Petitions are democracy in action – unlike modern-day elections

There is nothing more depressing than reading the turn-out statistics for local elections here in North Staffordshire.
When only 20-something per cent of the electorate in certain wards can be bothered to vote it leads me to the inevitable conclusion that most of our communities have been disenfranchised.
The questions are: Who is at fault and what can we do about it?
Plenty of people are only too quick to moan about how useless their local council/councillors are but then they refuse to get off their backsides to vote to change anything.
Over the years I’ve heard all the excuses under the sun…
“They’re all the same anyway.” “Councillors are only in it for themselves.” “What’s the point? Nothing ever changes.”
Others have no excuse. They simply can’t be bothered and I find this complete abdication of responsibility breathtaking.
I can’t help but feel that more needs to be done to engage young people in politics because the current system patently isn’t working and isn’t representative of the population as a whole.
Thankfully, as evidenced by a story in yesterday’s Sentinel, democracy is alive and well in the ST postcode area.
The lead story on P13 won’t perhaps have been the most read item in yesterday’s editions of the paper.
However, its significance should not be underestimated as it clearly demonstrates how ordinary people really can influence change – if they can be bothered to try.
Our story revealed that more than half of all petitions submitted by campaigners during the last 12 months led to the city council back-tracking on controversial decisions or taking action to appease residents.
The figures showed that more than 16,000 people signed 33 petitions which were presented to the local authority on a range of issues.
Some were very parochial – such as a successful 53-signature petition calling for parking restrictions on Tunstall High Street to be relaxed.
But other petitions, such as those calling for a full review of care services delivered in elderly people’s homes or fighting to save the ceremonial role of Lord Mayor, transcended geographic boundaries and attracted the support of thousands of people.
The city council, and its elected members, are often criticised for not listening to taxpayers and for wasting money or making bizarre decisions.
But when so few people can be bothered to vote at election time and engage with the political process or those prepared to stand for office then I think they can be forgiven for, at times, seeming out of touch.
The city council’s petitions scheme really is democracy in action.
It represents council officers being forced to listen and take note of the concerns of ordinary people – most of whom pay towards their wages.
Only people living or working in a particular area can really know what affect a new building, new road, new business or changes to traffic regulations will have.
Only people using a particular service can truly gauge its worth.
That is why petitions are so important as a barometer of public feeling and why I believe they have, in many ways, become more important than polling day.
The Sentinel itself, in its role as champion of the communities it serves, is no stranger to petitions and every so often will support a particular cause.
Very often, with petitions, it is all about timing.
It certainly was back in January 2001 when the then Editor accompanied five-year-old patient Jacob Bradbury down to Downing Street to present 19,000 signatures from Sentinel readers calling for a new superhospital for North Staffordshire.
The presentation was timed just a few months before the country went to the polls and the then Labour Government wasn’t minded to ignore the plea by thousands of potential voters.
I’m hoping our current petition to save the name of the Staffordshire Regiment amid Army cutbacks is equally successful.
The sheer amount of correspondence from the public and the fact that we already have in excess of 12,000 signatures underlines quite clearly the strength of feeling.
I’ve never seen so many letters and so many personal stories on one topic – from people who have served with the Staffords or whose relatives have or still are.
Even in an age when traditional elections are unpopular and perhaps even scorned by many people, petitions offer us all the chance to genuinely influence things which affect our everyday lives.
They give us all a voice which we are comfortable in raising and perhaps point the decision-makers to what we, the general public, think are the most important issues – rather than what we are told are.
*Sign The Sentinel’s petition by logging on to: http://www.saveourstaffords.com or filling in the coupon which appears in the paper daily

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