Last week I posted my concerns at the possibility of the Labour machine enjoying the last laugh on the road pricing petition and the Downing Street petition process more generally.  The consensus is that Labour has suffered a massive public relations disaster after 1.7 million people signed Peter Roberts’ people-driven petition against road pricing.  Conservatives have been enjoying Downing Street’s discomfort and Scottish Tories have launched their own website and petition against road tolls being levied north of the border.

It will be a disaster for Labour if they continue to "defy" (The Telegraph’s interpretation) or "snub" (The Sun) or "spin against" (The Mail) all those people who registered their opposition to another tax on motorists.  But there’s still time for the Labour machine to get this right.

Tony Blair’s uninspiring reply to the road pricing petitioners will yield no political benefits but Downing Street still can send one more email to the 1.7 million signatories (and the many more people that they influence).  Imagine if Gordon Brown has the political cunning to write something like this a couple of months after he becomes Prime Minister – distancing himself from Tony Blair’s approach:

"Dear X,

Thank you for signing the Downing Street petition against road pricing.  I have been impressed by the arguments that have been made against adding any further burdens on to the motorist.  I’ve listened carefully and have decided that there will be no new road tolls for at least seven years.  Politics is different now and in the internet age I am going to use tools like the Downing Street petition to get a better understanding of the strength of public opinion on important issues.  It will not always be right or possible for my government to agree to the demands of every petition but I want my government to be a genuine servant of the people.  Government has been remote for too long and I want that to change and that change begins now.

You asked about road pricing and I hope you’ll allow me to take this opportunity to describe some of the programmes currently being undertaken by the Department of Transport to improve Britain’s roads network…"

I spent six weeks in the USA at the start of last year – attempting to understand how politics will be changed in the internet age.  People – not unsurprisingly – kept talking to me about the importance of email acquisition.  Downing Street now has one of the most successful email harvesting operations in the world.  More significantly than that it knows the issue that most motivates the holder of those email addresses.  If it gets petitioned on human rights abuses in Burma it suddenly has access to all those activists who care most about these issues and so on.  Over coming months the Government will be able to send targeted messages to some of the most politically and socially active people in Britain and all about the issues that most matter to them.  It’s a Government operation, of course – Labour won’t be able to distribute overtly political material but an email from 10 Downing Street (certainly on the first few occasions they are sent) may be more effective anyway.

What do we need to do?  Conservative MPs need to be asking parliamentary questions to establish how and when the Government will use the names on the petition.  There should be real controls on the timing of emails to avoid close-to-election propaganda opportunities and all replies should be strictly limited to the subject of the original petition.  I also think campaigning groups and conservative-leaning newspapers should hesitate before handing Tony Blair’s successor any more easy email lists.  ConservativeHome certainly won’t be promoting any more petitions.