Recently the website of the British Prime Minister inaugurated a new feature- the opportunity to petition the Government of the day about the concerns held by ordinary people. The most popular petition at present is one against a new initiative- to price travelling by roads, according to the website at present (11.00 PM) 1,444,058 people have signed this petition and no doubt by the time you read this post there will be more signatures afixed to it. This particular petition has so interested Government ministers that Douglas Alexander the Transport Secretary is now coming under pressure to implement it and according to the Guardian a civil servant may be forced to send out a response to the road pricing petitioners if there concerns aren't met.
But even if the petition attracts 2 million or even 3 million signatures should we, irrespective of the merits of the policy, follow what the petition reccomends. Chris Dillow has summarised very well some of the good arguments for road pricing on his blog. Is this a case of Vox Populi vox dei? Is this a case where the government must follow what the petitioners wish for?
The first problem is the way that the petition is phrased- the petitioners are concerned they say because of the tracking software that might be introduced and because of the fact that poorer people and rural individuals might be penalised unlike through say taxation on fuel. The petition envisages a kind of universal price for any road and any car- but of course the petition may well be wrong in assuming that. Its perfectly possible for example that it might be only areas of high congestion in cities that would be priced and the countryside road use priced lower or not at all, its also perfectly possible that it might vary with time so for example travelling in the rush hour be more expensive than travelling in the night so that poorer individuals like cleaners wouldn't be penalised. Indeed there are many ways in which this policy might penalise the poor and rural communities less than current fuel tax policies. Drafting petition questions and referenda questions has always been seen as the flaw of direct democracy- compare you instinctive reactions to the questions do you want to be part of a European Empire, or do you want to be friends with our neighbours- both would be ways of phrasing a question on the EU, neither would be neutral. Likewise petitions aren't neutral in the way that they are drawn up.
There is a further problem though- in that these petitions are found on the internet and attract minority support. What would happen for example if the other 50 million people in Britain support Road pricing- they haven't got a petition to sign and anyway might be happy for others to carry the can but their views aren't represented. Furthermore the petitions appeal to a kind of mind that evaluates a whole situation in a sentence and sees that as the way forward. Politics ultimately is about finding constructive answers to questions and trying to work out why the other guy disagrees with you. These are difficult problems which require quite difficult and troubling solutions- whether involving more or less government involvement. A petition strikes me as being a bit like a teenager shouting at his parents "I don't like this" without considering why they might want him to do 'this'.
Petitions are in my view a blunt instrument in dealing with politics- they don't help us understand it and nor do they really get to the heart of what the population thinks about an issue. They incite mobs rather than debate. If we are all going to get more involved in the running of our government I'd prefer we didn't come to ministers screaming our heads off like irresponsible adolescents, but rather come like adults, thinking and analysing- respecting other points of view whilst explaining the logic of our own and considering whether we need to adjust it.
UPDATE I should also say that Dave Cole has made some similar points at his blog.