The IoS political editor on internet petitions, Oliver Letwin's Castro back story, Tory infighting and elected telly types


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The announcement that Jane Austen is to feature on a £10 note is cheering news indeed. Our next three monarchs may be men, but at least the other side of the note will be a woman. If it had been my choice for a great female novelist on a tenner, I would have gone for one of the Brontë sisters. I've always preferred the gothic psychological thrillers of Charlotte and Emily to Austen's galloping middle-class froth. But I'm heartily in favour of people called Jane being given prominence, so, all in all, it is a good thing.

The most interesting aspect of this announcement is that it illustrates the growing power of petitions. Governor Mark Carney, revealed the Bank of England's decision after a popular campaign for a woman – other than the Queen, of course – to remain on an English banknote (after the Elizabeth Fry £5 is phased out), with a petition posted on The campaign for The Sun to get rid of Page 3 is being driven by another petition that, in less than a year, has attracted nearly 110,000 signatures – and is having some effect.

A third petition that has caught my eye is one to the Health minister Dan Poulter, in coordination with Mumsnet, to prevent representatives from profit-making "parenting clubs" like Bounty barging into NHS maternity wards and trying to push new mothers to sign up. It is extraordinary that the NHS gives Bounty reps free rein at such a sensitive time. A day after I gave birth, a woman from Bounty marched into my bay, forcefully drawing back the curtain just as I was spending some quiet time with my baby. When I told the woman I wasn't interested in her "free pack" – just a way to extract personal data for marketing purposes – she replied, pushily, "But this is how you claim child benefit" – an outrageous, downright lie. Too tired to explain that I knew exactly how to claim child benefit, all I could muster was "fuck off" and she went away. Dr Poulter, a medical doctor, needs to act on this gross invasion of privacy.

It is no coincidence that many of these petitions on and on the global campaign network are launched by, or are about issues affecting, women. As I write, Caroline Criado-Perez, the woman behind the banknote petition, is being deluged by Twitter trolls with threats of rape. This is unacceptable. But the reaction should not, and will not, stop other campaigners – helped by good people on social media – using petitions as an effective alternative to joining a political party, with much quicker results.

As party membership is falling (just 1.1 per cent of UK voters belong to a political party), there is no overwhelming appetite for David Cameron, Ed Miliband or Nick Clegg. The polls suggest Labour's lead is soft, and it is not clear who will win the next election. Instead of becoming wedded to one organised political party or another, voters are turning to issue-based direct democracy. With a fixed-term Parliament of five years, we cannot elect a new government until May 2015. We can write to our MP, but when he or she has little influence, signing a petition is a quicker and potentially more effective way to get a result. The challenge for party leaders is to respond to this democratic shift.

Who'll sleep with the fishes?

Apart from shopping for fresh-off-the-boats squid, David Cameron is no doubt using his two-week holiday in Portugal to mull over an autumn reshuffle. On the list of those who might – forgive me – sleep with the fishes, it's not looking good for Oliver Letwin, blamed for messing up the deal over Leveson. But I must appeal to the PM to keep him in his post. He not only brings intellectual creativity to the Cabinet table, his colourful CV surely elevates him to national treasure status. In his banking days in the 1990s, Letwin helped privatise Cuba's telecoms system, a job which brought him into direct contact with Fidel Castro. Running his ruler over the numbers of civil servants, Letwin wondered why so many bureaucrats were assigned to the telecoms sector. They are all listening in to phone calls, a Castro official told him matter-of-factly.

Fawkes lights a fuse

News reaches me of less comradely activity in the Conservative Party. Last week Claire Perry, the Tory MP for Devizes, accused the blogger Guido Fawkes of "sponsoring" a pornographic hack of her website – even though he had only posted an image of the site, rather than a link to the offending material. Guido asked his readers whether or not he should take legal action against Perry – and 86 per cent voted in favour. I hear a fellow Tory MP instructed one of his own staff to vote in favour of legal action. Such solidarity!

From goggle box to red box

Despite her work on tackling online pornography, Perry could be overlooked for promotion. Women who are being tipped include the Public Health minister Anna Soubry, whose straight-talking is a breath of fresh air, and Esther McVey, the Work and Pensions minister. Both women had careers in TV before entering politics. And they could be joined in Westminster by two more from the small screen – Rebecca Pow, a regional TV presenter, has been selected as Tory candidate for Taunton Deane, while Clarence Mitchell, who was a BBC journalist before representing the family of Madeleine McCann, will fight Brighton Pavilion for the Conservatives. All this on-screen experience will certainly help going head to head with Jeremy Paxman.

We beat the French!

France is the new Scandinavia. The popularity of French crime thriller The Returned will surely put it top of the Christmas box-set requests, usurping Danish dramas like The Killing and Borgen. In Government, too, the obsession with policy from Scandinavia – particularly in education and childcare – has faded in favour of the French.

Liz Truss has raved about Britain emulating the French childcare system – les enfants know how to behave themselves, she says, and are taught in larger groups. Truss tried to introduce French-style relaxation of childcare quotas, but was blocked by Nick Clegg, following outrage from parents and nurseries.

Yet is she really so sure that the French know how best to look after children? If so, why does the respected Economist Intelligence Unit rank France's childcare seventh, behind the UK's, which is fourth?