Page last updated at 12:40 GMT, Monday, 12 February 2007

Will e-petitions change anything?

By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

That is the thing about voters - ask them for their opinions and they are likely to give them.

More than a million people oppose road pricing
And, as Downing Street is rapidly finding out, if they suspect they are being ignored there are bound to be claims the whole exercise was a meaningless con or another piece of spin.

That is exactly the dilemma Tony Blair and his transport minister Douglas Alexander are now facing over the thorny issue of road pricing, which has seen more than a million signing a petition opposing the notion.

It is not just road pricing that has attracted large numbers of signatures, however.

Demands for the scrapping of inheritance tax, repealing the ban on fox hunting and abandoning planned ID cards all get into the top ten petitions - but at between 47,000 and 20,000 signatures they don't come close to the number one hit.

Similarly, there are the more unusual, such as a demand to replace the national anthem with Gold by Spandau Ballet, and an inevitable smattering of calls for Tony Blair to resign.

While some can be ignored without any fear of retaliation, the road pricing petition, through the sheer size of support, has landed ministers with a real headache and seen Mr Alexander promising to listen to the concerns.

Policy review

When Downing Street launched the online petition section of its website earlier this year part of the aim was to show just how new-tech-savvy the prime minister now was.

Mr Blair has also engaged in a series of "online" events such as podcasts, e-interviews and the like in an attempt to engage more directly with voters without the media getting in the way.

Douglas Alexander
Mr Alexander has promised to listen
The petition section was also seen as part of Labour's wider policy review, or Big Conversation-style events aimed at involving large numbers of voters and party members in the policy-making process.

There are existing, more traditional ways of delivering signed petitions to the government, or lobbying MPs directly in the House of Commons.

But these have often been criticised for achieving little, although MPs insist they do have a direct effect on their own positions and can feed directly into government policy making.

Others, however, claim experience suggests it is only when things get ugly - think of the anti-poll tax or fuel tax protests - that things change. This one looks like it may be a bit different.

Silent majority

The great advantage of the internet is its ease of use, so many more people may be expected to take part.

And the fact Downing Street is promoting this particular process, and that it is an innovation, means it is bound to attract attention that traditional petitioning or lobbies may not.

There are suspicions that the sheer size of the anti-road pricing petition suggests some co-ordinated action. But that is the nature of the beast.

Similarly, the accepted wisdom is that it is only the "antis" on any issue who kick up, not those who are generally satisfied with proposals.

So, while a million may be opposed to road pricing, there may be a far larger silent majority in favour. And how are ministers to calculate that?

That is precisely why the prime minister's official spokesman has talked of the petitions being fed into "the policy-making context," and Mr Alexander has said there needs to be "deliberation and discussion".

The big question remains unanswered, of course.

Will this new form of voter engagement lead to changes of policy, or will the entire exercise be quietly forgotten?

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