Perhaps next time for a Web election

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Perhaps next time for a Web election

In just a matter of weeks it will all be over and Downing Street will be calm again, as Mr Blair sets out on a second term or Mr Hague and Mr Kennedy talk colour schemes and move their furniture in. In the meantime, there is the small matter of an election campaign to be fought over the airwaves, across the pages of the newspapers and, increasingly, in cyberspace.

It would be tempting to describe this campaign as the first e-election, but that description is far from correct. Web access is still limited and there is no sign of interactive wonders like Web voting on the horizon.

In a quick call around all of the main political parties, the message is the same: the Web is a campaigning tool but not the dominant one. That privilege falls to the telephone.

Phone power
"1997 saw the telephone become the dominant campaigning tool. The Internet is not far behind but it is not there yet," says a Labour spokesman.

A spokesman for the Conservative party reveals it has bought up a database and indicates that e-mail will be a tool it is prepared to use in the election.

Mark Pack, Internet campaign manager at the Liberal Democrats, claims that presenting a site where key issues like health and education can be argued about interactively is a good method of reaching out to those people who will use the Web.

But the Internet is not in a position to replace even the most traditional methods of campaigning like billboards during this election campaign. "The Internet is a good thing if you are interested in politics, but it won't make a difference if you are not," claims James Crabtree, head of the iSociety programme at the Industrial Society. "The Internet is a poor medium that privileges those who want to find information," he adds.

Maybe next time the Internet will form the main plank of the campaign, but this election, much like the last, will be played out via traditional media. "This is going to be a telephone election but the Internet is starting to change things," adds Crabtree.

Accusations are already being levelled at the parties for failing to put together decent Web sites, despite spending around £3m in developing them. Various firms have started monitoring the sites run by the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties and their initial findings back-up suspicions that some of the sites are not up to scratch.

Site Confidence is one of those companies examining the sites and found there are differences in quality and performance between the main parties.

Labour had one of the slowest sites because of the large amount of information and images it has on the Web. The conclusion was that voters visiting the site would get bored with page download times and go elsewhere.

The Conservative party site was the fastest of all of the sites tested, but maybe that has something to do with it also having much less text on there compared to Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

The Lib Dems site was relatively quick and there were examples of an understanding of technology. Still, the site has lots of items and scrolling down the homepage does seem to take forever.

Apart from download times and error rates, the other problem is that the sort of content on the political sites is aimed more at party members than at casual voters browsing for information.

"Stale press releases and fascinating biographies of the party leaders are not the sort of content to stir the electorate into a fever," claims Ian Lynch, director of research at the Butler Group.

Email tactics
He also dismisses the e-mailing tactics the parties are going to use. The arguments over email campaigning have already started, after the Conservatives sent out an email with an attachment consisting of a cartoon of Tony Blair dressed as a magician, threatening to transform the pound into the euro. A proportion of the estimated 200,000 people who received the e-mail were not Tory sympathisers.

"As for any interaction with the parties, this will only amount to canned answers to e-mails and perhaps a few chat rooms," adds Lynch.

The serious nature of the sites is a cause for concern for some observers. "I strongly argue that this type of campaigning does not attract the next generation of voters its too negative and not fun enough," claims Louis Halpern, CEO of edesigns.co.uk.

Although the Internet will play a supporting role to the telephone, television political broadcasts, billboards and doorstep leafleting, the impact of the Web is starting to change politics. "Businesses and campaigners receive news from the main parties on a real-time basis," claims one source.

"Business can be slow to react to developments in an election campaign but this cannot happen in the Internet age. An e-election will result in a higher level of scrutiny from a business," he adds.

By the next election, things might have changed and indications are that the public is keen to use more technology in elections. There is a growing demand for interactive voting. Forrester, a market research company, claimed last week that if online voting were an option then one fifth of the UK electorate would use it.

"Online voting has a number of potential benefits for the democratic process and the taxpayer - it would save administration costs, increase accuracy rates and encourage a higher overall turnout. But until online access is near universal in the UK, no reductions can be made in the current voting infrastructure," claims Forrester analyst Paul Jackson.

Demographics
The question of demographics is important when mapping the potential market for Web voting, because observers believe it would disadvantage Labour more than the Conservatives.

"Labour's online voters would have the lowest average income of supporters of the three major parties," added Jackson "Online Conservatives are slightly older and have considerably higher incomes than supporters of the other parties."

Those debates are still to come, but in the meantime, the election campaign continues apace causing disappointment. "The saddest feature is that the Internet itself, or rather the political dimension to the creation and nurturing of an information-based economy, will be almost invisible as a campaign issue," adds Lynch.

Simon Quicke

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This was first published in May 2001

 

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