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Politics

Rejected E-Petitions Tell Us a Lot About Hope and Cynicism in UK Politics

What makes them so fascinating is that they are a real-time list of things the British people long for, but cannot have.

by Tom Whyman
30 April 2018, 11:58am

What's the most fascinating account on Twitter right now? If you answered "Kanye West" then I'm sorry, you are wrong. Anyone could have predicted he'd become a Trump supporter: he's an incredibly wealthy narcissist whose self-understanding is completely bound up with the cult of the heroic individual – this places him firmly within one of Trump's key demographics. No, the actual most fascinating Twitter account is @rejectpetitions, a feed which – as far as I know – has no interest in “bench-pressing controversy” by, er, openly aligning itself with the powers-that-be (ah, what breathtaking vistas of possibility “free thought” can open up!), and instead just gets on with the serious business of listing all the e-petitions the UK government has rejected.

E-petitions were first launched during the Blair years, but the concept only really took off in 2011, when the coalition government re-launched the website with the promise of a debate in parliament to any petition that reached 100,000 signatures. Tens of thousands are now submitted every year. The most prominent ones have called on the government to prevent Donald Trump from making a state visit, and to stage a second Brexit referendum. There was much crowing when the Trump petition reached over one million signatures: but as of January 2017, none of the most-signed e-petitions had resulted in any sort of real legislative success, and as far as I can tell this hasn't changed since.

In this sense, failure can be considered one of the UK government e-petition's most important characteristics. Indeed, it might even be said that failure is something the e-petition is necessarily bound for. Even if you started a petition and got everyone in the country to sign it, the most you and your supporters could hope for would be that your issue is considered for a debate in parliament. But why would you have felt the need to start this petition in the first place? Only if the issue you're in favour of is not already part of the government's agenda. And if a widely popular issue is not already part of the government's agenda, then this is almost certainly because they are actively opposed to it – to the point that they don't really care about public opinion on this score. Thus, even in the unlikely scenario your issue is put to a vote in parliament, its chances of winning are vanishingly slim.

For this reason, the true essence of the UK government e-petition can be discerned in the ones that are rejected before anyone is allowed to sign them at all. Rejected petitions come in great variety. Some are asking for something impossibly ambitious, usually some sort of sweeping constitutional reform. A lot of rejected petitions call on parliament to abolish the House of Lords; at least one of them prefaces this demand with a not-obviously-necessary: “We the brexiteers...”. Others want parliament to restrict the scope of the human rights act (this one seems, somewhat worryingly, to be most annoyed about the “right to life”) or to stop the government from going to war without a public vote.

Other rejected petitions are more interested in remedying specific injustices. Examples of this type include “TOUGHER SENTENCING FOR KNIFE CRIME! (before more young people lose their lives)” and “Do more to reduce carbon emissions and the removal of carbon from the atmosphere”.

Sometimes these injustices are specific to the point of being obviously personal, almost certainly relating to a problem the petitioner has just experienced directly. Thus we see petitions asking the government to “Stop car insurance companies from writing off a repairable car” or asking that the government “Prohibit Royal Mail from littering streets with elastic bands”.

Often the petitions sound crankiest when they are asking the government to take action over things they are obviously not responsible for, for instance: “Replace the term 'Globalisation' with the phrase 'The Rest of the World'" or “Wenger to honour his contract until the end of 18-19 season”. One rejected petition simply reads “BBC cricket". Another demands “University of Cambridge and Oxford to enter one team on university challenge” – although actually I think this one is fine because it's asking for something that is obviously correct.

There are a number of issues that frequently recur. Brexit, inevitably, is one of them. Another is the idea that society in general is discriminating against groups not normally considered persecuted minorities – including Leavers, Remainers, vegans, people with allergies, people who don't eat gluten, tattooed people and Tommy Robinson. Potholes, cannabis, and disability-related benefits are major concerns. Tabloid cause célèbres frequently cause an onrush of petitions: for instance, in early April there were a number of petitions asking the government to drop all charges against burglar-killing pensioner Richard Osborn Brooks.

In each of these petitions – no matter how cranky, entitled, or racist – we are given something important: the image of a futile hope. What makes the @rejectpetitions account so fascinating, is that it gives us a real-time list of things the UK longs for, but cannot have.

Why can't it have them? Superficially, for the reasons given under each rejected petition on the website. Some of them, obviously, are rejected for the reason that they are about an issue the government simply has no control over. Others are rejected because, “It's not clear what the petition is asking the UK government or parliament to do.” Another common reason is that there is already a petition asking for the same thing.

As general rules, these explanations seem like they could be fair enough. But in most specific cases, they manifest as a machine-like, bureaucratic idiocy. For instance: countless rejected petitions call for the abolition of the House of Lords. Each rejection message links to the 'official' accepted petition on this issue. At the time of writing, this petition has 15 signatures. Something is clearly not being properly communicated here.

Meanwhile, the explanation that, “It's not clear what the petition is asking the UK government or parliament to do” is applied in ways that seem unfair. For instance, that exact reason is given for why the petition “TOUGHER SENTENCING FOR KNIFE CRIME! (before more young people lose their lives)” was rejected. But although this petition makes no specific demands about how “tough” these sentences ought to be, it's nevertheless pretty clear what it's asking for – whoever started this petition clearly thinks elected representatives ought to decide on the precise “toughness” for themselves. The same goes for a petition titled “Reduce national insurance”. The rejection asks the petitioner to think more about specific rates – but in no way is what they are asking for genuinely unclear.

Interestingly, almost all of the rejected petitions appear to conceive of political authority in the UK along these lines – implied in their pleas is a sense that, from knife crime to litter to Arsène Wenger, there is some one person or institution who can be appealed to, who is capable of understanding your concerns, and who honestly wants to do something about them.

In truth, political authority in the UK does not work remotely like this: it is disparate, scattered, and even if someone in power was interested in helping you, they probably wouldn't really be allowed to. Sometimes, all the government seems like it is able to do is to enact legislation that makes peoples' lives actively worse: benefits cuts, hostile environments, retaliatory strikes and everything else. Possibly this is just the Tories: but then the fear is that the system has been up to prevent even a well-meaning government from achieving anything productive as well.

Still, I'm torn. On the one hand wisdom here appears to lie in cynicism – in which case, we must conclude: e-petitions are really just a ploy on behalf of the government to perpetuate a naïve understanding of political authority through the illusion, however unconvincing, that they're capable of listening. But on the other hand, what use is cynicism besides wallowing in the knowledge that the bastards always win? Petition to help me out of this critical impasse, please.

@HealthUntoDeath

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