The wired election?

Britain's first online election finds plenty of Web sites but little sign that our politicians are ready to take cyberspace seriously. By Milly Jenkins
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Indy Lifestyle Online
While chatting online a few weeks ago, Paddy Ashdown remarked that the 1992 election marked the era of the mobile phone, but that this general election belongs to the age of the Internet. Others agree that this is Britain's first wired election, heralding the start of a democratic rejuvenation. But sceptics claim that the Internet will hardly feature in the coming weeks and that truly wired elections are still a distant dream.

During last year's US presidential campaign, nearly a third of American voters visited an election Web site at some point. The Internet almost ground to a halt on election night, when millions of people rushed to get the results online. But in Britain, the Internet is still in its infancy, with only 2.4 million users. Even so, new election sites are appearing by the day and those behind them are hoping for a big response.

Online Magic's General Election 97 site (GE97) is one of the most prominent and elegantly produced sites to have surfaced so far. Alex Balfour, the site's editor, says that although they are not trying to compete with newspapers and broadcasters, he thinks they can outperform them with two of their main attractions: interactive facilities and in-depth local constituency information.

The GE97 site features news, analysis, games and satire. In recent weeks, it has been getting 10,000 "hits" a day. Balfour says that the interactive areas of the site, the debate forums and straw polls, are the most in demand. It was on GE97 that Paddy Ashdown had his live interactive debate. Last week they ran a debate with two MPs, using a RealAudio stream. Interesting though they are, GE97's weekly straw polls may say more about who uses the Net than who is going to win the election. The respondents are mostly male and overwhelmingly pro-Labour.

GE97s main competitors are the mega-sites being run by the BBC and ITN. The BBC's site, Election 97, was launched yesterday and has more than 4,000 pages of news and background information. An animated Peter Snow with a "use it yourself swingometer" is there in 3-D glory. The BBC says the site is a "treasure trove of years of political information", available to the public for the first time. The ITN site goes online next week, and, like the BBC, is planning to make the most of its top presenters and journalists, encouraging people to e-mail them with questions, as well as offering up its "tremendous database of information".

Most newspapers are setting up sites and the Internet's main service providers are also jumping on board the election wagon. CompuServe and Microsoft's MSN both have sites that can be accessed via the Internet, as well as by subscribers. AOL's election site is only available to subscribers.

As all these sites compete for attention, it remains to be seen whether people really want this much information. One week into the campaign, many may already be feeling election overload. But a less sceptical view is that all this detailed information, with party manifestos available at the click of a mouse, will enhance the democratic process.

The parties have all been online for some time. The Conservative and Labour party sites are predictably belligerent. The Conservatives' site attempts to be positive, but soon unfolds as a list of reasons not to vote Labour. Labour's site goes straight for the kill, its front-page headline warning that "Next time the Tories would stop at nothing". The Liberal Democrats are a little more upbeat, running a Fantasy Election game, apparently without any irony intended.

In theory, it should be the smaller, single-issue parties that benefit from the Internet. Largely ignored by mainstream media, many of them see their sites as an ideal way to reach voters. The UK Independence Party, the Natural Law Party and the ProLife Alliance are just some of the minority parties with their own sites. The Referendum Party has even used its site to enlist candidates - anyone interested can sign up online.

But by and large, most of the party sites are nothing more than electronic brochures. None of them offer the chance to question politicians directly. It seems that most politicians aren't willing to get off their soapboxes to talk to voters online.

"The parties have become hyper-control orientated," explains Geoff Mulgan, of the think-tank Demos. "Their obsession is with controlling the message and making sure everyone sticks to it. And that's the opposite ethos to that of an Internet election."

It was the same story in America last year. Adam Powell, of The Freedom Forum, an American organisation that analysed how the Internet was used during the election, says that "live interactive events were definitely avoided by all the candidates. Politicians and their aides can't quite figure out what to do. They know how to control broadcasting, but have no idea what to do online. They're now wondering what they'll do in elections in two or four years' time, when the majority of voters may be online."

Only 15 per cent of MPs are on the Internet and very few of them have their own Web pages. Anne Campbell, Labour MP for Cambridge, uses her page to answer constituents' questions, and also talks to people on a Cambridge newsgroup. "They mostly want to talk about traffic and bicycles," she says. As a university town, Cambridge has an estimated 25,000 people with Internet access and Campbell says she plans to do some of her campaigning online.

But this is a rare case of interactive electioneering. A recent newspaper report suggested that candidates in 10 marginal seats might be able to swing the vote by campaigning on the Internet. Stephen Coleman, of the Hansard Society, says this is nonsense: "There is no way the Internet will affect the way any seats swing. No seat is marginal enough."

In general, he says, the Internet is unlikely to have much affect on how people vote. "The evidence in the States is that televised leaders' debates tend to have an impact on the people who are least politically informed. The Internet is used by the most informed - people who are using it to fine-tune their knowledge of parties and candidates."

Geoff Mulgan says it is early days to be talking about wired elections and flourishing democracies. "We won't be able to move to online democracy, with online voting or even polling, for many decades, until we have 90 to 95 per cent penetration.

"The really interesting moment will be when you have a critical mass of people engaging through the networks, more than through the press and TV. When that happens, the culture of politics has to change, moving away from controlled one-way messages towards a political culture that is more questioning. But we're a long way from that and America certainly hasn't got there yet either".

GE97

http://www.ge97.co.uk

BBC Election 97 http://www.bbc.co.uk/election97

ITN http://www.itnelection.co.uk

CompuServe's UK Election Connection

http://www.compuserve.co.uk/ukelection

MSN Decision 97 http://www.news.uk.msn.com

The Conservative Party http://www.conservative-party.org.uk/

The Labour Party http://www.labour.org.uk/

The Liberal Democrats http:www/libdems.org.uk

UK Independence Party http://www.cityscape.co.uk/users/fm33/

The Referendum Party http://www.Referendum.org.uk/

UK Independence Party http://www.cityscape.co.uk/users/fm33/

Natural Law Party

http://www.natural-law-party.org.uk

ProLife Alliance

http://homepages.enterprise.net/johnairey/ ProLifeAlliance.html

Anne Campbell MP http://www.worldserver.pipex.com/anne. campbell/

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