Petitions buck the political participation trend

At a time of falling voter turnouts and apathy in mainstream democratic politics new research comparing petitions across UK, Europe and the US has found they are making a comeback.

And it seems they never really fell out of favour with political historians agreeing that petitioning goes as far back as ancient Egypt.

The latest research on this historic form of democracy will be put under the spotlight by some of the world’s leading experts at The University of Manchester next week (June 29/30). This is due to a growing academic interest in the history of petitioning and the rise of e-petitioning. 

The European symposium is being hosted by the Cultures of Politics Research Group based at the University and will unveil new research in the field including the important role it has in political mobilisation within local communities.

Among the speakers will be Dr Henry Miller who is a lecturer in Nineteenth-Century British History. He said: “The aim is for this research to contribute to current contemporary debates about political participation and disengagement.  During the symposium we will examine how ordinary people made use of petitions in the past – they are a universal phenomenon, used across countries and periods and by all groups of people.”

According to Dr Miller petitioning was central to many of the major political and social movements before democracy. He said: “When the UK Parliament abolished slavery in Britain’s Caribbean colonies in 1833, it was largely due to the pressure of petitions.

“Also the campaign for women’s suffrage was initiated in Britain by a petition in 1866 and the 1848 French Revolution was sparked by an attempt to present a petition in the legislature.”

The ‘golden age’ of petitioning in the UK was the 19th century, when thousands of petitions, containing millions of signatures, were sent to the House of Commons every year.

“Petitioning really took off in the medieval period”, said Dr Miller, “and by the time of the English Civil War in the 1640s, it was firmly established.

“Petitions could be about anything, and were often about mundane local or individual grievances. But they could also be about issues of national and international importance, such as the economy, peace and war, democratic reforms, religion, and social policy.”

Dr Miller continued: “The interesting thing is that despite the lack of success that often occasioned petitions, people still petitioned. This was because petitioning had other advantages: it encouraged political participation and mobilisation through public meetings and put issues on the political agenda, even if authority resisted the petitioners’ demands.

“Whether successful or not, the evidence suggests that authorities often took petitions seriously and listened to them, even if they disagreed with the petitioners demands.”

The symposium is supported by The University of Manchester, Manchester Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence and the Social History Society.

Notes for editors

Any journalists wishing to attend the Symposium or to arrange an interview should contact the Media Relations Office.

Media enquiries to:

Kath Paddison
Media Relations Officer
The University of Manchester
Tel: 0161 275 0790
Mob: 07990 550050
Email: kath.paddison@manchester.ac.uk