Parliamentary petitions (and why it’s not just about Brighton and Bristol West)

Every time there’s a high-profile parliamentary petition attracting lots of signatures, people will point out how certain places seem disproportionately likely to have got involved: Brighton Pavilion (the UK’s only Westminster constituency to have returned a Green MP), Bristol West (the closest thing to Brighton outside of Brighton), or various leftish places in North London. Far from genuinely tapping into British public opinion, the system seems to have been captured by bien pensants.

Here’s some work in progress to test whether this is fair comment or not. Much of the data vizulisation was done by Mark Edwards; the data scraping required was carried out by Chris Hanretty. I mostly ponced around issuing instructions and making banal observations – but given that this approach has worked alright for me so far in my career so I see no need to change now.

The first stage was to work out which constituencies in Britain had indeed signed most – and least often. We took the first 6257 closed petitions on the Parliament website. This produces a map like this, although there is an interactive map, allowing you to zoom in and so on, here.

When you do this, you do indeed discover that Bristol West is the petition capital of Britain, closely followed by Brighton Pavilion, which in turn is closely followed by lots of places in London. Of the ten constituencies to have signed most petitions, seven are in London, plus Brighton Pavilion, Bristol West and Cambridge…). So that complaint isn’t entirely unfair.

There’s loads that you can do with this data – most obviously to identify whether there are types of constituencies that sign more or less – and we’ll do much of this shortly, but the other thing this does is provide a baseline to identify whether other current petitions are typical or not. In other words, once you’ve worked out which places sign most in general, you can then compare their behaviour on specific petitions.

When you do this, you discover that some of the current popular petitions are indeed basically the usual suspects. Here’s the petition not to give Donald Trump a state visit, for example, compared to the previous behaviour in those constituencies.

But not all. Here’s one on capping car insurance premiums for young people. This really fires up people in seats like Blackburn or Oldham West and Royton, whereas Bristol West just gives a collective shrug.

Or take this one, on air drops for Syria, which also fires up a very different type of constituency. This really motivated people in places like Birmingham, Hodge Hill, Bradford West, Ilford South, East Ham and Birmingham, Hall Green, seats which normally rarely generate large numbers of signatures. (If you can’t work out why that might be, you should abandon politics as a subject).

Mark has made a useful tool allowing anyone to compare any of the current popular petitions with past behaviour. Feel free to play.

Philip Cowley