‘The obsessed and the fanatical’

Recovered from Christmas yet? I’m waiting for my festive lurgy to clear off… Anyhow, this caught my eye a couple of days ago – not sure it’s a great idea but a response to it made me sit up and think.

A plan to allow popular online petitions to be debated in Parliament within a year has been given the go-ahead by the government.

Ministers will seek agreement with the authorities, including the House of Commons Procedure Committee, to give the petitions parliamentary time.

Those receiving most support – probably 100,000 signatures – would be debated, with some possibly becoming bills.

But Labour said the plans would mean “crazy ideas” being discussed by MPs.

Feels like a big risk of MPs being encouraged to debate the results of lame television talent shows here – and what about topics which are touchstones for many, but unpalatable for others, like far-right stances on the death penalty or immigration? And even if you did, say, manage to get a petition calling for the nationalisation of public utilities through for discussion, what would be the point when all three main parties’ whips would get their MPs firmly in line?

But it’s an interesting idea – maybe I just don’t have much faith in the House of Commons having much of an ability to discuss anything openly and honestly. Labour’s line stuck out, though – what was that about crazy ideas?

Labour MP Paul Flynn, a member of the Commons public administration committee, criticised the government’s proposal, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “This seems to be an attractive idea to those who haven’t seen how useless this has been in other parts of the world when it’s tried.

“If you ask people the question ‘do you want to pay less tax?’, they vote yes. If we get the e-petitions in there will be some asking for Jeremy Clarkson to be prime minister, for Jedi and Darth Vader to be the religions of the country.

“The blogosphere is not an area that is open to sensible debate; it is dominated by the obsessed and the fanatical and we will get crazy ideas coming forward.”

Huh? If that wasn’t the official Labour response, I didn’t hear anyone more senior come forward. What’s an online petition site got to do with “the blogosphere”?

And if the “blogosphere” is “dominated by the obsessed and the fanatical”, where does that leave Labour-loving sites like Labour List, Labour Uncut and Next Left, for example?

Strange. It’s funny for a party who were booted out of office to be running away from public opinion instead of embracing it. I can’t help but be reminded of dealings with Labour locally, where Greenwich councillors generally maintain a vow of silence online (and in the print media, too) and the leadership has been wary of online media ever since they were given a torrid time by the scurrilous Greenwich Watch blog a few years back. It’s much easier to write off criticism as being the work of lying fantasists than to actually get off your backside and address it.

Obviously, there are risks when elected representatives pile in on online debates – witness a Lewisham councillor’s clumsy intervention on the News Shopper homophobia row, and a Lambeth councillor being censured for implying a resident was racist. But as our use of online forums evolve, people are going to want to communicate with elected representatives, and anyone who wants to stand for public office needs to be aware of that – and have a hide thick enough to deal with criticism of anything they say which doesn’t go down well.

(On a related point – in the coming year, I suspect we’ll see pressure put on councils to allow people to record council meetings – it’s cheaper than webcasting them, but which councils will be brave enough to allow casual viewers to see what the people they elect get up to? One first-time attendee of a Greenwich Council meeting was horrified to discover even members of the public were expected to stand up for the mayor…)

As The Third Estate points out, it’s dumb to paint blog-land as being full of nutters when it’s so big – no more clever than condemning the national press because The Sun lies. If Paul Flynn and others have something to hide – fine, condemn blog-land as being full of “the obsessed and the fanatical”. If they’ve nothing to hide – why aren’t they coming in and joining us?