The government wants to present its online petitions service as a step forward for democracy.
The House of Commons leader Sir George Young said, “The public already have many opportunities to make their voices heard in parliament, and this new system of e-petitions could give them a megaphone.”
In fact, most people feel excluded from parliament—that’s why so many have been using the petitions site. Already over 100,000 people have signed the petition to release the documents relating to the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster.
But this progressive petition comes second to the demand to strip rioters of their benefits. The full list of submitted petitions has calls for capital punishment, fewer immigrants and attacks on the poor.
A visitor from Mars who studied the site or the comments sections of news websites might believe that “the British public” was a terrifying mob of reactionaries.
But attempting to take a snapshot of public opinion never tells the full story.
We can contrast the e-petitions site with the mass petitions that have been used by social movements for decades. These are not based on passively reflecting the different points of view in society, but on people getting organised and active.
The Russian Revolution of 1905 began when workers marched to present a petition to the Tsar. The 19th century Chartist movement took its name from the “charter” of democratic demands. Many activists today use petitions to build a network of support for their cause.
They use them to meet people, and to start a conversation about their demands—a conversation that otherwise might not have happened.
Many people who have signed right wing e-petitions will never have had an argument that challenges the “common sense view”. They might change their minds if they did.
Real democracy is about a collective debate over what we want to do with our society. But life under capitalism teaches people not to think about changing the world.
We are expected to accept the authority of bosses in the workplace and police officers on the street. Programmes like Dragon’s Den and the Apprentice are a less subtle version of the message we receive at school and at work.
They seemingly prove that the only way to get ahead is to sell ourselves to those in positions of power, or play by their rules of ruthless competition.
Going on strike, building an anti-cuts campaign or even fighting with the police in a riot can change people’s ideas. It can give people a sense of common purpose, and a confidence to question how society is run.
When the nature of society is taken for granted, statements that attract most support are often those that appeal to the lowest common denominator.
It isn’t true that most people are racist and sexist, love the police and hate the poor. But these are the dominant ideas in society because they reflect the ideas of the people who control society, and the way capitalism is run.
To challenge these ideas means giving people a chance to actively shape our society—and the chance to debate real alternatives. This can’t be done by a website or a survey.
Nor is it possible to get meaningful democracy through parliament. No matter who is elected, no one votes for the bankers or hedge fund managers who cause mayhem in the markets.
No one votes for the generals and admirals who oversee wars, or the judges who decide when to ignore sentencing guidelines because of “extenuating circumstances”.
There is no democratic procedure to hold police or media barons such as Rupert Murdoch to account.
Perhaps most importantly, no one gets to vote for the bosses who exploit them in the workplace or shut them out on the dole queue. Instead, every chief executive gets to run their own private dictatorship.
Real power is outside parliament. MPs know this and, if they want their careers to last, they make sure not to burn their bridges with the powerful.
That is why MPs are disconnected from the lives of ordinary people, and why such a narrow set of alternatives is on offer at elections.
Elections, surveys and the contest of the e-petitions represent the passivity and powerlessness of ordinary people under capitalism.
Real democracy can only come through control over our lives and the society we live in. It can only come about through collective activity—and class struggle.