Linda Butcher: Big petition numbers do not always bring success

With the rise of the internet, it's much easier these days to get petitions together on almost any issue, but they are only one part of the campaigning puzzle, writes our columnist

Linda Butcher
Linda Butcher

A councillor in Paris recently demonstrated the potential power of public petitions.

His campaign against supermarket food waste amassed more than 200,000 signatures by the time national legislation was approved in France. The move has now encouraged other countries on the continent to follow suit.

Petitions can be a powerful tool for campaigns and campaigners; there's no question that they can help to achieve campaign results on things such as parliamentary legislation and the prevention or inclusion of something. However, the ease with which they can be created has led to an abundance of petitions, which can ultimately reduce the power or impact of each one.

There are more than 85 million users of the petition website in 196 countries, with a perhaps unmeasurable number of petitions on the go at any one time. Similarly, the campaigning group 38 Degrees has 2.5 million members in the UK; MoveOn is a community of more than eight million Americans; and GetUp is an independent movement of more than 800,000 people in Australia. Avaaz, meanwhile, operates worldwide and has more than 40 million members who have made more than 240 million campaigning actions since 2007.

According to, "it's now possible for anyone to start a campaign and immediately mobilise hundreds of others locally or hundreds of thousands around the world, making governments and companies more responsive and accountable". This is true, and it is a good thing that opens up access to so many; but it is also the case that a large number of signatures on a petition does not guarantee that you'll achieve your aim. More than a million people, for example, have signed a petition urging the BBC to reinstate the disgraced presenter Jeremy Clarkson. Despite so many signatories, the BBC has no obligation to respond to it; indeed, it has taken quite clear action with regard to Clarkson. Conversely, the Welsh Assembly is now considering a bill on safe staffing levels for nurses as a result of a petition created by a former nurse; the petition was signed by only 1,500 people.

So it's true that petitioning, like campaigning more generally, is not an exact science. As Neil Kingsnorth, head of activism at Friends of the Earth, asks: "How many clicks are the equivalent of how many signatures? How many signatures are equivalent to a hand-written letter to an MP? There's no scientific answer."

Many campaigners will instinctively rush to create a petition in order to demonstrate the support behind them, but it's beneficial to do some groundwork first. Look at your campaign target and the range of tactics that might influence it, both online and offline. Think about how a petition would fit into your overall plans and their purpose – is it to raise awareness? To count numbers? To test out the level of support for something?

Petitions, like any other campaign tactic, are just one piece of the puzzle. David Babbs of 38 Degrees has said that many good campaigns start with a petition, but it's also true that not many great campaigns end with one.

Linda Butcher is chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation

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