Have you ever tried to persuade people online to change their mind on any issue? Newsgroups users will know well the ruthless, critical eye of the online community. Any attempt at propaganda without a solid factual base for your argument will be met with a "flame" going your way faster than you can say "election manifesto".

In this newsgroup-trained, highly skilled debating climate, a lot of the audience will have excessively well-developed critical thinking skills. Good luck to anybody who tries to present their (often pure hot air) political manifestos to an Internet audience.

At least, that's what I thought to myself when I decided to check out the various political party Web sites. The Internet comes from the dark origins of a scientific, experimental and databased debate, and so it was a surprise to see anyone, from the Monster Raving Loony Party to Plaid Cymru, zooming off to cyberspace, to seek new souls apparently just waiting for conversion.

What are the results of these new online missionaries? Since persuasive power and charisma count for nothing in the cold, factual environment of text-based electronic debates, most of the official party Web sites go for a low-key, non-controversial, "basic info" approach.

The Liberal Democrats have maintained their usual calm and collected attitude by a solid, well-designed, systematic review of the key policy areas.

The Conservatives' site comes across as a venture to a foreign land, with vague references to "young people" that carry the air of a slightly suspicious but polite Martian talking to slightly dim humans. Instead of a policy page, the Tories, with a certain air of desperation, opt for an "achievements page". Oddly enough, the Europe section is under "achievements", instead of "needs technical support".

The Conservatives consider "opting out" of EU agreements such as the single currency and the social chapter to be an achievement. It may sound convincing when exclaimed with passion from the soapbox, but in the cold light of my screen it looks like a post factum explanation of a reactionary approach to one of the key issues of our time.

Technology dislikes a vacuum, or non-action, as you can't learn anything new until action has been taken and errors committed. So the Tories' online presence only embodies the problems they experience in their offline existence.

There are few other gems here. For example, the Transport page - which enthusiastically summarises how much more has been spent on motorways, and how much less on public transport. It sounds as if it's meant to be a good thing. But from where I sit this is rather disconcerting, as only a third of women in the UK have a driving licence, although all of us pay tax.

One of the peculiarities of the Tories' site is the use of fonts. Many of the headings are displayed in a font that recalls an age when calligraphy was practised and lovely ladies had time to write long love letters. Perhaps the nostalgia for "bygone days" has rooted so deeply in the Conservative soul that even the choice of typeface is driven by the desire for the good old days of happy majority and strong leadership.

The real shock was discovering that Ian Taylor, the science and technology minister, does not have his own Web site, and MPs' e-mail addresses seem to be a deep secret, not to be freely given to the unwashed Internet masses. A saving grace for the site is the contribution from Scottish Conservatives, who have got the hang of Internet campaigning much better than their colleagues south of the border. Their Tartan Tax debate is depicted with good, strong use of colour, provides a good background for those who want to join the anti-tax campaign and is full of resources, contacts and inspiration.

The Labour Party has taken the trip to cyberspace with more emphasis on solid facts. It has produced a general election Web site that is strong in colour, modern in design and a joy to navigate around. Appealing to Internet users' logic is much better than feeding them bombastic and incoherent propaganda, and on the sheer consistency and transparency of the message, Labour scores high.

Labour's appeal to young people comes in the form of online training for future campaigners. If I ever decide to put forward the Spice Girls as our female virtual constituency representatives, I shall use Labour's online training before paying the deposit.

The Labour site also has an FAQ list, showing off "netiquette" awareness. The only weakness of the list is that it fails to mention one of Labour's strong points: the number of women candidates and the women in the Shadow Cabinet.

The Internet community in Britain still doesn't have a nominated representative, but, in the meantime, Labour's contribution to cyberspace puts it firmly on the virtual map as potential leaders in the era of technological revolutionn

Eva@never.com

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