Invasion of the cyberparties

Election time is coming, and students are being assaulted with new electoral weapons, as well as the trusty old ones. By Paul Tyrrell
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The Independent Online
The Cyberia Cafe in central London might seem an unlikely venue for the unveiling of a pre-election initiative from Labour. But last Thursday Labour front-bencher Mo Mowlam was happily settled in the wired West End coffee bar clutching a CD-Rom as if it were the key to every young voter in Britain.

The centrepiece of the party's new youth campaign strategy is very slick. Accompanied by D:Ream's "Things can only get better", it uses blue-tinted graphics to flash subliminal messages such as "Tory lies" at random. Video, audio clips and photographic montages convey the party line, while an option screen leads to outlines of election pledges, youth-oriented proposals and a low-down on voting. The disc comes with CD and LP-sized information pamphlets, presumably so that youths of the next, politically active, generation can keep them in their record bags.

Ms Mowlam, chairwoman of the Labour national executive's youth committee, admits that making politics appeal to young people has always been difficult. "If we provide big names and pop groups you tell us we're being patronising. If we don't you tell us we just don't have the pizzazz. In a sense we're in a no-win situation," she says.

This is not British politics' first foray into digital electioneering. All the main parties now have Web sites, though standards vary enormously. The Conservatives' first attempts were particularly unsuccessful. Even after a graphical overhaul their site still has the capacity to reduce cynical 20 year-olds to helpless mirth. For example, an icon providing access to the low-down on Tory family values depicts a happy family which looks exactly like a 1950s mustard commercial. However, it does also provide an accessible mixture of cartoon drawings and clear text, along with a section designed to explain the basics of politics to young people.

The Liberal Democrats provide almost an entire manifesto for the cyberspace travellers, well-structured so that the user can flick between its sections with ease. And the Scottish National Party's Web site is recommended for carrying a large amount of information and having "a sense of humour".

A search for detailed policy information from the Conservative site produced little more than the usual glib party lines. Labour's has a clearly distinguishable "policy" section but, ironically, a bug has left one of its pages almost completely blank.

Olaf Furniss, features editor of Cyberia magazine (whose offices are situated three floors above the cafe), is not impressed by Labour's new strategy. "The fact that Tony Blair was in a rock band doesn't make him trendy. His CD-Rom isn't going to change the fact that you can imagine him as the school grass," he says.

It was with this sceptical attitude in mind that Labour recently employed a second electioneering strategy. Last week the party offered a free buffet and presentation - the favoured tactic of big-name graduate employers - to around 40 student newspaper editors in the hope of buttering up a few influential members of the undergraduate electorate.

A selection of sandwiches and other small nibbles provided by House of Commons catering was enough inducement to attract guests from as far away as Scotland. Pleasantries were exchanged, a few words were spoken by Mo Mowlam and then a question-and-answer session followed.

Both sides had something to gain from the exchange. The students had an opportunity to probe a portion of the Labour front bench, and Ms Mowlam won an introduction to a huge and growing population of voters.

If the next general election takes place during the coming academic year, approximately 1.5 million students will be eligible to vote in the parliamentary constituency of their university. Huge numbers of these votes are up for grabs - if Labour can get them to the ballot box. A Mori poll conducted for the TUC earlier this year revealed that two out of five under-25s are not planning to vote.

Recognising the potential effect of student voting, the Government tried to protect its most fragile seats at last year's council elections by making an abortive proposal to restrict students' votes to the constituencies of their parental homes, thus preventing them from voting en masse in university towns. Last year one Daily Telegraph commentator even suggested that the date of the last general election - 9 April, during the Easter vacation - was no coincidence.

In the wake of grant-freezing and the introduction of student loans, Conservative MPs in marginal seats are worried that student voting could overturn their slender majorities. Robert Waller, author of The Almanac of British Politics, suggests that swings of between one and six per cent are needed for Labour to take Loughborough, Edgbaston, Cardiff North, Stirling, Luton South and Welwyn and Hatfield. These are all constituencies with significant student populations.

Targeting the student vote can certainly make a difference. The Liberal Democrats believe their campaign on student housing helped them to take the Manchester ward of Withington from Labour in last year's council elections.

Gareth Epps, the party's youth and student communications officer, says: "We produced the largest ever Lib-Dem majority in that ward. And at the time, Labour even had Steve Coogan canvassing for them!" His party is currently collating the results of a nationwide survey on which political issues are of concern to young people. It plans another this autumn, mainly on student finance and housing.

Both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives are placing a great deal of emphasis on freshers' fairs - virgin-voter territories which could play a significant part in the local turnout for the general election. The Conservatives even trained their young activists in communication techniques at a recent election campaign-planning conference at Birmingham University.

But while other parties are trying to take the direct campaign route, Labour aims to let students approach politics on their own terms. After all, it does not need to convince anyone that it is trendy. All it needs to do is to prove that it is not quite as out of touch as its rivals.