UK flooded with Brexit petitions, but do they really work?

It's a battle for online signatures

Petitions range from millions of signatories to just hundreds. Reuters
Petitions range from millions of signatories to just hundreds. Reuters

As the British parliament dithers over Brexit, the British people are taking action. Leave-supporting protesters march on London from the north, hundreds of thousands of Remainers take to the streets and millions sign petitions supporting both sides online.

An e-petition to revoke Article 50 is approaching six million signatures, 96 per cent of which are from the UK, the Petitions Committee has confirmed. It says between 80,000 and 100,000 people are viewing the petition page at one time, with an average of 2000 signatures per minute.

Such is the appetite for the petition that the committee has had to change the way its website updates to once every half hour, rather than continuously.

The increasingly popular Article 50 petition overshadows a host of others on a variety of topics relating to Brexit. Some have proved extremely popular with the British public, others, not so much.

In the UK, those gaining 10,000 signatures for a petition earn a response from the government and over 100,000 signatures mean the issue will be considered for a debate in Parliament.

A petition which came to a close in July 2018 asks the government to “light beacons across the country on March 29th 2019 to celebrate Brexit” (375 signatures); another more popular one calls for Queen Elizabeth to suspend parliament until April 2 to “prevent any attempts by parliamentarians to thwart Brexit”( 97,000 signatures).

The main petition in favour of leaving the EU gained over the 100,000 signatures required to spark a debate by MPs, which was held in January. The petition called for the UK to “leave the EU without a deal in March 2019”.

The government responded to petitioners, saying: “The deal that we have reached with the EU is the right one for the United Kingdom. Leaving without a deal would risk uncertainty for the economy, for business and for citizens.”

As e-petitions remain open for six months, this one is continuing to gain signatures, passing the 500,000 mark this week.

This isn’t the first time a parliamentary debate on this topic has been sparked by a petition. In the wake of the June 2016 referendum, a petition asking for another EU referendum reached over four million signatures. The petition’s subject was debated in parliament in September of that year, but no changes were made to government policy.

The Hansard Audit of Political Engagement found 38 per cent of Brits would create or sign an e-petition on an issue they care about, with 28 per cent having actually done so in 2018, making the activity one of the country’s top forms of political engagement behind voting.

Some argue online petitions are an example of lazy activism, termed slacktivism, an easy way to seem engaged in politics without taking concrete action. Coupled with the fact that petitions rarely change policy in the UK, petitions can seem futile. However, experts say whether a petition works or not depends on how petitioners view success.

Other than changing legislation, a petition can raise awareness of an issue and contribute to a wider conversation. The Petitions Committee can also take other actions which could further the cause, including committee “asking for further information/evidence on the topic of the petition from relevant individuals and organisations, inviting petitioners to give evidence to the Committee, and holding investigations into petitions,” said Dr Catherine Bochel, a reader in policy studies at the University of Lincoln in 2016.

Published: March 26, 2019 09:51 PM


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