William Hague appears on your PC screen. The leader of the
opposition is talking to you about saving the pound. He is explaining
that voting Conservative is the only way to prevent entry to the single
And unless you have met a party leader in the flesh, this means he is
communicating more directly with you, the ordinary voter, than anyone
before him. This is not the future, it is now - and it represents the
power of online campaigning.
This year's general election, whenever it comes, will see an
unprecedented amount of internet-based political activity; this,
however, is not saying much. Political parties may have grasped the
potential - intranets are well-developed as information tools - but they
do not seem to be committed to making much external headway this time
round. Much of this is down to uncertainty.
Can key demographic categories - such as C1, 2 and 3 - be reached online
yet? Do people want to receive political campaigning material direct to
their desktop rather than through their letterbox? Should parties
promote themselves via banner advertising? As Ben Wegg-Prosser,
GuardianUnlimited's politics site publisher, says: 'When you are
delivering an election, you don't go for unknowns.'
The internet throws up interesting questions about the nature of
campaigning, not least in terms of funding. The election spending cap of
pounds 6,500 per constituency is hard enough to police now - the
notoriously nebulous internet will not make that any easier.
Putting political information on the web is one thing; creating some
form of meaningful voter interactivity online is quite another. 'I don't
think it's taken off as much as it could; parties are doing it step by
step,' agrees David Beamer, politicsdirect.com director. 'All three
parties have departments geared towards this but the Conservatives are
way ahead,' explains Steve Morgan, MD of public affairs company Morgan
'They understand that this is a fast and effective medium and the costs
are miniscule.' Morgan is in a good position to judge. Last year, he
took a sabbatical to work as foreign media co-ordinator on former US
vice-president Al Gore's campaign for the White House. In the last five
days of that campaign, 50 million e-mails were sent from the team's HQ
in Nashville. 'They are cheap and easy,' he says.
All main UK parties send out political information to their activists
and use the web to communicate with them. Getting to voters online is
more tricky and there are good reasons why Labour is perhaps not as
proactive as might be expected. One, it is occupied with actually
running the country; two, it has a huge majority and other priorities;
three, as the party in power, it communicates via a range of online
government information sources.
None of these applies to the Conservatives, which goes some way to
explaining the Hague e-mail and a feeling that the party is, in UK terms
at least, ahead in the internet stakes.
Young people remain crucial. Areas of the UK where there is a high
concentration of students - namely cities - also contain their share of
Mobilising under-30 voters (traditionally the most apathetic group) is
seen as a key battleground. The maths is attractive: there are 10,000
students in central Cardiff, for example, which is home to a three-way
marginal seat. Other seats won by a Labour whisker in 1997 need
fractions of a percentage point swing to go the other way. As Beamer
says: 'You need to interest young voters and the web is potentially good
And it is also not just those youngsters of voting age who are important
- 14 to 17-year-olds are also targets. Beginning an online relationship
with them now stands a chance of bearing fruit later. But YouGov.com
co-founder Stefan Shakespeare is unconvinced: '(Parties) are going to
take ages to get to this stuff. It's several steps too far. People are
not geared up for campaigning online yet although parties are using it
an awful lot internally. They will look back on missed
Mike Hepburn, executive producer at politics website epolitix.com,
believes that perspective is crucial: 'Is this an e-election? No. The
technology has to become quicker and simpler and that will probably come
with digital TV. There are mixed messages from the US in terms of how
effective it was as a communications tool. It is important to be
sensible about it: it's one of a number of campaigning tools along with
newpapers, TV, radio, knocking on doors, pamphlets - but it's an
One view suggests that the next election but one, which could be as
early as 2005, will do for the internet what the 1950 model did for TV
as an election tool. By then, of course, you may switch on your TV to
discover an e-mail from a politician of the day asking for your
'I'd be surprised if it takes a term or two,' Shakespeare says. 'The
first election (where the internet will be significant) is the next
London mayoral elections. Any candidate who doesn't use it in a big way
would be crazy. If it was me, I'd think very hard about what was
interesting to people. There is a great danger for political
That danger is in producing terminally dull material for the internet
and expecting people to get excited about it. 'The critical thing is
finding a reason to go to websites and that means finding content that's
attractive,' says Beamer.
As an information source, the internet is undeniably useful and this
will be in evidence over the next couple of months. But while it remains
computer-based, it is not a medium of mass communication - although as
other business sectors increase the amount of activity they conduct
online, political parties should be emboldened. Still, for the moment at
least, UK politicians remain behind their US counterparts in many
respects. For example, at last year's presidential election Tipper Gore
sent out online messages to voters relating her husband's social policy
to her own experience as wife and mother. As Wegg-Prosser says: 'I doubt
that Cherie will be sending many e-mails.'
But what if you scroll on a few years to a short, personalised letter
from the Prime Minister which appears when you flick on Coronation
Street? That may be something else entirely.
PRWEEK PUNDITS COMMENT
Charles Lewington ... former Tory director of communications
'We are a long way behind the Americans in the sophistication of online
campaigning and the money invested in it. In the closing days of the US
presidential campaign, a raft of citizen-created vote-swapping sites
went online to let supporters of Ralph Nader in marginal states trade
their votes with Gore supporters in states where Gore's support was
strong. I doubt we'll see the same here.
'The pounds 20m cap on general election funding puts severe limitations
on what parties can deliver. Personally, I am a bit of a sceptic about
web-based advertising as there are too many surveys saying that people
don't notice them. What remains important is how politicians communicate
with the internet generation.
'For example, both Bush and Gore set aside time to do big, set-piece
interviews with Red Herring, the netheads' bible. Newspapers and
magazines are a more effective tool for getting across targeted
'I expect the internet to play a significant role in the 'dirty tricks'
elements of the campaign. There will be all sorts of mischief made on
chat sites and candidates are bound to say idiot things on their own
websites, which will turn into news stories in their own right. Tories
will be looking for 'off message' comments on taxation and Labour for
bogus 'racist' ones.'
Joy Johnson ... former Labour director of communications
'Every general election appears to have an innovation that makes the
difference. Will 2001 be remembered as the general election of the
internet? Well, no.
'Its time has not yet come. Neither a mass medium nor specifically
localised for a party seeking mass appeal, the internet cannot reach the
parts other communications methods can.
'Its penetration in Britain is not wide enough to make a difference.
Where it does score is on campaigns with a single focus. And during last
year's US presidential election primaries , candidates hitting their
e-mail community button raised millions of dollars.
'Speed in circulating information is a real power of the internet. But
information requires people to want to read and act upon it - and,
crucially, the delete button has its own power.
'In the tool kit marked 'campaigns and communications', the internet is
another tool. In 2001 its main achievement is in framing the debate for
journalists and others. Labour's website, as we would expect, is
famously 'on message'. It has a coherent story to tell. Since it is not
mediated, the internet speaks directly to those that hear. But the
politics have to be right. The Conservatives' website demonstrates their
lack of coherence. The Tory message is lost. But given that they appear
to have lost their purpose this is hardly surprising.'
Jeremy Browne ... former Lib Dem director of press and broadcasting
'The real benefit of online campaigning is in party co-ordination. Until
quite recently, election candidates would be sent huge packs of
information from their party headquarters - a process hopelessly
unsuited to keeping pace with a fast-moving media agenda.
'Now political campaigns are run by electronic generals able to redeploy
activists and disseminate agreed lines at short notice. This does not
replace traditional campaigning, which remains the key method for
interacting with voters, but it is a brilliant and vital support
'I am sceptical of the power of the internet as a political persuader.
There will be some who decide how to vote after a careful examination of
the party websites but, as with traditional manifestos, they will not be
'The role of the constituency-based website should not be overlooked.
Although the volumes of traffic will be small, MPs and candidates need a
bulletin board to help build a local profile.
'Non-party affiliated websites pushing single causes will continue to
grow in strength. These include the normal pressure groups, but a more
interesting development are those which push a political tactic rather
than a general cause.
'www.tacticalvoter.net is a good example, attempting to pair off Labour
and Lib Dem supporters to vote tactically against the Conservatives, and
there are numerous spin-offs focusing on specific seats (try
www.votedorset.net for size).'