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.

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  • Cynic2

    There is a certain amount of money in circulation. One of the problems is that Government taxes us and then spends that money on our behalf. This is hugely inefficient in many ways. We need to find ways to shrink the size of the state nationally and at local council level and let people spend their own money on the services they want – not the ones that local and national bureaucrats tell them they must have.

    This is not an attack on the welfare state. But it would probably mean reclaiming a lot of powers from the EU where we are now forced to maintain armies of officials serving Brussels diktats.

    Of course none of this will ever happen. People come into politics to do things and that almost always involves spending more of our money. If we did have true democracy we would have back the death penalty and mandatory life sentences for rapists and paedophiles, would have much looser relationship with the EU, a far tighter control on immigration, tighter controls on benefit cheats and more money spent on the NHS at the expense of a huge swathe of government quangos.

    I don’t necessarily agree with all of those propositions – but they are what people would vote for.

  • Mick Fealty

    The trouble is you dont get to vote for issues. You vote for a representative who in turn stands on a party platform.

  • DC

    Epetitions aren’t perfect things but neither is representative democracy not least because of that party system, which tends to rubber stamp the wishes of the executive i.e. the cabinet and prime minister.

    Perhaps it is healthier to have a mish mash of epeititions, lobbying and representative democracy and even direct democracy as and when required, than to just rely on ‘representative democracy’, which isn’t really an authentic representation of the electorate / nation.

    Take today’s cabinet and prime minister – trouble is this small cohort – seemingly governing on behalf of the nation – is actually reflective of society’s 1%, the uber wealthy, than the majority.

    Knock epetitions all you want – as like most things – it comes with limits to its usefulness and drawbacks for sure, but I reckon the introduction of them up in Stormont – epetitions for devolved matters – might help to enliven the agenda somewhat on the hill. Especially if they had to debate the issue, I mean heaven forbid, could you imagine it – the spectacle of our MLAs being flushed out into a debate not of their own choosing. The cheek!

  • TwilightoftheProds

    Mick,

    All Burkean and all true, but we’re missing the overall re framing of politics that is taking place (outside of God’s Province). Issue politics is itself a creation of modern political parties as they try to capture votes and declining interest by adopting the ‘responsive’ politics of issue and lifestyle.

    Ideological foundations of this come from the right wing rational choice theorists loved by Thatch, and in practical terms from centrist Blair and Clinton…and now everyone is at it.

    Political scientist types have charted the relative decline in saliency of class and party identification-what filled the gap was rational choice explanations…parties have bought into this wholesale (voters as consumers) and are now playing to it. Hence all the funny little demographics ‘Worcester women’ etc as they try to make sense of a more segmented social structure.

    They try to compensate for this complexity, and detachment from ideologies and parties by focussing on ‘issues’. By flagging up their responsiveness to ‘issues’ in their policy formualtion and campaigning, they have opened the door to Guido’s criticism.

    As Pete says, it treats parliament as a ‘transient spectacle’- and its their own fault.

    Blogging is all very quaint, enjoyable and 18th century, like a pamphleteer, but the modern party political way is to profile us like Tesco’s do and sell us policies by advertising, after having identified our interests via sampled opinion research. I’ve over simplified but thats their default.

  • Mick Fealty

    That last is probably why government should not try to ‘capture’ social movement like this.

  • FuturePhysicist

    I’m not going to vilify the consumer who demands lower prices or the end of green taxes, traditionally oil supply alone is often considered at fault.

    However, you do have to wonder if these prices are the fault of traders on the floor looking at oil simply as a gold-like security while letting outside supply mining and engineering firms (MOEX USA Corp) suffer while executives demand higher dividends. They are essentially sitting on assets they cannot sell economically causing oil inflation, lowering both demand and supply in oil, often selling their put assets with little to no understanding of the underlying subsidiarity (MOEX USA Corp).

    Oil companies have both a financial wing and an industrial wing, if the industrial wing is sacrificed in the name of profit and high dividends then commercially the financial wing will suffer the same fates the banking sectors have had.

    Industrially, alternatives to oil are suffering from scared bears fearing a run on anything that isn’t oil while creating a paradox of thrift on oil by refusing to invested in other less profitable but necessary areas of oil infrastructure provided by outside companies (MOEX USA Corp).

    In simple supply and demand terms, with rising oil prices, these other companies suffer and have to raise prices retrospectively in a way that comes back to the oil company, however knowing the large supply of money these oil companies now obtain, when it comes to the oil companies to demand (a lot of) outside services (from MOEX USA Corp), guess what happens to the price of those? The oil companies end up having to pay more partially to keep these companies (like MOEX USA Corp) afloat, to get the large job done and because no one else is investing in them… except maybe well coal, gas and minerals I guess.

    You do wonder though, when you see the sort of BP mining disaster in the Caribbean if investors can balance the “desire for cutbacks” with the need for related companies like MOEX USA Corp to do a responsible job and not get the company sued.

    Ultimately better finance does not necessarily mean better Industry.

  • sliabhluachra

    http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/20219

    Here is a worthy petition against legal loan sharking, started by a Daily Mirror journalist. So far, it has managed to glean 3,000+ names, leaving just 97,000 to go. That is not a big haul to date for such a powerful organ.
    If it is successful, all it means is that its parliamentary proponents will get 10 minutes’ speaking time.
    The Hillsborough tragedy petition gained traction, parliamentary time and little else. Sometimes, rarely in fact, as with phone hacking, the right thing happens. Usually, s–t happens.