Well done to anti-road user charging campaigners for getting a million petition signatures on their Downing Street petition. As someone who has railed against this proposal, not from a motorist perspective but from an environmental and civil libertarian one, it is gratifying to see such a disastrous policy being given such a rough ride.
It does however present present me with a bit of a problem. We desperately need to rebalance direct and representative democracy in this country, but I can’t help but think that this sort of half-measure may end up doing more harm than good.
The Road User Charging example is a good example: government has already made it clear that it has decided to do this. To back down now would make them look very foolish indeed. Yet there is no formal mechanism for what happens next. From what I can make out from the website, Blair will just refer it to Milliband, who will write a curt “thanks for your input, but, no” letter to the petitioners and that’s it.
The problem is, there is simply no way of resolving whether these million plus individuals are representative of the wider population, or just a particularly animated minority. It has to be said that car users get particularly wound up about constant infiringements on the divine rights of motorists. Just the other day, an acquaintance of mine informed me that he was emigrating to Australia because “I’m just sick of draconian traffic laws…makes me feel like sending letter bombs… but someone beat me to it!” How’s that for a balanced perspective?
In my experience, campaigners on all issues have a tendency to assume that they are riding on a crest of popular support, and astroturfing is a standard tool in the modern campaigners’ repertoire. The Downing Street Petition Engine allows people to hang onto these beliefs, without providing a means for testing it out whatsoever. Not surprising, coming from a Prime Minister who much prefers religious leaders to scientists. In short, everyone who uses this system and doesn’t see immediate results will have a right to feel aggrieved and feel that issues are simply being cherry picked to suit the government’s agenda – because that is exactly what they are doing.
At least in Scotland, petitions go to a Parliamentary committee and get deliberated on. The Petitioners may not get what they want, but at least they get more of a formal hearing. In truth, the fact that Blair has done this before Parliament did demonstrates quite how inward looking the Westminster Bubble has become (all the guff from all sides last week about preferential voting marking the end of civilisation would lend credence to that view).
What we really need, of course, is a system of Initiative and Referendum. Far from undermining representative democracy, I’m increasingly coming to the view that this would be its salvation. With a system in place with clear ground rules, the lazy slur of “politicians never listen” would be exposed for what it is – if not enough enthusiasm can be generated to get an initiative started on an issue, then why should we be surprised if politicians aren’t leaping on that particular bandwagon. Conversely, faced with a process that could effectively overrule them, you can bet that politicians will be all too keen to address issues that are generating a lot of real public debate, with a view to nipping them in the bud before they have their hands tied.