A government minister has labelled the controversial online petitions on Downing Street's website as an own-goal thought up by a "prat". So how does the man behind the site defend it? And does the petition reliably reflect national mood?
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine
Gone are the days when files full of signatures were wheeled to the front door of Number 10.
In the spirit of a more technological age, Downing Street now invites visitors to its website to create online petitions on any subject, for others to add their support at the click of a mouse.
Launched in November, this new internet democracy has been embraced by the public, with 2,860 active petitions. But the might of one stands out, with a massive 1,274,362 "signatures", and counting.
"We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to scrap the planned vehicle tracking and road pricing policy" are the 17 words which have sparked a row in government and much media coverage.
Number 10 is investigating a national road pricing scheme, yet it appears about 2-3% of the adult population has already voiced its displeasure, putting ministers on the defensive about their transport policy.
An unnamed minister has reportedly said the petitions website was dreamt up by a "prat" and was proving a public relations disaster. Tom Steinberg, who did not come up with the idea but did put it together, denies the minister was talking about him.
When Downing Street needed to make its e-democracy dream a reality, it approached MySociety, Steinberg's non-aligned organisation which builds websites to empower people in the civic and community aspects of their lives.
For example, its HearFromYourMP site pressures MPs to tell constituents who sign up what they are doing.
Despite the controversy over his latest creation, Mr Steinberg, 29, stands by the petition website's intention to increase political participation.
"Academic research shows people are more willing to sign a petition than engage in any other kind of political activity," he says. "It's a simple process and clear what you are doing - putting your voice to a statement."
Traditional methods of petitioning still happen
Petitions are not meant to be representative of the country like an opinion poll, they just indicate what one group of people think on a subject, he says, and they are a powerful way to make politicians aware of an issue which is important to that particular group of people.
What makes the Downing Street petitions completely different to anything else is the government can e-mail all those who signed up.
"That's historically unprecedented. For decades petitions have been given to Number 10 but it was too expensive to write replies back to tell them and it was instead done through the headlines of newspapers, which have their own agendas.
"Now if the petition is big or small, the government can send back messages directly."
Some of the other petitions which figure on the Number 10 website could kindly be called long shots, such as getting Tony Blair to stand on his head and juggle ice cream, banning school homework and Halloween, cancelling the London Olympics and making Gold by Spandau Ballet the new national anthem.
But given how easy it is to sign up, and the fact that 3,313 people have supported the attempt for the prime minister to perform like a circus act, how seriously can we take the transport petition?
Mr Steinberg believes the Number 10 online petitions are a lot less open to abuse than signed ones, because one email address has only one vote and anyone can make up a written name and signature. And it does not appear there has been any highly-organised viral campaign on road charging.
Mudslinging has followed the publicity
Anything that engages people in politics, both party politics and issue-specific politics, should be encouraged, says Joe Twyman of internet research firm YouGov.
"With turnouts at elections falling, anything like this is a good thing but you have to judge each on its own merits."
Ben Page, director of MORI, believes the transport petition is clearly significant but not too much should be read into it yet.
"I'm not yet convinced it's the overwhelming issue that upsets everyone in this country. It's not the Iraq War.
"Could they get two million people to London? We would be seeing it in all the opinion polls if this was a really seismic thing starting to occur."
Walk into a pub and ask anyone what the key issues affecting their life are and they are more likely to say health, crime or immigration, says Mr Page. Transport is not in the top five and its importance has been receding.
"I don't want to denigrate it, but because it just requires a click I would be more convinced if there was a major movement in public opinion."
But, Mr Page concedes, it could mark a new phase in British democracy. It's not "the death of Parliament," he says, "but it's a gentle movement towards participative democracy."
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
I have approximately a dozen different email addresses. Does that mean that my views are twelve times more valuable than any other man in the street?
Petitions distort public opinion because people feel naturally uncomfortable identifying themselves in favour of activities that are currently illegal or in danger of being criminalised. For example, a cannabis user may not wish to sign a petition in favour of legalising the drug for fear of being identified as a criminal. Also, it is far easier for people to say they are against something (such as pornography or hunting) rather than in favour of it. You won't get arrested or lose your job for saying something should be banned, so petitions with a conservative agenda will tend to attract more support than liberal ones.
It says it all about the Labour Party that they've finally found a channel for listening to what the people want, and branded it a "Public relations disaster!"
Steve Sutton, St. Albans, UK
Politicians can't have it both ways. First they get upset when Joe Public doesn't get involved in politics, and then get upset again when we do and we don't follow the mantra of the day. Sorry, but Britain isn't a policy rubber stamp factory.
I received this e mail from two people encouraging me to sign the petition. I did sign it, because there is already a taxation system in place for vehicle users and the existing motorists' bills are what have caused me to not afford running a car. Let's leave pay-as-you-drive charges to Livingstone's precious London
Paul H, Nottingham UK
It doesn't matter how the public campaign and how much we squeal about wanting democracy this government will not bow to the people, will not react to the people's will and most definitely won't back down on forms of taxation or attacking other countries, legal or not, even though we pay their salaries.
Nick Duffin, Bristol
You write, "...it does not appear there has been any highly-organised viral campaign on road charging." That's the whole point of viral communications - they don't have to be highly organised. I received an email about this petition from a distant acquaintance who seems to have emailed everybody in her address book with it, and from the headers included in the forwarded messages it appears that many other people have done the same. I think the problem with the petition web site is that people often sign petitions without being fully aware of the facts. The road pricing petition makes it sound like there is currently a government proposal waiting for Mr Blair's approval when, as far as I know, the government is still only researching and examining different options.
Jessica Gregory, Llandeilo, United Kingdom
Well, NewLab will find out just how representative the petition is at the next election. What did Brecht say about the Government not agreeing with the people so it's going to change the people?
So the participative democracy grows through computer access. Here is the tip. Switch it off and get a life.
Ian Murdoch, Edinburgh
I think it's a good idea to provide another mechanism for people to express their views directly - like "citizens lobbying". Incidentally, you say there was no viral campaign, but I received a chain email inviting me to sign the road pricing petition!
Andy, Newcastle, UK
The e-petition system allows more people to voice their concerns which, clearly, make this government rather uncomfortable. And this system really reflects public opinion; I can safely tell Mr Page that 95% of my fellow workers have the possibility of constant tracking of their cars/lives at the top of their "key issues" list. Oh, and if I publicly called one of my web-designer colleagues a "prat" I would most definitely get disciplined...
I would just like to say that I do not agree with Mr Page's remarks that Transport is not in the top five. In my office transport is discussed everyday, especially with the raising of train, tube and bus fares; conditions on public transport and delays. Transport affects all of us everyday as we use it everyday to get to work. Also in rural areas the use of cars are often the only way of getting to work. In my veiw you should ensure public trasport works efficiently prior to penalising car users.
Tom Lewis, London
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