Stop Getting So Excited About That Article 50 Petition

The government doesn't care about your opinion! At all!

by Mac Hackett
21 March 2019, 1:35pm

The Parliament petitions site after crashing this morning. Background photo: Jake Lewis 

UPDATE 27/03/19: Theresa May has rejected the petition, despite it gathering 5.8 million signatures – the most in the history of the government's e-petitions website.

Online petitions are fully pointless. I know they're fun to sign – they very much synthesise the feeling of active democracy! – and I know Gary Lineker and Hugh Grant and Annie Lennox have tweeted at you to sign that latest one about Article 50, the same one 914,866 (at the time of writing) people have signed.

But it won't change anything, ever.

I'm almost embarrassed to be writing this obvious of a take – lamenting "clicktivism" became a cliché within minutes of the term being coined – but it feels like the UK needs a reminder today: signing a petition to "revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU" is not going to make a single shred of difference.

I'm not saying this to be a contrarian, nor do I hold it against anyone for registering their frustration in the most immediate way they can – I get that this is the only form of resistance many people have. But, again: utterly pointless. Please don't fool yourself into thinking that even millions of people clicking a button is going to change anything at all. Even if literally everyone who voted against Brexit signed this, it wouldn't agitate a U-turn. Why? Because of the broken and obtuse way Parliament works.

The government has routinely ignored evidence of the negative effects Brexit will have on the UK, refused to listen to the concerns of 16 million Remain voters and dismissed the millions of people who have marched against leaving the EU, or for a People's Vote. What makes you think they’re going to pay any attention to an online petition? They’ve got much more important stuff to worry about than the opinions of the people they serve.

And for those who'd argue it at least "lets the Prime Minister know how we're feeling", believe me: she knows. Having voted for Remain herself, she probably feels the same way.

This specific petition aside, it's also worth saying: putting any hope in the concept of Parliamentary petitions is a fool's errand. Of the 16,062 petitions currently listed on the official Parliament website, only 55 have been debated – about 0.3 percent overall.

The UK Parliament petitions website was launched in 2006, and re-launched in 2015, with the proviso that any petition to pick up over 100,000 votes must be considered for Parliamentary debate. However, these petitions aren't automatically debated – they must first be considered by the Petitions Committee, and then by the Backbench Business Committee, which decides whether the issue is important enough to justify a debate.

This is of course to avoid MPs dragging themselves to the Commons to talk about whether or not to "make Danny Dyer a Lord" – but still: first strike.

The second strike: even if a petition does make its way past both sets of gatekeepers and into a Parliamentary debate, MPs don't have to attend. In 2015, for instance, over 200,000 weed smokers thought their big day had finally come, having signed a petition calling for a debate about cannabis policy, only for fewer than 20 MPs to meet in a Commons side-room and once again kick the discussion into the long grass.


To date, no Parliamentary petition has been successful in its aims.

Granted, they are a helpful way to gauge the nation's temperature, and good fodder for Metro headlines. So if you want to continue signing them, please do go ahead; I can't try to police your internet usage, I'm not the British government.


Absolutely fucking zero, sorry.

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