The problem with e-petitions (and fuel price mechanisms)…

Newsman Henry Louis Mencken had a barely disguised (but eloquent) contempt for representative democracy; deep down he felt it added up to little more than mob rule. Mencken was a witty Whiggish rogue, whose position was as far from the Burkean tradition as it is possible to imagine.

The UK Government’s e-petition site has been good at spudding up controversial issues and forcing them on to the political if not the parliamentary agenda. Guido’s spat with the UK Labour MP for Newport West Paul Flynn over the death penalty is a good primer for some of the underlying issues:

Now, having espoused the e-petition, it’s apparently causing some difficulties for the Conservatives. Over 100 MPs of all parties have signed a motion that will be debated at Westminster this afternoon. 83 of them are Conservatives.

It now seems the government is considering scrapping the rise it was compelled to bring in by dint of its own Fair Fuel Stabliser (second paragraph) mechanism come January.

Bandits nicely headed off at the pass. Happy days?

Another clever thing about the e-petitions site is that it can function as a safety value for government. In this case, it’s a bit like an anti-lock braking system: dangerous bend flagged up; backbenchers move in; avoiding action pending from the Chancellor.

Better than tractors blocking oil terminals you might say?

Except that we might have wait a long time for that evasive action if that Commons motion is anything to go by. Here’s what this supposed bunch of irresponsible radical parliamentarians have actually asked the Chancellor to do:

…consider the effect that increased taxes on fuel will have on the economy, examine ways of working with industry to ensure that falls in oil prices are passed on to consumers, to take account of market competitiveness, and to consider the feasibility of a price stabilisation mechanism that would work alongside the fair fuel stabiliser to address fluctuations in the pump price.

In other words, “Er, George, can you please think about it…”

The Chancellors problem is that it’s his own policy that’s compelled the rise. And any evasion will cause him to source another £1.6 billion in lost revenue.

In fact the problem with the stabliser mechanism is not that it goes up in line with oil price inflation but that it doesn’t go down with it either and therefore maintains fuel prices at an artificially high level. Feeding the motorist grievance even further.

So back to the problem with the e-petition site. Far from being a good engagement tool with government, it treats parliament as a transient spectacle, rather than inviting voters to take a much closer look at what politicians are doing on their behalf.

As Paul has noted of referenda elsewhere they are also framing exercises which exclude important context.

And it cedes important influence to the wider media and more importantly to specific lobby groups in ways that allow them to grab the agenda without the need to make direct contact with any individual MP.

Finally, it may be that the Chancellor finds some means to satisfy the petitioners. If he does, fair play to him

Yet my suspicion is that come end of this government’s self set five year term, there will be few (if any) examples of this mechanism having an instrumental effect on the behaviours of government.

Any that do run risk of disrupting any systematic attempt to steer the vehicle of state out of the perilous mess it finds itself in. Though you may take Iain Martin’s view that the government has developed “an excessive reliance on short term-tactics which they like to dress up as grand strategy”.

My concern there is that it will only serve to ‘fuel’ the cynicism with which the general public customarily treat their democratic institutions. Last word to the ever vigilant Henry Louis Mencken:

…[Democracy] is, perhaps, the most charming form of government ever devised by man. The reason is not far to seek. It is based upon propositions that are palpably not true and what is not true, as everyone knows, is always immensely more fascinating and satisfying to the vast majority of men than what is true.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty