Petition.
This document, calling on the government to “stop and review the cuts to benefits and services which are falling disproportionately on disabled people, their carers and families” had secured around 60,000 signatures but had less than a day left to run when the article was written.
It would be nice to think that the piece acted as a prompt for at least some of the 3,000 people who signed in those last few hours – but this was not enough to save the petition, which failed to reach the 100,000 signatures needed for Parliament’s backbench business committee to consider taking its demands further.
Now we are in a similar position with the successor to Pat’s Petition – the WoW Petition. It just happens that Yr Obdt Srvt had a hand in writing this one, along with a few others, and a lot of work was done to make it media-attractive and a magnet for signatures.
It was launched by the comedian Francesca Martinez, who is disabled, and the organisers went out of their way to find ways of publicising it throughout the year it was to be available for signing – for example, with ‘mass tweets’ on Twitter to attract tweeple who had not noticed it previously.
At the time of writing it has two months (and a few hours) left to run, and has just reached approximately the same number of signatures as Pat’s Petition. Unless around 1,000 people start signing every day, this one might fail as well.
Now, I’m not going to shout at you (not this time, anyway). There have been several developments which have affected my own thinking about government e-petitions, meaning my own position towards them has cooled considerably.
For starters, ask yourself: When was the last time the government changed its policy – significantly – in response to a successful e-petition on its website? Has it ever happened? I can’t think of one instance. But that is what this petition demands.
The simple fact seems to be that the e-petition site is a sop for people who want to effect change. They think it is a tool for them to improve the country when in fact it is a tool for keeping them under control; if you are spending a year promoting an e-petition, you won’t be undermining the regime in other ways.
My problem with this – if it is true, and not just a product of my own paranoia – is that, according to government figures that are now long out-of-date, 73 people are dying every week and nothing is being done about it.
Look at the government’s own response, published after the WoW petition received more than 10,000 signatures. It’s on the petition page and concentrates on the call for a cumulative impact assessment, claiming (wrongly) that such an endeavour is practically impossible. It isn’t. There’s no interest in the other demands at all.
Next point: If the 73-a-week figure is accurate – and more so if it is now a grave underestimation (which is my belief) – then the 62,792 signatures achieved at the time of writing is a horrifying indictment of Britain and its citizens. Are we all so apathetic that we are happy to sit around, eating our horseburgers and gossiping about whether the stars of our favourite soap operas are sex fiends (two of the year’s more popular scandals) that we can’t be bothered to spare a thought for people – perhaps people we know – who are suffering for no reason other than that the government we didn’t even elect demands it?
The horsemeat in our beefburgers received far more coverage than the fact that 73 people every week have been dying, even though (as far as I am aware) nobody has suffered fatal injuries from chomping on a bit of thoroughbred. What does that tell you about your fellow Brits? What does it tell you about yourself?
Moving on: Other petitions, on other sites, have attracted more attention (and many more signatories) – especially those with a topical theme that is embarrassing for the government on a personal level. When Iain Duncan Smith said he could live on the amount people receive on Jobseekers’ Allowance, a petition – calling his bluff by demanding that he actually do so – attracted something like half a million signatures within a few days.
On a more serious level, after Smith and Grant Shapps decided it would be fun to distort the truth about the number of people moving into work to avoid the benefit cap, a petition demanding that they make apologies and reparations for their claims also attracted more than 100,000 signatures within a very short period of time – and is to be handed in to Parliament very soon.
These considerations lead us to some uncomfortable conclusions.
First, it is unlikely that a petition focusing only on the plight of those in danger of joining the 73-a-week death toll will ever reach its target – and even if it did, it is unlikely to gain traction among MPs.
Oh, you think I’m wrong? Have you signed the petition? No? Then get across and sign it now – put your name where it will do some good! Yes? Have you told all your friends about it and pestered them until they’ve signed it too? No? Then do that. If you’ve already done both and you still think I’m wrong, go out and accost strangers in the street to do it. That’s how you get it to its target!
Second, any mass media campaign needs a convenient – and probably banal – hook to hang itself on, in order to make the lackadaisical public look up from their fish and chips and take notice.
So any future campaign needs to be timed to correspond with an embarrassing slip-up by a DWP minister. This should not be a problem.
Third, any future campaign should not bother with the government e-petitions website but should take advantage of other petitioning organisations in order to make a more immediate impact.
Got that? Good.
None of these conclusions is an excuse not to sign the petition that is currently running. If you have signed it, make your friends do so. If you’ve made your friends do it, make strangers do it too.
More than 10 people are dying every day, because of this government’s policy – and more will do so, as long as that policy remains in effect. In the time it has taken me to write this, one more will have passed away. Add those numbers up and they are far, far too many.
There has been news this week that the British Army’s final tour of duty in Afghanistan has begun – a country where almost 450 British Armed Forces personnel have died since hostilities began 11 years ago. That’s about as many as are dying here at home, because of government policy, every six weeks.
And the figures we use to calculate the death toll are nearly two years out of date.
Think about it.
Take a hard look at yourself.
And get that petition up to 100,000.