When I was a little baby campaigner doing stuff with Queer Youth Alliance (now Queer Youth Network), I was organising a campaign against plans by Kent County Council to introduce a local version of Section 28 - that pernicious piece of legislation which teachers felt prevented them tackling homophobic bullying and labelled homosexuality only as a "pretended family relationship". We had a petition, we organised a protest. I nearly had a heart attack when I found out that protests and marches have some regulations and got a lovely chap from the local police explaining that to me.
And at the cumulation of the protest, We arrived at the town hall and realised petitions are all well and good, but then you need to present them to your target. Honestly, I hadn't thought that far.I wasn't expecting someone to be there to collect a printed out petition from us. so all we were able to hand in at the time was the petitions we'd gathered on the day. It felt a little bit of a let down.
There is a buzzword going round at the moment - Clicktivism. It's the idea that people will get involved in political ideas as long as it only requires the effort of a couple of clicks. It's signing a petition, thinking you've done your bit and then forgetting about the cause. It's organisations like 38Degrees offering a pre-written letter to flood your MP's inbox with. Again, you've done something... you've written to your MP that's even better than signing a petition. Now you can forget all about it. Clicktivism.
Actually, that level of political engagement is not particularly helpful. Petitions can help gauge the public mood, but they don't tend to work as well as actually responding to the consultation. Where there are two, very strongly felt positions it leads to competing petitions which are almost treated by the media and public as if they were opinion polls (they aren't they are very self-selecting and tend to ignore a large swathe of the population who have no, or only very mild, views on the issue).
And once all that has been whipped up by either side, the politicians then... note them but tend not to take a huge amount of notice of them. In the Government's response to the Equal Marriage consultation, it noted 22 different appeals were submitted, the largest being Campaign4Marriage's 500,000+ petition against Equal Marriage. In fact, all these petitions were against Equal Marriage. And they were duly noted but the figures in the response related to those who actually responded to the consultation properly.
This led to a few questions in the house about why these petitions had been "ignored":
Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): I understand that the head of the Government Equalities Office told representatives of the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference that each signatory to the coalition for marriage petition would be counted as an individual response to the Government’s consultation. Because of that assurance, many supporters of traditional marriage focused on that petition. Why did it not happen? Was it because including those half a million and more signatures would have shown a substantial majority against plans to redefine marriage—something that is also confirmed by my constituency postbag?
Maria Miller: Let me emphasise again that we have read all the petitions and all the submissions to the consultation, and reassure my hon. Friend that every single one of those submissions has validity. However, I must also remind her that our starting point was not whether we would introduce these measures, but how we would do so. While the strength of feeling is clearly there, other Members have mentioned organisations and individuals who support these measures, and we must ensure that we take a balanced approach.
Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I am afraid that that answer simply is not good enough. I put it to the Government that their professed deep-seated and heartfelt commitment to equality does not appear to have applied to the consultation itself. Can the Minister explain to the very fair-minded residents of the Kettering constituency why the views of the overwhelming majority of respondents have been rejected, including a massive petition with more than half a million signatures?
Maria Miller: I know that my hon. Friend speaks powerfully for the people of Kettering, and I know that he will want to stand up for the wide range of views that undoubtedly exist in his constituency. I assure him that all those views have been considered, and that they have helped us to form our response today. We have proposed a quadruple lock to protect religious institutions, but it is also important for us to represent people who may even live in his constituency: gay couples who want to be able to celebrate their love and commitment to each other through marriage.
As you can see the difference between signing a petition and responding to the consultation and how you measure petitions against consultation responses is a difficult thing to understand. In theory each of those petitions could be treated as if it were an individual organisation's response to the consultation, or a collection of individuals' responses, or as a petition which does not form part of the consultation except as background. Obviously different groups have different biases in how they want petitions treated.
In this case the petitions were all calling on the government not to do something which it had committed to and so they were treated as background. It would be interesting to see how they would have dealt with a petition calling for Equal Civil Partnerships - would it get included in the statistics or not given that it responded to a detail of the consultation rather than just opposing the whole idea.
While I'm here, I'd like to thank those that did respond to the consultation properly. Those that took time to write to their MPs on top of that and everyone who helped produce such a fantastic response to the consultation!
A big shout out must go to The Coalition for Equal Marriage, two guys juggling their day jobs, their social lives and, for this, political activism. They have not been paid to do this. They have not had experienced teams backing them up. They've done this off their own backs. And have done a hell of a lot to push people towards the consultation, the maintain a table of MPs positions and generally be a face and voice to the campaign.
However, there was also a petition there. But the consultation response states only anti-equal marriage petitions were received. So, what has happened to this petition? Apparently it was not submitted as they had been pushing people to answer the consultation more than signing the petition and were worried about duplicate responses therefore being considered.
I'm in two minds over this. On the one hand, as described above, the poor statistical nature of competing petitions means that they are pretty much useless tools for expressing support (but excellent as a rallying point) anyway and that responding to the consultation is far better and much preferred. On the other, have we lost the responses of the "clicktivists" who went no further than the petition?
Ultimately, the decision complements my stance that we have a need for less clicktivism and more activism. I've said before that I am disappointed that Stonewall have monopolised LGb political activism (and thrown Trans under the bus) and feel that they need to change their tactics towards including the community as activists rather than exploiting us as funding sources. When they do include us, it is solely as "clicktivists" - this needs to change and change fast. The contempt they treat us with is disgusting and its that attitude which leads to issues like this petition.
But what of Step 2 of C4EM current actions - writing to your MP using a pre-filled in tool. These are little better than petitions. To move onto a different example, recently the Communications Data Draft Bill was scrutinised and the committee invited comments. Thousands of us wrote in using a similar tool (or, off our own backs). It is interesting to note how these were presented to the committee:
The deadline for receipt of written evidence was 23 August. At 12.42 on 21 August the Committee’s website received the first of over 18,000 emails generated in response to a call by the website 38 Degrees. This website encourages readers to unite in protesting on a variety of issues put forward by its members; currently they also include Protect our School Playing Fields and Pay Farmers a Fair Price for Milk, among many others.
At 12.34 the following day the Committee received the first of some 600 emails generated by the Open Rights Group...The text is much longer, and is set out in the annex to this Note. Again, some senders added further arguments, not in this case derived from the Liberty website.
There is no way that Committee staff can read more than a sample of these emails, let alone acknowledge them individually. An acknowledgment will be placed on the Committee’s website.
The distinction is that while in the case of that Bill opinion was fairly evenly divided, we have not seen a single email supporting the draft Communications Data Bill, or even agreeing that there may be a case for the security services and law enforcement agencies having greater access to communications data than they do at present.
Essentially, each of these responses was collated together into a single petition. Any additional arguments that respondents added to the template were lost. Although my favourite paragraph is almost certainly the final paragraph noting not a single email was received with an opposing view and prehaps gives an amazing sense of how much the public oppose the ideas laid out in the draft bill.
For a long time I have refused to use the WriteToThem.com tool as my old MP, Helen Southworth, would never respond to anything sent via it. Instead I write my own letter, print it off and send it by snail mail. I am also trying emailing my new MP, Helen Jones, with the letters and am at least getting an automated acknowledgement back.
Any training you go on suggests that politicians are likely to put more faith in personally written letters then any form of clicktivism. Even more if you come to see them in a face to face meeting - I've not plucked up the courage to do that yet, but if I continue to receive no responses to my letters, I may have to.
So yeah, this is my call for something more than clicktrivism. My call for an active and informed public. My call for people to get involved and not hand over their agency, their autonomy to others. Go out and do something!
(Article edited after comment from C4EM around the petition)
(EDIT TO ADD: oooh, look, I wrote about petitions before the consultation)