In another effort to pander to the Daily Mail crowd (basically the same red meat constituency as readers of the Sun papers here in Canada) the coalition government of David Cameron has launched a new website that allows people to post petitions online and, provided they gain the support of 100,000 like-minded individuals, potentially have them considered for debate in the House of Commons.
The idea is somewhat reminiscent of a plank in the platforms of the old Reform and Canadian Alliance parties (for the kids, those were formative precursors to Stephen Harper’s “natural governing party” of today), which mandated that any petition signed by 3% of eligible voters would automatically trigger a national referendum on that issue. The inherent absurdity of such a process was acutely highlighted at the time by satirist Rick Mercer, who launched an online effort to force then-leader Stockwell Day to change his name to “Doris Day” and, to no surprise, immediately received the required support from the million-plus viewers of his show.
Early returns from the U.K. government’s latest venture into online petitions shows a keen interest in the great British public in restoration of the death penalty. Doubtless this is the result of strenuous efforts by the right-wing media and bloggers such as Paul Staines, who blogs under the name “Guido Fawkes” and is one of the e-petition’s most vocal supporters. According to Staines, “Capital punishment is the classic example of the disconnect between politicians and people. Most MPs oppose it while a majority of the public has supported it ever since abolition in the 60s.”
Here, you can see him debating the merits of the e-petition initiative as it relates to the death penalty with Welsh Labour MP Paul Flynn.
Quite aside from the specific matter of capital punishment at hand in this instance, it seems to me that the most contentious issue involved in this discussion focuses on the appropriate role of an elected official in a representative democracy.
Is it incumbent on that person to advocate on behalf of the majority of popular opinion within their constituency as their duly elected representative, or should they be expected to act as leaders of opinion, even if it may contradict the polls on a given issue? Is it best that we entrust politicians to act reasonably and judiciously on our behalf (even though we may not fully agree with their ideological prejudices or policy determinations) or should they more accurately mirror the prevailing will of the majority?