Once again turnout was down in the recent local elections, confirming a long-term trend of disengagement with both UK political parties-membership is at an all-time low and, crudely, less people are voting, in particular, less younger people are voting.

Then, this week, I read of yet another web based campaign resource, Change.org, setting up a UK office to encourage online petitions and link campaigners to campaign organisations. This is popular in the States and looking to not only grow here but across the globe also, with ambitions to eventually open in China. While traditional politics is continuing to wither on the vine alternative action grows exponentially.
Change.org follows in the vein of campaigning sites such as sumofus.org, care2.co, 38 Degrees.org and avaaz.org, supporting campaigners with online campaigning forums. The fact that this is now a growing commercial proposition suggests that this style of campaigning is shifting so far towards the mainstream that it will supplant other forms of engagement. The attractions are not hard to see-why slog away within a political system and be bound to a party line and the messy business of everyday political slog for little immediate return, when you can be involved in changing national and local policy through a quick online vote.

Using large online petitions is a particular tool within the overall suite of online engagement which Change.org specialises in. The American version of Change.org cites recent successes such as stopping Apple using child labour in China and getting the State Attorney in the Trayvon Martin case in Florida to change its position after 2.3 million people signed a petition on the site posted by Mr Martin’s parents. They claim this helped spark protest marches in several cities and extensive media coverage. (Though, given the saturated media coverage in the States, and across the world, it may have been one of many influencers rather than the decisive one). At a local level, the site is full of examples, from reinstating Band Leaders to proposing it’s too hot to go to school-not all of them are as successful as the next.

Yet, this raises some crucial issues both for democracy and the long-term development of campaigning. It is old news that web based campaigning can be a very powerful tool for crowd sourcing and can deliver pressure quickly in large numbers. It is also true that many are aware of the pitfalls and are working hard to translate online support into offline commitment. My concern is not only the usual worry about click activism and it’s dangers-real though these are.

Campaigners also have to think hard about not undermining the foundations they stand on. As with postcards and mass letter writing, politicians and decision makers will become hardened to all but the largest outpourings on the web, and even here it can become the law of diminishing returns-what when a million signatures is not enough to gain traction? Overreliance on mass plebiscites through web petitions can also lead to lazy campaigning that attacks particular targets while doing little to change the underlying causes. Cheap (if often important) victories at the expense of long term change. Many know this and the best sites ensure grounding in wider campaign aims, but as campaigns and issues proliferate will it stay like this?

The danger is that plebiscites start to weaken the capacity of the political system to ground itself in more than the latest passing trending issue that people have signed up to or re-tweeted to their network. Great for the quick blast at Apple and a collective howl of outrage to get immediate wrongs put right. But less so in the slow grind of shifting the tectonic plates of Government policy and changing public awareness. To work best they need to be linked together to a longer term strategy for change. Also, with plebiscites we have to be aware of what happens to less populist and popular issues-some these sites are littered with the campaigns that did not take off, usually because there is little coverage in the media or because they cannot strike a populist chord.

Online petitions are the fast food of campaigning-useful for the quick sugar rush and seductive- but we also need our five-a-day, however mundane that sometimes seems. There is no going back from here, nor should we want to, but the challenge is how to ensure that the online tools we are using are not creating a culture that undermines the idea that, in the long term, it’s worth engaging at the political level with political parties and Government. However many petitions we sign our vote at elections is still the vote that politicians fear the most.