Riots: Benefits e-petition hits crucial 100,000 mark

The BBC reports:

An e-petition calling for rioters to lose their benefits has hit 100,000 signatures and become the first to be considered for a Commons debate.
It has dwarfed others on the government website, which has struggled to deal with the volume of people accessing it.

The petition has now been formally referred to a committee which will decide whether to hold a debate.

As I argued in Part 1 of this thread, e-petitions would be an excellent way of setting the agenda for an allotted legislature. Others have claimed that any form of elective or referendum-based system allows the agenda to be set by the rich and powerful (in particular media and lobby groups); but in the case of the London riots, the media has been reflecting (rather than initiating) public anger (by contrast to phone hacking, where the “outrage” has largely been manufactured by the commercial rivals of News International, including the BBC). Anyone who examines the most popular e-petitions would find it hard to argue that they were being manipulated by the rich and powerful. Although many of the petitions have a right-wing and populist flavour, there is no equivalent in the UK of Fox TV or the shock-jock radio networks which have helped fuel Tea Party support in the US. The media in the UK (especially the BBC) are normally viewed as considerably more left-liberal than the population in general, so it would appear that the e-petitions site is a reasonable indication of public priorities, hence my argument that it should become an instrument for setting a democratic agenda for an allotted legislature.

The only problem I have with the present arrangements is that the parliamentary debate is left to MPs and government ministers. As has been argued consistently on this forum, elections do not lead to a descriptively-representative chamber and the decision-making process is poor from an epistemic perspective (MPs do not have a wisdom that the rest of us lack, and are no longer viewed as “honourable” members). Hence my own petition (signatures welcome) for an allotted chamber to debate any e-petition that exceeds the threshold. If MPs and ministers wish to take part in the debate then they should act as advocates, arguing the case for or against the petition under deliberation.

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14 Responses

  1. > there is no equivalent in the UK of Fox TV or the shock-jock radio networks … The media in the UK (especially the BBC) are normally viewed as considerably more left-liberal than the population in general

    In a post rife with your usual type of baseless statements, it is quite difficult to select the most absurd, but this one is surely a good contender. Even you are probably vaguely aware that Murdoch, the owner of Fox, owns a substantial part of all UK media. Are you really contending that while Murdoch uses his assets to promote right wing interests in the US, he is pushing a left-liberal line in the UK?

    And, of course, it is the “accepted” view in the US as well that “the media” are left-liberal. This view is most strongly held by the media themselves, whose editors and reporters like to flatter themselves as being independent, forward-thinking humanists while they go about their servile ways promoting the interests of the elites.

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  2. It is sad that the knee-jerk populist reaction is to deprive ‘rioters’ of their entitlements. We had something similar with votes for prisoners.

    If a citizen has a right then it should be absolute. Otherwise it becomes part of the Repressive Tolerance (Chomsky?) which characterises Liberal (elective) Democracy. Whipping up hate campaigns in The Sun, or in e-petitions plays into the elite control agenda.

    Meanwhile business-as-usual means that banks and the money system are beyond our control. Wars can be engaged in (eg the present Libyan lunacy) without any public approval

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  3. Yoram: Nobody would deny that Murdoch has a strong influence on the editorial policy of the Sun and some influence on the editorial policy of the Times. It’s more difficult to make a similar case for Sky News, where News Corp has a partial stake. In any event the influence of the BBC is much more pervasive and their editorial tone is decidedly liberal (in the American sense of the word). In sum, if the voting on the e-petitions site was dominated by a wealthy media elite then they must all be Sun readers. A more plausible explanation is that the site is a reasonable reflection of raw public opinion, as opposed to your contention that it is dominated by the interests of elites. Most of the comments in the media are that the site just encourages the populist rabble, so I’m puzzled as to what elite you feel is being empowered.

    Conall: I wasn’t seeking to comment one way or another on the subjects under debate, I was only making the observation that to meet with democratic norms the agenda-setting process needs to reflect the views of the general public, most of whom would not be familiar with the writings of Noam Chomsky. Bear in mind this is the first stage in a long process — my preference would be for successful petitions to be ranked in a general referendum and that the top 10 (or whatever) should then be the subject of deliberation in an allotted legislative assembly. The gaps between the three stages would be filled with public and media debate and the final stage would be subject to competing expert advocacy where, no doubt, a number of good souls would endorse your view that citizen rights should be absolute. But this is not the place for that debate, our role is to discuss the structural mechanisms that would enable such a debate to take place.

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  4. > In sum, if the voting on the e-petitions site was dominated by a wealthy media elite then they must all be Sun readers.

    Again, I will take the risk of explaining the obvious: The rich determine what is written in the Sun, then the Sun readers (who are not rich) vote based on the misinformation they are fed.

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  5. But there are only four million Sun readers and there is no evidence that any/some/all of the signatories on the e-petitions website read the newspaper. I don’t, and I have signed several of the petitions. I share your enthusiasm for breaking up media monopolies and the News of the World scandal is helping to achieve this. But Murdoch’s influence pales into significance by comparison to the BBC, widely believed to be under the sway of a liberal elite. The historian David Starkey gave voice to some distinctly robust views on the London riots on Newsnight a few days ago and the shock and horror of the other participants was palpable.

    It would certainly be an interesting exercise to research the demographics of participants on the e-petitions website. One of the prevalent threads is opposition to the (effectively) open-borders policy on immigration of successive governments. Unconstrained immigration is usually seen to benefit the rich, as it provides a cheap pool of labour at the bottom end of the food chain. This is one of the reasons why the media (the BBC has been the worst culprit) and the political class have created a situation in which anyone who questions immigration is viewed as a racist or even a fascist. But the people who really suffer from immigration are the indigenous poor, as it depresses wages and increases unemployment. The fact that a number of petitions on the site are in favour of restricingimmigration would tend to indicate that the site is not under the sway of the rich and powerful. I grant that some tabloid newspapers have taken an anti-immigration stance, but this is part of the circulation war, in which (for commercial reasons) they need to reflect the views of their readers. From the perspective of the interests of the rich proprietors of the newspapers they would prefer to take the opposite view. As the BBC does not need to reflect the views of its viewers (it’s financing comes by way of a poll tax) then it can afford to maintain it’s liberal perspective, even though most of its viewers would disagree.

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  6. This petition has now over 200,000 signatories and Google reveals no evidence that it is being pushed by any direct feeds from the mainstream media; indeed the most prominent link is to the Guardian, whose readers would not be the most obvious candidates to support this sort of initiative:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/2011/aug/11/should-uk-rioters-lose-entitlement-benefits

    The initiative would appear to have encouraged the Work and Pensions Secretary to take a similar line, even though the petition was for a parliamentary debate rather than executive action:

    http://www.politics.co.uk/news/2011/08/15/all-rioters-could-face-benefits-removal

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  7. The anti-democratic effects are obvious: even if we ignore the fact that for most of the signatories themselves this is uninformed and unconsidered opinion, what is arithmetically undeniable is that 200,000 people is a very small minority of the population. Thus, despite the fact that as far as we know this proposal could be opposed by a large majority of the population, the actions of the minority are already providing convenient cover for elite policy.

    (I imagine we are supposed to believe that the government would move as quickly to jail managers of bankrupt banks or to strip them from their personal assets merely because a couple of hundred thousand citizens would support such measures.)

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  8. I couldn’t agree more, that’s why in my proposal the second stage would be to put all the e-petitions that meet the minimum threshold to the whole electorate in a referendum (followed by debate in an allotted assembly). The point that I was attempting to make in this commentary was that there is no evidence that the large number of signatories is a result of a campaign by the rich and powerful, thus e-petitions could be a good first stage in the process of agenda-setting for an allotted legislature.

    There is a corresponding e-petition, “Corporate tax dodgers and bankers should lose all benefits”:

    http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/9393

    but it has so far only gained 140 signatures, so the members of the public who have chosen to participate in the e-petition process would appear to be less angry about this particular issue.

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  9. I would add that the People’s Jury e-petition:

    http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/809

    brought to our attention by Harald has so far gained 8 signatories. This petition has benefited from two large articles in the Guardian and similar attention on the Open Democracy website (plus the backing of the Compass group and the various media luvvies and academics who signed the original Guardian letter) so, pace Harald and Yoram’s argument that voting on these proposals is driven by media groups (aka “the rich and powerful”), it would appear to be the case that the public (or at least 200,000 of them) are making their own minds up as to what causes they wish to focus on. Lawson and Simms were looking for 1,000 angry citizens but they are still 992 short of their target. I know that the circulation of the Guardian is small compared to the Sun, but one would imagine its readers to be active participants in political issues. Perhaps they feel that online voting is beneath their refined sensibilities — only suitable for the hoi polloi and those that participate in the X-Factor.

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  10. That’s dishonest, Keith Sutherland. You know perfectly well that Lawson and Simms’ campaign was not oriented around the epetitions site. It is oriented around their own site.

    The petition on epetitions that you linked to was set up by someone named Jim Mellor, not associated with Lawson and Simms’ campaign at all (beyond, obviously, supporting it).

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  11. If you say so; for all I know Jim Mellor may be a Compass Group apparatchik.I asked Lawson to clarify the relationship (via the Open Democracy site) but he failed to do so, also to make clear whether his “1,000 Angry Citizens” were randomly selected or volunteers. Anthony Barnett commissioned a piece from me on e-petitions for Open Democracy but declined to post it. I can only conclude that there is some embarrassment on the left that the priorities of the public and the media elite appear to be so different.

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  12. > Anthony Barnett commissioned a piece from me on e-petitions for Open Democracy but declined to post it.

    If Barnett believes in sortition, shouldn’t he be commissioning articles from people sampled at random from the population rather than giving voice to the same people again and again?

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  13. Sadly it would end up like this forum, with a readership restricted to you, me, Harald and his dog. That’s why your dream of replacing newspaper proprietors with a democratic media will never come to anything.

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  14. This response is typically nonsensical – Equality-by-Lot certainly (unfortunately) does not have an authorship that is a representative sample of the population. One thing about it does make sense: according to your elitist worldview there is nothing less interesting than the ideas of the common person.

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