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Britain on-line for first election on the Internet

Political junkies eager for John Major to name the date of the general election will be relieved to learn that coverage of campaign '97 will kick off in earnest in only three days' time - on the Internet.

On Tuesday, the first of a batch of special election web sites (http://ge97.co.uk) is scheduled to make its debut. The same day, libertarian techies from both sides of the Atlantic will gather in London to discuss the prospect of putting politics on the information superhighway.

The speakers will include Michael Martin, creative director of Online Magic, who forecasts that the coming election will see the emergence of a new political reporting medium and a significant new forum for debate.

The last time Britain went to the polls five years ago, Internet use was still confined to the nation's computer science laboratories. Now more than two million people in this country use the Net, a figure which is expected to rise by 50 per cent this year.

"Obviously only a minority of even these people are going to use the new media as their primary source of information in the forthcoming campaign, but the new media's coverage of the election is going to be more than a mere sideline," said Mr Martin.

The first study of Internet use in the recent US presidential election reveals that almost a third of American voters (28 per cent) were online at some point during the course of the1996 presidential campaign.

"Any question of acceptance of the Internet as a source of political information was resolved on election night when so many news-hungry web users were online trying to get election returns that the entire computer network was swamped," said Adam Clayton Powell III, vice-president of the Freedom Forum, who will fly in from Washington for Tuesday's conference.

Democrat and Republican strategists realised the increasing importance of reaching the wired generation some time back. Both parties ploughed significant resources into campaign web sites.

Britain's main political parties have been holding back. Partly this is down to lingering technophobia and a desire to concentrate effort and resources on traditional forms of propaganda such as posters and party political broadcasts. But is it also because the rival parties are wary about prematurely over stretching their election expense accounts.