It has long been the tradition in British politics for concerned citizens to petition their government and request that it carries out, or refrains from carrying out one or more particular actions, and one of the innovations introduced by Tony Blair's Labour government was the creation of a website where members of the public were able to create and sign petitions online without even having to take the trouble of putting pen to paper.
The idea was thought up by one Benjamin Wegg-Prosser, who was Tony Blair's Director of Strategy at the time, and believed that it would be a way of "connecting Downing Street to voters". It was undoubtedly successful in attracting a certain amount of attention and a regular stream of petitions were indeed submitted to the website although, by and large, the vast majority were generally ignored by the British public. Indeed, as at the end of April 2009, of the 21,500 closed petitions, fewer than 900 or so had succeeded in attracting more than a 1,000 votes, and even the 50th most popular had only received 17,950 supporting signatures.
The one notable success was the petition calling on the Government to "Scrap the planned vehicle tracking and road pricing policy" which closed on the 20th February 2007 and attracted a mammoth 1,811,424 votes; being the only petition ever to receive more than a million votes, and one of only seven petitions to have ever made into six figures. As it turned out this petition did indeed achieve its objective, as the Government rapidly backtracked on its plans to introduce proposals for a national road pricing system; much to the annoyance of one Douglas Alexander who was the Secretary of State for Transport at the time, and allegedly referred to Wegg-Prosser as a "prat" for dreaming up the idea in the first place.
Which brings us to the case of one Dr Kalvis Jansons, described as "academic mathematician from Hitchin, Hertfordshire" who, despite being a "traditional Labour supporter", had become disillusioned with the Brown administration and in particular Gordon Brown's reluctance to apologise over the Smeargate affair. Dr Jansons therefore concluded that it was time for Brown to leave office and, as he told the Press Association, decided to submit a "simple, clear, generalised petition which would cover all the bases and comply with their rules', which would be "something that could unite the country" and simply stated that "We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to resign".
It was submitted to the Downing Street website on Wednesday, 22nd April 2009, together with an explanatory note to the effect that whilst there were "many reasons why we might want Brown to resign", rather than have "lots of narrow petitions on this topic" the petitioner "wanted one for all of us". By the morning of the 24th April it had attracted a total of some 1,700 supporters. A few days later on the 27th April the total exceeded 12,000, and after one week it had achieved over 20,000 signatures, making it the fifth most popular open petition.
It appears that this initial success was down to a few mentions on politically inclined websites and blogs and soon began to attract the notice of the traditional press. Nicholas Watt, the chief political correspondent of The Guardian, drew it to the attention of his readers on the 27th April 2009; similarly the Daily Mail of the 28th April reported that the petition had attracted over 20,000 supporters, followed by much of the rest of the media. It was as if the petition had struck a chord with at least one small fraction of the British electorate, as whilst Dr Jansons's petition might have been prompted by the Smeargate revelations, life had not improved for Gordon Brown since then, given a particularly unfortunate Budget announced on the 23rd April, his continued maladroit handling of the row over MP's expenses, and having suffered what was described as a "humiliating defeat" in the Commons over the issue of granting citizenship to former Gurkhas. Indeed the few voices of dissent largely emerged from Conservative supporters who felt that Brown was one of their party's strongest electoral assets and feared that his replacement could not fail to improve the Labour Party's fortunes.
By the 30th April the total calling for the Prime Minister's resignation had topped 31,000 making it the most popular open petition, and at 10.15 on the morning of the 1st May 2009 it had attracted 38,061 supporters and was number twenty-three on the all-time list of Downing Street Petitions. The closing date remains the 22nd October 2009 - plenty of time left for it to make its way to that magic million.
- We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to resign
- Nicholas Watt, Downing Street website hosts petition calling for Gordon Brown to resign, The Guardian, 27 April 2009
- More than 20,000 sign petition on Downing Street website demanding Prime Minister's resignation, Daily Mail, 28th April 2009