Leading article: Demagoguery, not democracy

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The idea that subjects will be debated in Parliament if more than 100,000 members of the public sign an online petition was paraded yesterday as a way to revitalise public engagement in politics. Ignoring strong public support for a measure damages democracy, said the Leader of Commons, Sir George Young.

This is a bogus notion. In a civilised society, important issues are decided after diligent research, considered debate and the careful weighing up of arguments and counter arguments. That is what we elect our MPs to do. Of course those signing e-petitions on the Government's official website may do that. Or they may vote out of knee-jerk prejudice. Inspect the latest round of petition subjects and you may form a shrewd idea of which approach dominates. The subjects raised include the return of the death penalty, withdrawal from the European Union, a householder's right to kill burglars, restricting prison diets to bread and water, and more of that ilk.

Online petitions have been tried before. Tony Blair launched them in 2006, but altered no legislation in response. The 1.7 million voters who demanded Labour drop plans for road pricing were ignored. So were the signatories of the biggest petition in Gordon Brown's day – calling on him to resign. Other highlights included a petition opposing the construction of a mosque in east London. Almost 50,000 signed up to the idea that Jeremy Clarkson should be installed as Prime Minister.

Nothing will change. Last week the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, quietly announced that he was ignoring a petition of 140,000 signatories, including 116 MPs, calling for a U-turn on plans to exclude religious education from the new English Baccalaureate. The only online petition that deserves to succeed will be the one that demands an end to these exercises in specious democracy.

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