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E Petitions: The rise of direct democracy

WHEN Laburnum Road Library was faced with closure, the local community suffered the loss of a much loved asset. As a study area for young people, IT hub for those without access and social space for the elderly, the library was all things to all generations.

SUCCESS STORY: Josh outside Laburnum Road Library

Josh Mason, a Redcar and Cleveland Lib-Dem councillor, set up an e petition to save the library after the council’s cuts to the service. With 250 signatures online and a further 200 written, he’s managed to keep Laburnum open at reduced hours.

“The most successful E-petitions are those highlighting either macro-humanitarian issues, such as the persecution of individuals or groups and those focusing on parochial issues, at grassroots level.” Josh said,

“E-petitions serve a purpose in making legislators aware of issues they may not have realised were significant. However, the ease with which they can completed online renders them less powerful than more traditional objections. They have very little scope in the long run for bringing about meaningful legislative change.”

In a social media dominated society, everyone has an opinion and wants to broadcast it. From protest groups to online campaigns, our democracy is more invested in politics than ever before. Noticing this trend, the government formed petition.parliament.co.uk, an online E Petition site for the population to help create legislation. According to the BBC, petitions get 6.4 million signatures a year with 12 people signing up every minute. We’re now in no better position to shape our way of life.

As 47% of petitions submitted are rejected due to a failure of meeting government criteria, the market is becoming oversaturated. With many citizens feeling the pressure to get their petition viral. Change.org, 38 degrees, UK Parliament and Facebook are just some of the sites you can create a petition on. Even though the market is thriving, the choice is sometimes overwhelming.


It’s thought that the first day is crucial to a petition’s success. Rallying support and getting digital shares are essential to keep it afloat. Karen King, Lib Dem Redcar and Cleveland councillor, says the main issues of failed petitions are

PETITION SUPPORT: Karen has voted on a variety of petitions in her political career

due to a lack of signatures, confused audience or not meeting the criteria.

“The right petition for the right reasons is fantastic for gaining momentum and finding out others are in agreement with you.” says Karen,

“The problem lies when a petition is set up purely on a one sided point of view. It doesn’t give you facts, is unsure of what the outcome will be and is created on opinion.

Karen has supported various petitions in her political career, including those based on human rights, religious equality and same sex marriage.

“In a democracy the politicians are elected into office to make decisions on behalf of their constituents. Although I wish we had a magic wand to make everyone happy, sometimes we just can’t.

“When debating e petitions, I never know what my vote is going to be until I hear the full debate. All councillors keep an open mind when it comes to direct democracy.” Karen says.

The effectiveness of E-Petitions has been debated vigorously in the UK’s media. With The Guardian declaring DirectGov a ‘farce’, it’s easy to see the consensus of the general public.

Discussing the fact that half of e petitions are rejected before they reach publication, The Guardian says that online e petition sites create ‘false expectations’ as many can’t hold the weight needed to spark a debate.
They suggest that some of the best petitions ‘take us on a journey’ and excite audiences into believing ‘they are part of something bigger than themselves.’ This ‘social change’ was seen in the Hillsborough petition which called for a full disclosure of all government documents relating to the 1989 disaster. With over 150,000 signatures it was debated in Commons and triumphed, showing that petitions with substance can be effective.


Steve Goldswain, a former Labour Redcar and Cleveland councillor, created an E-Petition to save North Ormesby and Eston Grange walk in centres from shutting. With over 1,000 supporters, the closure is still going ahead leaving residents fighting to secure a GP appointment.

“What people don’t realise is, with service closures, there’s often a reason like ‘cuts’ behind it. No matter how much backing or persuading, sometimes you just can’t change what’s already going to happen.” Steve said.


Ian Lapworth, a DJ at Connect FM, recently created a petition to close retail shops on Boxing Day. With over 200,000 signatures, it declares that shopping should ‘get back to the way it was’ and that ‘retail workers should be given some decent family time to relax and enjoy the festivities like everyone else.’

The popularity of the petition online has meant that it’s reached Theresa May for debate.

TIRING: Grace has worked over 200 hours this Christmas period

Grace Clugston, a Customer Service Advisor at TK Maxx, shared the Change.org petition to her 215 Facebook connections, declaring the retail period as ‘tiring’.

“The run up to Christmas is long and exhausting work. Customers already have their shopping so it’s not necessary to be open. The workers also deserve some well earned time off!” Grace says,

“I’d love to see retail at least closed on Boxing Day so that everyone can have extra time to spend with family”

There has been scepticism about the petitions success with many believing that the decision should be given to the retail giant’s, not Parliament.

“What people don’t understand is that family life is different now to what it was 30 years ago. We no longer have 9am – 5pm ‘family time’ and many want to work for double pay.” says Karen.

“We’ve seen this petition circulating before in the form of Sunday opening hours. It’ll always be a subject we are debating in some shape or size.”

It’s well known that, if you have an interesting topic to change, your petition will instantly go viral on social media. As Facebook now has it’s own campaign feature, it’s easier than ever to tailor it for a certain audience and location.

A recent example is the Change.org petition calling for Ian Duncan Smith to live on £53 a week. With over 400,000 signatures, many citizens claimed Duncan Smith had ‘more money than sense’ and he should ‘prove he knows the value of money’

Despite the oversaturation, e petitions show a poignant public interest to instill change in society.

“Although social media is beneficial for generating support, the problem is that it can often play devil’s advocate. It’s nameless, faceless and factless (at times) so we can sign petitions based on the title without even knowing the agenda and notion behind it.” says Karen.

“If you’re going to start an E-Petition ensure that you research the topic well by speaking to people, check there are no duplicate petitions and contact a decision maker to help aid the process.”


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