Thursday, 6 February 2014

Why you should sign petitions

One of the things that delights me about having an ever growing audience of politically engaged people is that I can help people get more involved in politics. Some people like to contest that the only way to make a difference is to get out on the streets and protest, but this is wrong headed. Street protests are obviously an important component to dissent but many (especially the elderly, the disabled and those with children to care for) find street protests difficult and/or intimidating, especially given the concerted efforts by the establishment to undermine the right to peaceful political protest and to militarise the police.

I often ask people (if they feel strongly about an issue I've highlighted) to get involved by doing things such as writing to their MP, writing to businesses to explain the reasons for boycotting their products, contributing to public consultations and signing petitions. In my view these activities are just as important as street protests and pickets.

I recently posted the Avaaz Internet Apocalypse petition on the Another Angry Voice Facebook page for anyone who is opposed to the plans to introduce a "two-speed" Internet, where corporations will be able buy special favours from Internet Service Providers at the expense of the wider Internet (non-profit organisations, campaign groups and independent blogs like my own). One of the regular cynics that trolls my page then popped up with an appalling appeal to apathy, saying that petitions are "pointless wastes of time that give people a false belief they are making a difference" and challenged me to "list me 5 petitions of the last 10 years that have made a difference".

I'll do better than that, I'll list 10 petitions of the last 5 years that have made a difference. To be honest, even this challenge (which is 4x as difficult as the one I was actually set) is a bit easy to someone that does like to sign and share petitions.
1. Hugh's Fish Fight: I used to have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his posh-boy cookery show, but he has earned an enormous amount of respect from me after leading the campaign for the abandonment of the extraordinarily wasteful practice of EU fish discards (throwing millions of tons of dead but perfectly edible fish back into the sea). Over 870,000 people signed the Hugh's Fish Fight petition and in December 2013 the EU finally legislated to reform their fisheries policy and abandon the ludicrously wasteful discards policy.

2. Universal Basic Income: A 2013 petition in Switzerland has triggered a referendum on the introduction of Universal Basic Income. The referendum has yet to be held, but the fact that the public in Switzerland will have a say on the issue is entirely down to the people that signed the petition in the first place.

3. Barbarity in the Maldives: One of the most emotive petitions in recent years was one concerning a 15 year old rape victim who had been sentenced to public flogging for the "crime" of sex outside marriage. After more than 2 million people signed the 2013 Avaaz petition, the conviction was overturned.

4. Bank charges: In 2012 A petition with over 300,000 signatures led to Bank of America abandoning plans to introduce a $5 monthly banking fee within a month of announcing it.

5. The Food Poverty Debate: In 2013 A petition on the UK government epetition website resulted in a parliamentary debate on food poverty. Unfortunately the Tories stonewalled the debate, but they earned themselves an awful lot of bad publicity as they laughed and shouted their way through the debate. The absurdly evasive and misleading speech made by Esther McVey was derided as the "one of the nastiest frontbench speeches I’ve heard in more than 43 years" by parliamentary veteran Gerald Kaufman. Although the petition didn't result in changing the Tory policy of forcing the most vulnerable people in society into destitution (which, after all, is one of their core political strategies), it certainly opened a lot more people's eyes to their sheer callousness.

6. ACTA: An American led drive to censor the Internet was abandoned due to an extremely strong public reaction against it. The EU cited a 2012 Avaaz petition with well over 2 million signatures as a key factor in their decision to abandon their participation in ACTA.

7. The Olympic Tax Dodge: One of the most stunningly successful petitions in recent years was the 38 Degrees campaign against a tax-dodging deal arranged by the IOC for sponsors of the 2012 London Olympics. Within just a few weeks every single Olympic sponsor pulled out of the tax dodge under a tide of negative publicity.

8. Save the Forests: 38 Degrees led the campaign to stop the Tories selling off nationally owned woodland. Over half a million people signed the 2010 petition and the Tories were forced to cancel the sell-off.

9. Neoncotinoid pesticides: A 2013 Avaaz petition with 2.6 million signatures drove the EU decision to impose a temporary ban on neoncotinoid pesticides which have been linked to colony collapse disorder in bees.
10. Ryan Ferguson: Ryan was freed after a 2012 petition with 250,000 signatures helped to secure him a retrial in which his absurdly dubious murder conviction was overturned.
These ten are some of the most high profile petitions of the last five years and they are obviously not the only ones (feel free to mention other "petitions that have made a difference" in the comments section).

Of course petitions are not the only way of protesting against injustice (direct action, street protests, spreading awareness, boycotts, strikes, pickets and attempts to engage with the political system are some of many other avenues) but I hope I've made it clear that it is possible to make a difference by signing a petition.

The fact that I've so easily surpassed his request for evidence is a clear demonstration that people like my "petitions are a pointless waste of time" troll are either hopelessly ignorant about the subject they are pontificating about, or they are cynically lying through their teeth in some pathetic attempt to dissuade other people from even trying to make a difference.

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