Marginal voters to get personal call from Blair

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The Independent Online
IT IS not necessarily every citizen's dream. But thousands of voters in marginal seats are to receive their own personal phone call from Tony Blair as electioneering moves into the digital age.

In a development which heralds the advent of the "virtual" election, Labour has been testing a system which computer-dials the numbers of key voters.

When they answer the telephone, they will hear the Prime Minister on the other end urging them to use their vote. Labour tested the telephone "patch-through" system on voting day in the European elections last month.

The party heard about the technique from Democrat contacts in the United States, where Bill Clinton used it during the 1996 presidential election.

In Britain, it will be used in conjunction with the "voter ID" information built up by the Labour Party during and since the last general election. By using its vast databases on supporters and possible "switchers", the party can contact vast numbers of key voters at minimal cost.

The move is just part of a revolution in electioneering techniques which has already swept the United States and which is expected to arrive in Britain before the next general election.

Last year Jesse Ventura, a former sports star, beat both main parties to become independent governor of Minnesota without even opening a campaign office or posting a leaflet. He ran an entirely "virtual" campaign, based on a heavily marketed and regularly updated website.

Other British parties, too, are experimenting with Internet campaigning as an alternative to doorstep campaigning.

Chris Rennard, the Liberal Democrats' head of electioneering, said the party had revamped its website for the European elections and expected it to be a key part of its campaign at the next general election. But he said the personal touch remained crucial to the Liberal Democrats' style.

"We are not against telephoning to ask people if they need a lift to the poll on the day, but we have never used a recorded system," he said. "It may have a shock value to start with, but I think people are doing it less in the United States now because it has become irritating."

Public Affairs Newsletter, the internal paper of the lobbying industry, has devoted its latest issue to the use of information technology in campaigns. Its editor, Steve Atack, said future elections would be very different in Britain.

"We are seeing the beginning of the end for the great British tradition of doorstep canvassing. Some candidates may find this a blessed relief but there is no substitute for appearing before the electors in person," he said.

A Labour spokesman said the party was still evaluating how the telephone system performed during the European elections, but refused to discuss details for fear of alerting other parties to its possibilities.

The party's election chiefs might want to take note of the Americans' early experiences, however. Confusion over time zones led to some voters answering the phone at 3am to hear a voice asking: "Please hold for the President of the United States."