If someone in the UK feels strongly enough about an issue, they are more likely to start or sign an e-petition than take any other democratic action, aside from voting in a general election and contacting their MP (Hansard Society Audit of Political Engagement 2019). Since launching in 2015, almost 23 million people have started or signed a petition on Parliament’s petitions website. This is equivalent to almost 35% of the UK population.
This Insight looks at the popularity of e-petitions created during the 2017-19 and 2019 Parliamentary Sessions. It considers whether there is any connection between the popularity of petitions in any given constituency and other underlying democratic factors.
What is an e-petition?
An e-petition is an online petition to the House of Commons and the Government, started by a member of the public on Parliament’s petitions website. Petitions which receive over 10,000 signatures receive a response from the Government. Petitions which receive over 100,000 signatures are automatically considered for debate by the Petitions Committee.
E-petitions in the 2017-19 and 2019 Parliamentary session, in numbers
There seems to be a link between petitioning and election turnout
You might expect someone who starts or signs a petition (a petitioner) to be more politically active, and therefore likely to vote, than those who don’t. Based on this assumption, we would expect areas with large numbers of petitioners to have higher turnout rates in elections.
There is no official minimum age for someone who wants to start or sign a petition. This means there are likely to be petitioners who are below the voting age and therefore not represented in the turnout figures quoted. Likewise, non-British citizens who live in the UK can start and sign petitions, but not vote.
The relationship between the number of petitioners as a percentage of population, and turnout as a percentage of the electorate at the 2019 General Election, is represented in chart 1. This covers the 2017-19 Parliament (13 June 2017-8 October 2019) and the 2019 Parliament (14 October–5 November 2019). We can see that constituencies where petitioning is more popular saw higher turnout rates.
Indeed, of the 10 constituencies with the highest percentage of petitioners, eight experienced above average turnout. The remaining two each saw turnout which was only slightly below the average.
Conversely, nine of the 10 constituencies with the smallest percentage of petitioners saw a below-average turnout at General Election 2019.
This suggests that starting and signing petitions is generally more popular in constituencies with higher voter turnout.
There is less of a link between petitioning and majority size
Another factor which might affect the popularity of petitions in a constituency is the size of the MP’s majority. If someone living in a ‘safe seat’ felt their vote was either not needed, or would not have an impact on the outcome, they might look for other ways to have their say. E-petitions provide an accessible way of supporting a cause people care about.
However, the evidence for this is mixed.
Chart 2 illustrates how there is little relationship between the percentage of petitioners in a constituency and majority size.
Nine of the 10 constituencies with the highest percentage of petitioners were safe seats at the time (see chart 3). Four of these could be considered ‘very safe’ as they had majorities of over 50%.
And yet petitions were extremely popular in one marginal (Cities of London and Westminster) and one very marginal seat (Edinburgh North and Leith). A seat can be considered marginal if it has a majority of under 10%, and very marginal if the majority is under 5%.
We also see nine safe seats among the 10 constituencies with the smallest percentage of petitioners (see chart 4).
The popularity of petitions is broadly uniform across the four nations of the UK
There is some variation in the percentages of populations in each nation which started or signed a petition, ranging from 15.4% in Northern Ireland to 22.9% in England (see figure 2).
The Petitions Committee will only consider petitions which focus on a matter the UK Government or the House of Commons is responsible for. This means any potential petitions on devolved policy areas would need to be directed to the relevant devolved parliament or local council. The Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, and many local councils have their own online petitions systems. Along with other political factors, this could help to explain the slightly lower numbers of petitioners in the devolved nations.
Petitions in the UK, House of Commons Library.
Constituency data: Population by age, House of Commons Library.
General Election 2019: Turnout, House of Commons Library
General Election 2019: Marginality, House of Commons Library
General Election 2017: full results and analysis, House of Commons Library.
General Election 2019: full results and analysis, House of Commons Library.
Parliamentary Constituency Mid-Year Population Estimates (Experimental Statistics), Office for National Statistics.
UK Parliamentary Constituency Population Estimates, National Records of Scotland.
Mid-year population estimates, Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency.
About the author: Stephen Wilson is Petitions and Communications Manager in the Petitions Committee.