Do petitions actually effect real change?

Adding your signature to a cause has become a stalwart of modern protests. So we asked politics professor Cristina Leston-Bandeira how they can effect change

Signing a petition has become part and parcel of protesting politics and fighting injustices.

People disaffected by the Brexit stalemate used the parliamentary e-petitions site to show their displeasure and call for Article 50 to be revoked in the record-busting, six-million signature petition back in March.

An even more recent example is the call for a public inquiry into the EU citizens who missed out on a vote in the recent EU elections, which has soured past 72,000 signatures in just four days and is now at almost 120,000.

In general terms I can say that petitions are the method that has enhanced engagement with parliament over the last few years

But how do you translate such mammoth support into meaningful change? Leeds University politics professor Cristina Leston-Bandeira has research petitions extensively and she insists that they need to be specific and dodge party political issues to avoid being derailed in parliament.

After all, an interconnected path to policymakers is also key – with the parliamentary petition site offering a government response if a petition receives 10,000 signatures and a debate for 100,000.

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“In general terms I can say that petitions are the method that has enhanced engagement with parliament over the last few years,” said Leston Bandeira.

“It’s useful for the political system – it’s almost a safety valve role to say, ‘Look, we’re really fed up with this’,” says Leston-Bandeira. “It brings in another path to express your view and access policymakers.

“The petition itself doesn’t actually achieve anything aside from raising awareness, which can be quite useful in itself. But the main thing that makes a petition system is how people can sign it and collect support for it and what happens to it afterwards, which is the most important thing.”

But with all eyes on Westminster as the Brexit saga continues to roll on, petitions have played a huge role in boosting engagement and the Petition Committee’s activities are among the most popular in parliament.

“Although things like Prime Minister’s Questions are the televised debates that people might recognise and say are the most watched, they’re not,” said Leston-Bandeira. “The most watched debates are the petitions debates because the committee send an email out to everyone who has signed the petition and people do log in, they do watch it. And this is not just access for 30 seconds, this is people staying.”

Read more from Leston-Bandeira as well as the3million – the pressure group fighting for EU citizens’ right to vote – and disability campaigner Dan White on how to turn anger into action in this week’s Big Issue. Available now from vendors and The Big Issue Shop.