ANALYSIS: Electronic elections are shaping up - This general election aside, the internet will be the political power tool of the future, finds Adam Hill

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

European currency.



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

Allen Moore.



'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

marginal constituencies.



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

for that.'



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

opportunities.'



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

important one.'



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

vote.



'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

parties.'



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

messages.



'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

tool.



'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

many.



'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).'



Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in

Would you like to post a comment?

Please Sign in or register.