The Brexit Petition – Does it matter?

By Sharon Gomez

The petition to “Revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU” has over 5.8 million signatures at the time of writing and some are lauding this as a win for Remainers. But petitions aren’t legally binding, so must we listen to it?

The fact that Parliament has integrated e-petitions into their formal policy process (i.e. considering for debate any petition that receives more than 100,000 signatures) speaks volumes about the respect it has for honest public engagement. It’s now set to be debated by MPs on 1 April.

But a petition is not the same as people going to vote. It’s an unstandardized and unreliable source of the people’s will. For example, all UK residents are able to sign, regardless if they’re able to vote or not. Also, the same email can be used to sign the petition twice – allowing unscrupulous parties a second bite at the cherry. The petition, while record-breaking, still received fewer signatures than the 17.4 million people who voted to leave in 2016.

However, protest petitions such as this can be effective in more subtle ways. To illustrate, more than 1.6 million people signed a petition calling for US President Donald Trump’s visit to the UK to be cancelled. While Mr Trump still visited the UK, it took a long time for him to come to the UK, and it was a more toned down event than anticipated. This petition may not stop the UK from leaving the EU but could pressure the government to accept a soft Brexit or to remain close with the EU after leaving.

The intention of a petition is commendable – who can argue with giving people a voice? The problem is that the bar is set too low. The kind of engagement that an online petition requires is too minimal, too superficial to be taken seriously. Opening a link, clicking a send button; is this a valid way of engaging in debate? The short answer is no.

Inaccessibility is another problem. If petitions are powerful enough to get the attention of Parliament, does it disadvantage people with less access to it? The hard truth is that the world isn’t getting any less digital – the web is coming of age as a place where anyone can build powerful campaigns. But while the internet might be a good way of getting the word out there, the real push comes from active real-life campaigning.

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