Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything? Rhodri Marsden wonders if they signal a blow for people power – or the death throes of true democracy
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Excalibur is dead. Teresa Romero, the Spanish nurse, recovered from Ebola earlier this week, but her dog was put down, despite 408,000 people signing a petition asking for the animal to be spared. This huge demonstration of affection towards one dog may or may not have taken into account the public health concerns expressed by the Spanish authorities, but in any case it made no difference.

Meanwhile, an online petition with a mere 65 signatures was credited as having convinced the organisers of the Glastonbury festival to restrict the sale of North American headdresses at the site. In fact, this issue of cultural misappropriation had been debated and discussed by many festivals over the past few months and it's almost certain that the decision would have been made regardless.

Both cases demonstrate how petitions can be sideshows to the decision-making process; they make for interesting stories and give some indication of people's concerns, but do they actually achieve anything?

We seem to have retained an almost romantic view of petitions as a popular right. They have been a legitimate form of expression since Magna Carta was drawn up and have alternately grown and dwindled in popularity ever since, but they've never disappeared. And thanks to modern technology, we are in the midst of a petitioning boom – roughly 1,500 new petitions are launched on Change.org every month in the UK. But while there is a healthy appetite within the media for reporting them, they are often dismissed as being the result of bored people clicking buttons and showing only a fleeting interest in an issue.

"It's fair to say that if enough people sign a petition, it won't make a politician change their mind," says Neil Kingsnorth, head of activism at Friends Of The Earth. "That's why it's important to make it clear to people that there's more to a campaign than just a petition."

According to David Babbs, director of the campaigning website 38 Degrees, while lots of great campaigns certainly start with a petition, "not so many great campaigns end with one. They can either be the focal point of an inspiring campaign with a good strategy and lots of different tactics, or a kind of black hole into which a load of names disappear.

"One respect in which this era might be different is that there's a proliferation of petitions that don't go anywhere and never even get delivered to anyone. They're just counters." The significance of the numbers on those counters is incredibly hard to measure. In 2011, the British Government deemed 100,000 signatures to be enough to warrant an issue being considered for debate, but petitions attracting far fewer than that are often seen as being wildly successful, while those with even more are sometimes dismissed as "clicktivism".

"It's important not to be drawn into that numbers game," says Kingsnorth. "A 100,000-signature petition doesn't stand up in the way it used to, because some organisations are able to exceed that substantially when they jump on an issue in the right way. But it's still fantastic. To be able to give that many people a chance to voice their views on something is great. And it can carry a lot of weight."

Our relentless signing of online petitions certainly indicates that we believe that they might achieve something, although Richard Huzzey, a lecturer in history at the University of Liverpool, believes there is another factor at work.

"Historically," he says, "you might physically demonstrate your virtue by going along to a town hall to sign a petition, and it's the same today – it's partly showing off to other people. You might not be sure it'll make any difference, but you want other people to see you doing something for that particular cause.

"The organisers might hope you'll feel more involved; that you have a stake in the issue and you might take further action, but there's also the accusation that some petitions are used merely to collect data."

That collection of email addresses, seen by some as a potential invasion of privacy, has transformed the practicalities and economics of communicating with signatories.

"With paper petitions, you often don't have people's contact details," says Babbs, "or if you do you have a huge administrative task on your hands." Keeping people updated with campaign developments is central to the work of organisations such as change.org and 38 Degrees and Babbs thinks MPs know this.

"These petitions don't just represent a load of people. They represent a load of people who will be told if the MP has failed to act. So it has more leverage on the MP than it otherwise would – which isn't to say that MPs don't ignore petitions. They do."

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Former members of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers hand in a petition to save their battalion, last October (Getty)

Twice in British history, MPs have passed acts to deter petitioners. In the mid-17th century, petitioning was persistent and boisterous. One notable petition, signed by women sought the banning of coffee because of the "Grand Inconveniences accruing to their Sex from the Excessive Use of that Drying, Enfeebling Liquor". The beverage was blamed by the signatories for stripping their menfolk of "Old English Vigor" in the bedroom.

Such petitions would be presented to Parliament by huge numbers of people and in 1661 an Act was passed against "tumultuous petitioning", which limited to 10 the number of people presenting it. Then, in the mid-18th century, there was another surge in the popularity of petitions; tens of thousands were presented to Parliament annually, including the famous Chartist petitions, containing millions of signatures, that were repeatedly rebuffed by the political class.

In 1842, an Act was passed that stopped petitions triggering a debate in the House, and ever since then, petitions have played virtually no role in House Of Commons business. A green bag hangs behind the Speaker's chair in which they can be placed, but they are simply forwarded to the relevant government department and select committee. And while the first year of e-petitions resulted in 36,000 petitions containing 6.4 million signatures, they led to only a handful of debates and minimal action.

"In the 19th century, petitions were an important form of expression before people had the vote," says Huzzey. "In the 21st century, we seem to be going back to it, not because people don't have the vote but because they're not using it. I see the Government's e-petition website as a slightly desperate attempt to astroturf legitimacy; to synthesise a trust in politics."

Babbs, while agreeing that we live in an age of collapsing support and trust in politicians, looks at it as a huge opportunity for campaigners.

"We see the Westminster parties as anti-democratic ladders for career politicians," he says, "and it's at these times when the formal democratic mechanisms feel less responsive that there are more of these outsider approaches: people organising, making demands, contrasting their needs with those of the elite."

Emily Randall, a senior campaigner at Unlock Democracy, agrees. "People want a proper, more meaningful way of being engaged," she says. "They're frustrated with an electoral system that doesn't deliver much choice – but not having a choice doesn't mean you don't have a desire to keep people accountable and get them to engage with the things you care about."

Last week, Zac Goldsmith MP pressed David Cameron on his proposed amendment to the Recall Of MPs Bill, which would effectively give constituents the right to sack their MPs by petition. While this would deliver the ultimate in accountability, some people are concerned about petition-driven direct democracy replacing the electoral democracy that is failing us.

"If you end up polling everyone on each individual issue," says Huzzey, "you end up with what California had a few years ago, where everyone votes for tax cuts and spending increases."

There is also a danger, according to Randall, that attempts by government to engage in direct democracy distract from the real ways of achieving change. "In my local area in Haringey, there's a warehouse district community that's under threat," she says. "You had people setting up a petition about this on the Government's site, completely missing the fact that there's a local government petition option which could trigger a debate when it reaches 2,000 signatures. So part of the problem is a lack of political education; people not knowing how to organise campaigns."

In 1901, during a noticeable slump in interest in petitions, The Times referred to them as having only "sentimental value"; in other words, we go through periods when we misguidedly believe that they will work, before coming to our senses and realising that this isn't the case. For the current petitioning boom to be sustained, it would seem to require some evidence that they actually have an effect – and for us not to experience some kind of petition fatigue.

"Yes, there are a lot more going around now; more people receiving them than ever before," says Kingsnorth. "But to conclude that there's fatigue would require evidence that fewer people are signing them – and that's not really my experience. Yes, you're presented with a number of them every day, and not all people sign them and some people are fed up with being asked but, in my view, this stuff develops organically. If people are getting tired of them, campaigning will adapt and change. I certainly don't see it as a bad thing that there are this many new opportunities to make your voice heard about issues that you care about."

There is recent evidence that petitions can work, although context is everything. The BBC's 6Music radio station is more popular then ever, but four years ago people were rallying to save it. The £250m sale of England's forests was abandoned in 2011, becoming the first successful anti-privatisation campaign for many years. Last week, French Connection announced that it would stop producing garments using angora wool. Petitions figured strongly in all three campaigns and while it's impossible to calculate their precise importance, they can't be disregarded.

"One question that continually crops up in campaigning is how you value different types of action," says Kingsnorth. "How many clicks is the equivalent of how many signatures; how many signatures is equivalent to a hand-written letter to an MP, and so on. There's no scientific answer."

One thing is inarguable: the sheer visibility of outsider campaigning strategies has never been greater. "For most of us – by which I mean not multi-millionaires – we have relatively little power with which we can challenge the powerful," says Babbs. "But we can pool our resources and act together. And a petition is an incredibly convenient way in which we can do that."

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Greenpeace battle third Heathrow runway

The names game: making a difference

The Chartists' petition of 1841

On 25 May 1841, a procession passed through London to deliver a huge Chartist petition urging political reform to the House of Commons. "Eight masons bore the mass on their shoulders… The weight was so unexpected that frequent stoppages and changes of hands ensued… In the lobby, it was rolled on to the floor of the House like a mighty snowball, bearing with it the good wishes of all around, and 1.3 million people's blessings."

Ambulance dispute petition, 1989

Presented to the House of Commons on 15 December 1989, the petition, in support of the ambulance workers' strike, still holds the British record for the highest number of signatures: approximately 4.5 million. During the strike over pay and conditions, polls showed that around 80 per cent of people consistently backed the unions. In late February 1990, following all-night talks, the chief negotiator on behalf of the ambulance workers, Roger Poole, announced that they had "driven a coach and horses through the Conservative government's pay policy".

Peers' anti-Europe petition, 2001

Magna Carta's Clause 61 allowed citizens to present a petition to a quorum of barons, four of whom were permitted to take it to the reigning monarch. In March 2001, in protest against closer ties with Europe, the Duke of Rutland, Viscount Massereene and Ferrard, Lord Hamilton of Dalzell and Lord Ashbourne invoked this ancient right for the first time since 1688 by presenting a vellum parchment at Buckingham Palace, signed by 28 hereditary peers. It had no effect.

Road-pricing petition, 2007

Peter Roberts from Telford in Shropshire posted a petition on the now-defunct Downing Street website in early 2007, protesting against Labour's proposal to introduce road pricing to curb congestion and carbon emissions. It attracted more than 1.8 million signatures in a few weeks, hammering a nail into the coffin of a policy that had, up until that point, seen support from both Labour and Conservative politicians.

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