Petitioning politicians

One of the observations of today’s politics is the disengagement of many when it comes to getting involved. This occurs often among Christians who look on with disconsolation the efforts of politicians and decide that politics is not for them. While I have sympathy with those who feel that way, realizing that one of the reasons why I am in the “don’t know” category when it comes to who to cast my vote for on May 7th is that no-one stands out when it comes to being able to deliver on those issues that I particularly care about, which cover a large range. Yet whether one’s Christianity is of the liberal variety, e.g. concerned about matters of fairness, or more conservative, e.g. concerned about the erosion of Christian values, my message is we need to engage politically. I was reminded that one can, and especially if done collectively, make a difference, when I read that when a few years back western government opted to cancel some third world debt, it was largely as a result of Christians campaigning. My blogging on matters political is not necessary to persuade folk to vote for one candidate as opposed to another but rather to help identify what the issues are and encourage them to press politicians.

One aspect of the democratic process that intrigues me is the use of petitions, now made easier and seeing resurgence in popularity because we can now add our voice to those concerned about some issue by adding our names to petitions, by going online. Earlier today a number of friends highlighted the fact that in the recent budget set by our local council that among the cuts were those to do with mental health. I sympathise with the dilemma councilors are in, which in this case is having to choose which services to cut given there is less money to pay for these, but then it often comes down to where priorities lie and how money is used. As some will know, I have been campaigning for a long while concerning the plight of vulnerable people, such as the homeless, who need mental health support, but that support is not forthcoming, so cutting further mental health services would appear to be a step in the wrong direction. Besides the difficult choice quandary that has to be faced, there are much deeper ones concerning how services are deployed, a lack of leadership when it comes to health provision generally and the all important part the community can play, in this case helping folk with mental health issues. Having weighed the arguments in my mind, I chose to sign, and await with interest the outcome.

Having been involved with signing and promoting petitions over the years, I have mixed feelings as to how effective petitions are. My view is that it can be part of the important matter of making our politicians accountable and should be done along with such things as being active in our communities when we see a need and directly engaging with our elected representatives. One of my earlier forays into petitions was several years ago when our local council announced it wanted to expand casino provision in the town. At the time the petition was presented, it appeared we had done a lot of work getting that far but our efforts were treated contemptuously by those in power. In the end casino expansion did not happen, and while I would like to think what we did influenced that decision, the principle reason appeared to be the wider political climate changed – the central government giving incentives to building supercasinos as part of a regeneration program did not materialise.

Over the years, I have signed petitions on a wide range of matters. The last one before today was to do with the government reducing funding to our local grammar schools such that some of the important provisions they are making have to be cut if the money is not found. I was pleased to note that this was presented to Parliament by one of our local MPs and, while my expectations are not high, I await the outcome with interest. One of the petitions I was happy to sign was facilitated by the Coalition for Marriage, campaigning for marriage to remain between one man and one woman. I was disgusted at the response of the coalition government that treated the 600000 signatories with such contempt by misrepresenting the extent people were opposed to their proposals. But I believe it was the right thing to do and if I could turn the clock back might have acted more smartly given that deviousness of our elected leaders. At the other end of the ideological spectrum, I was happy to sign a petition that arose out of the rise in food banks and led to a debate in Parliament on the subject. While it appeared at the time that what was being asked for was given short shrift, at least the matter was raised and is still an election issue.

I daresay that in the months to come, I will be asked to sign many petitions and will treat each request on its merits. A recent request was to seek to indict the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, for war crimes. I did not sign, not because I did not believe there was a case to answer but because it was politically skewed and there was an at least equal case for the leader of Hamas, Khaled Mashal, which unsurprisingly the sponsors chose to overlook. Petitions are but one weapon in our armory for democratic accountability. We would be wise and do well to use the means at our disposal to raise matters of concern and engage in a flawed democratic process, even though I agree with those who see the importance of being good citizens and entreating the Almighty. If we do not do so, we lose our right to complain. And while we might have good reason to remain skeptical regarding politicians delivering changes that are for the better, that is one means available to us, and some beneficial change is better than none at all.


2 thoughts on “Petitioning politicians

  1. I don’t want to live in Swizerland with politics by petition. I want to trust the people we elect to make the best decisions with their conscience and manifesto and judge them five years later.

    I certainly don’t want a band of Christians having things passed through just because they can get a petition in the same way as you wouldn’t want me being give an undue hearing just because I put together a petition banning public prayer. We would merely be run by the most organised pressure groups.

  2. I think you make some good points Rob. I didn’t talk about referendums but I understand countries like Switzerland are a lot keener than the British on this but there also comes a point when it would be counter-productive. As with much in life, it is a matter of balance and compromise. In an ideal world it would be as you said. The party in power is given a mandate to deliver on its manifesto and we get to judge how well they have done when we come to vote five years later. Sadly, many do not trust our politicians, some issues are not adequately covered in the manifesto and some just arise, and nowadays there is the prospect of what happens in a coalitions where manifestos don’t strictly apply. It is important in a democracy we can feed into the process and raising petitions are one way to do this is. I agree powerful and well organised groups should not unduly influence what happens, which brings me back to the balance question.

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