How votes slip through the Net

All three main political parties need to improve their online offerings if they want to attract young voters and use the Web as a campaign tool
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This general election promises to be the last in which the internet plays second fiddle to billboards, leaflets and the telephone. The age of the Web-wise voter is dawning and the political parties are being urged to improve their online offerings in the face of continuing apathy from large sections of the young electorate.

This general election promises to be the last in which the internet plays second fiddle to billboards, leaflets and the telephone. The age of the Web-wise voter is dawning and the political parties are being urged to improve their online offerings in the face of continuing apathy from large sections of the young electorate.

Despite ploughing an estimated £3m into creating state-of-the-art websites to be used to campaign in the run up to polling day on 7 June, the internet offerings of the main parties have attracted wide criticism for failing to break new ground.

Things will have to change if internet voting becomes a reality and there is growing demand for more of an interactive democracy. The research company Forrester claims that one-fifth of the UK electorate would vote online if it were an option. In the meantime, the bombardment of political e-mails and self-congratulatory content on the party websites is as interactive as UK democracy gets. Those hoping that the Web would stir the interest of young, first-time voters who seem disinterested in politics could be disappointed.

"The internet is goal directed and if you don't want to visit a political site before you go online, you won't visit a party site. It is going to be difficult getting traffic if the interest is not there initially," says Dr Justin O'Brien, co-director of research company Media-Eye. Media-Eye research has predicted that of the two million people expected to visit the political party sites in the run-up to the election, only five per cent will be able to find the information they want. "The party sites are designed for party members and not for casual visitors," Dr O'Brien says.

Usually, the United States offers a good example of how things involving technology could be done, but the experience of the internet's role in the last two presidential races is not helpful to UK politicians.

"When the internet came on the scene in the States, campaign professionals saw it with one thing in mind ­ fundraising," explains Jamme Majid, who was part of the campaign team for Congressman Wes Watkins. "The sites are often a domain for spin-doctoring. One can argue that perhaps the internet offers voices to those outside the mainstream political powerbase, but they are often just vehicles for misinformation," he adds.

As the momentum towards polling day builds, there are a handful of companies attempting to measure the performance of the political websites. So far, the results have been as reliable as most political polls, but based on the number of links on the site, access times and failure rates, the Conservatives seem to be edging it over Labour. But the overall quality of the party sites does not match the rhetoric politicians have spouted about the need to create a competitive digital economy. "You can hear politicians saying, 'yes, we like IT', and they have been giving it to the public, but when you look at the websites they are very poor with high error rates and slow access times," says Olivier Carron, vice-president of EMEA at Keynote Systems.

Louis Halpern, CEO of, claims part of the problem is the lack of use most MPs make of the internet and e-mail: "Once you have been in power for a while, you start to live on a different planet and even if you are in opposition you have privileges so you don't use technology."

Halpern has had e-mails sent to MPs spending several weeks in an inbox before a receipt came back to indicate it had been read. "The politicians haven't got it into their heads how important personal text messaging and e-mails are because they don't use them. They have not perceived that with e-mail there is an opportunity to talk one-to-one, but this is hopefully the last time that opportunity will be missed," he adds. The hope for the future is that the generation of young, tech-savvy people who have joined the parties in the last few years will change things.

Despite the criticism it received for sending out a mass e-mail with a cartoon portraying Tony Blair as a magician threatening to make the pound disappear, the Conservative Party seems to have grasped the potential of the Web and e-mail and made a significant investment relaunching its website last year.

"We have bought up a big database of e-mail addresses and expect e-mails and the internet to have more impact than ever before," claims a party spokesman. He adds that the party is aware of the dangers of just using the web to spread propaganda: "It is deliberately not just a bulletin board and will have lots of information."

Over at the Labour Party, a more realistic view is held about the role of the internet in the election. "It took the telephone 100 years to become the dominant election tool and it was not until the 1997 election that more people were contacted by telephone than other methods. The internet moves faster, but it is not there yet," claims a spokesman.

"The election will be about the things that have been important in the past ­ education, health and law etc ­ that may be played out through online media, but I don't think the campaign will be dramatically altered by the new media," he adds.

Where the internet might have a role in the election is in influencing voters in marginal seats. There are healthy levels of middle-class Web surfers in most marginals and the cost of sending out large amounts of e-mails is going to be cheaper than dropping leaflets through a door or telephoning those voters. Mark Pack, internet campaign manager for the Liberal Democrats, also recognises the opportunity and hopes that interactive discussions on its website backed up with targeted e-mails will help it communicate its message to key voters.

"There is an extensive use of e-mail, but you need to be careful how you gather e-mail addresses and what you do with them. If you pick the right people, then very often they respond positively to that," he says. "At the last general election all of the parties had websites, but that was it. This time we are using a wider range of tools and it has a higher profile," he adds.

The movement towards an election where the internet is the dominant medium for spreading information is already starting.

"Two or three very powerful things are happening. The barriers to information are coming down, the barriers to using it are coming down and the cost of control is going up," says James Crabtree, head of the iSociety programme at the Industrial Society. "It is less easy to put a positive gloss on things and it is going to be a good thing if you are interested in politics.

"The internet will change the way politics works and will re-balance the relationship between voters and the politicians," he adds.