What’s the point of petitions?

As the Revoke Article 50 parliamentary petition closes in on the 6 million signature mark, campaign petitions are having their moment in the sun yet again.

But what’s the point of petitions? Do they make a difference? And should they be part of your campaign strategy?

As someone who has launched his fair share of petitions over the years, I’ve heard most of the criticism against them.

When I worked at Which?, we got half a million people to sign petitions to tackle nuisance calls and sky high energy prices.

But a lot of people internally and externally were critical of this approach:

  • “It’s just campaigning by numbers.”
  • “It’s not activism, it’s clicktivism.”
  • “It’s not going to make a difference. It won’t change anyone’s mind.”

Much of this criticism is inevitable if campaigners struggle to answer some fairly basic questions — such as:

  • Why are we getting people to sign our petition?
  • How many people (and just as importantly who) do we need to sign to really influence our campaign targets?
  • What else do we need petition signatories to do, so that they really make a difference and — most important of all — help us to win campaigns?

Why petition?

1. Legitimacy

The first and most obvious reason why you may want to use a petition is to demonstrate public support for and to give legitimacy to your campaign.

When Which? started campaigning on nuisance calls in 2013, politicians and regulators knew that it was an issue that people were annoyed by. But it wasn’t clear that people cared so much that they wanted government action.

By launching our campaign with an online petition, we very quickly showed the government, regulators, media and MPs that the public were fully behind our calls for action.

Tens and then hundreds of thousands swiftly got behind our campaign. And as we took our giant nuisance calls phone to shopping centres and railway stations — people were keen to sign up and leave their stories.

This made it very obvious to politicians that they needed to act. And (alongside the media and parliamentary pressure that we built) ensured that we secured a Government action plan on the issue in months.

I always thought we’d need our supporters to do more to put pressure on Ministers and others. But we never actually needed them to do “emails to target” or go to lobbies of Parliament or attend MP surgeries.

The simple fact of the 500,000 supporters demonstrated that action was needed and allowed Which? to time and again secure campaign win after campaign win from the Government.

2. Process

Of course with some petitions — such as those on the parliamentary petition site — you’re purposefully trying to insert yourself into a political process.

This may be about securing a debate in Parliament and a response from the government. Or getting the petitions committee to conduct an inquiry into your issue — as they did on funding for brain tumours and on the online abuse that disabled people experience.

But there are valid questions to be asked about how useful this process is.

Why go down the petition route to get a debate, when you could just persuade MPs to secure a debate via an easier route (say a 10 Minute Rule Bill or in Westminster Hall)?

Why not persuade an existing select committee to hold an inquiry on your issue?

Both good points— but some organisations or individuals using the parliamentary petition process do not necessarily have the capacity or contacts to secure an intervention via other routes.

Furthermore, there’s no reason why you can’t use multiple parliamentary approaches to get your issue on the agenda. For example, at Which? in 2016/17, we secured 100,000 signatures for a parliamentary petition on tumble dryer fires and persuaded the Business Select Committee to hold an inquiry.

And together, those approaches forced the Government to concede ground on establishing a new body on product safety.

3. Pressure

A question that I’d sometimes get asked by former colleagues at Which? would be:

“If we get another 10,000 signatures on this petition, do you think X will listen to us?”

The simple answer was no. But that’s not to say a sizeable (or even a small!) petition cannot pile considerable pressure on your campaign target.

In part it comes down to you thinking about who you want the pressure to be exerted upon and how the petition enables you to achieve that.

Are you trying to pressure politicians? In which case, how does the petition play to their motivations? A fear of reputational damage perhaps? The loss of key voters? The opportunity to burnish their leadership credentials if they back it?

Or maybe the real target of your petition is civil servants or regulators. Does the petition mean more public scrutiny of their work? Does it contradict or complement research that they’ve commissioned? Maybe it allows them to pass the buck — and scrap something that they’ve never been convinced about.

What if the target is a business? Organising boycotts is hard given the challenge of shifting consumer behaviour to really dent the bottom line. But brand damage via a petition and some canny use of social media might swiftly make a business think twice and put them under pressure.

This petition pressure is critically important when your campaign is up against stiff opposition.

A simple line of attack on the Revoke Article 50 petition is that you can easily imagine 6 million people signing an alternative petition demanding that Brexit goes ahead. Well, maybe.

But most of our campaigns are likely to be up against industry lobbyists or other opponents who simply cannot secure the kind of public support that we can.

These opponents will often have the ear of Ministers, MPs and the media. So if decision makers are looking for a way to justify going against them — then the support of tens or hundreds of thousands of people via a petition may be exactly what they need to do so.

4. Growth

Let’s get real.

An awful lot of campaign petitions are simply an acquisition tool.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

You want to reach more people and achieve more change.

And that means building a supporter base who will not only back your campaigns but will fund you as well.

A petition may provide a far simpler entry point than securing new backers via a fundraising drive or through new products and services.

It is possible that many people signing your petition will never do anything else for your cause.

But on the other hand, the correlation between backing your cause and being a long term donor is likely to be high.

The problem is that too many organisations don’t have this conversation — or are unwilling to be explicit about this fact — when developing a campaign strategy and launching a petition.

And this leads to campaigners getting annoyed when they think their petition is getting hijacked for marketing or fundraising purposes.

Or fundraisers and marketeers sticking their oar in, trying to shape a campaign strategy and demanding answers about why the Government hasn’t responded to the petition yet.

Much better to be upfront about these agendas at the beginning. Agree when and where petitions will be used to secure new supporters — and where change objectives need to be prioritised.

How many signatures?

1. Size matters

Tom Baker has recently written about the biggest petitions in UK campaigning history — and how Revoke Article 50 (now the biggest) compares to previous monster petitions, like the Chartists and Jubilee 2000.

So does size matter?

Is there a magic figure that you need to hit to demonstrate your legitimacy or to put a politicians under pressure?

When it comes to parliamentary petitions, then yes — 100,000 is the magic number — the threshold at which MPs will consider the debating the petition in Parliament.

But beyond this threshold, the size of your petition is entirely about the context that you’re working within — and much harder to judge.

For the Revoke Article 50 petitioners, 17.4 million is the magic number. The number of votes that Leave secured in the referendum.

But a) does anyone really believe that this petition can top that number? (I’d love to be proved wrong.)

And b) even if it did, would it change anything?

Clearly no one knows the answer to the second question.

But this petition never needs to reach those heights to have an impact.

Securing the largest ever parliamentary petition adds to the huge pressure that the Government and MPs already face on Brexit. The demo in London, the business and trade union leaders speaking out, the Led By Donkeys billboards and so on.

Similar considerations need to be made when thinking about the size of your own petitions.

The Revoke Article 50 petition has set a new benchmark — and if you’re launching a petition calling for a big change on say, climate change or housing or social care, then you probably need to be confident of your ability to get the sign ups — or you may be embarrassed.

If you can’t be confident of going big, then that’s not necessarily a reason to quit the idea of a petition, after all …

2. Size doesn’t matter

I’ve run campaigns that have got half a million petition signatures.

I’ve also run ones that have got 15,000.

And one of the most successful was at the smaller end.

Petitions with a few thousand signatures can be completely valid and effective, especially when you’re seeking to influence a very specific change in policy.

10,000 signatures calling for action on climate change might look small fry.

10,000 signatures calling for action on unfair pension charges can look quite significant.

Particularly if it is accompanied with stories of the people affected and powerful research on the issue at hand.

This is what Which? did on its Hands Off My Pension campaign in 2013.

The Government was looking to cap the pension fees and charges that people were hit with.

Some industry players wanted the cap to be set as high as possible.

What we needed to do was give the Government a strong case for going low.

The 10,000+ petition signatures helped — but alongside this, we persuaded 7,000 people to leave their stories — and to tell us why they needed to secure as much value as possible from their pension.

This proved really important for the Minister responsible — and he was able to keep bringing out our dossier of stories and wave them at the opposition.

“You may be arguing for the cap to be set higher, but thousands of Which? supporters have told me why they want us to set a low cap and secure them more income for their retirement.”

3. Who’s signed it?

Big or small, what we need to spend far more time thinking about is — who’s signed our petition?

And even more importantly, who do we need to sign it?

To a certain extent, the impact of the Revoke Article 50 petition has been limited by the fact that it has had so many signatures in seats that heavily voted Remain in the referendum.

There’s no doubt that the petition would have more impact if the top signatories were in places like Walsall, West Bromwich or Dudley, where around 70% vote to Leave.

But despite this — the impact of who has signed the petition may still be significant.

Look at who’s seat is in the top 10 — Jeremy Corbyn. As a result, this petition will further amp up the pressure on the Leader of the Opposition to bring Labour fully behind a second referendum.

Looking through the list of signatories, constituency by constituency, will no doubt provide the People’s Vote and other Remain campaigners — as well as the Leave Means Leave campaigners — with a good idea of where to focus their attention.

Those MPs who’s voting behaviour may be out of kilter with their constituents.

Those parts of the country that could be critical to winning if there’s a second referendum — or even a general election.

When it comes to our own petitions, more time needs to be given to understanding who has signed it — and who we need to sign it to have an impact.

This might be about demonstrating to your target that people with “lived experience” are backing or leading the call for action.

It might be about showing that key groups of voters — in swing seats perhaps — back a change in policy.

Understanding who you’ve got — and who you need — is just as (if not more) important about how many people sign a petition.

What do we need them to do?

Signing a petition should be just the start of a long and hopefully fruitful relationship with your campaign supporters.

An opportunity to listen to them about how they’re affected by the issue that you’re campaigning on.

A chance to learn about what’s working and not working on the campaign to date — and to get their ideas about what next.

To go on a journey together — maybe to hand over elements of the campaign to them — or to encourage them to get even more involved with your next campaign action.

Last summer a record 162,000 people responded to a Treasury consultation on how taxes or charges could be used to reduce single-use plastics.

I don’t know how many of these people first got involved in the campaign by signing a petition — but it seems likely that many did.

So, what’s the point of petitions?

If campaigners are clear about why they’re launching one and who they need to get behind it, then they can undoubtedly have an impact.

But campaigners must remember that (as with so much of our campaign activity) petitions are often the beginning, not the end of the process. And to be really effective they have to be part of a much bigger strategy for change.