Beyond the Spin: are you ready for the E-lection?

Tony Blair has called what to all intents and purposes is the UK's first e-election on 7 June.

Tony Blair has called what to all intents and purposes is the UK's first e-election on 7 June.

The three main political parties have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds upgrading their Web sites, e-mail and internal computer and communications systems in preparation for the contest.

They all believe that e-campaigning will make a crucial difference and see the Internet as the key to their political future. In 1964 Britain saw its first "television election" when Labour's wily Harold Wilson became the first politician to get to grips with the medium and in doing so defeated the old-fashioned Tory aristocrat Sir Alec Douglas-Home.

That was not the end of the old-style hustings - they were still going when Ted Heath returned the compliment by overhauling Wilson in 1970 - but television campaigning was revealed as the shape of things to come.

While this year's e-campaigning may not seem quite so dramatic a change, its effects could be equally far reaching. A study by Forrester Research shows that many wired-up individuals would be happy to vote online, although that is still a long way off.

There are concerns about security and accuracy, underlined by the problems created by mechanical and electronic systems used in the recent US Presidential election. The digital divide is another reason for going slow on electronic voting. It would further disadvantage the poorest sections of society with little access to IT.

The Forrester survey also shows that the biggest beneficiaries of a move to e-voting would be the Liberal Democrats - whose share
"It took a decade for the use of the telephone as the main means of contacting voters to catch on by 1997. E-canvassing could take as long, if not longer.''
Labour strategist
of the vote would surge by a half from 14% to 21%, against 43% for Labour and 30% for the Tories.

This may explain the major parties' reservations about such a radical change and the Liberal Democrats' enthusiasm for e-campaigning. They have made a major investment in their Web site and an interactive e-mail system to tap into the wired voter.

One insider told me of the success of electronic campaigning in the Romsey by-election when the Liberal Democrats stunned the Tories by seizing the previously safe seat. There were more than 20,000 visitors to their electronic information sites in a contest that saw them overturn a majority of almost 20,000.

A similar e-effect repeated across the UK would add at least 15 more seats to the Liberal Democrats' 1997 general election total of 46 - a one third overall gain which supports the Forrester Research findings.

The main parties have been determined not to be left behind. Even in the brave new electronic world, the politicians' old-fashioned values of slagging each other off have not been abandoned.

Labour, who secretly considered "spamming'' as a means of e-canvassing, are now accusing the Tories of doing just that. The Conservatives allege Labour asked would-be merchandise purchasers to send in unprotected credit card details, thus opening them up to e-fraud.

Both allegations are hotly denied, of course, but not one of the main parties disputes their heavy spending on new IT. The Tories admit to "substantial investment'' - apparently well into six figures - in a new ultra-sophisticated Web site. This is carefully designed to be attractive to Web users, especially the young, and to allow intensive questioning of specific policy issues.

The Tories' aim, like that of the Liberal Democrats, is to set up a dialogue with Web site visitors on what concerns them. One senior insider said: "The contest is much greater and more varied. It's like a Sunday newspaper. We get enquiries from people with vastly different interests. We have 50 or more sections. Each contact may discard 24 but it could be a different 24. This means we can get through to people with very different interests in a way we can't with traditional campaigning.''

The Tories have used electronic advertisements - especially on the issue of the future of the pound - and intend to do more, which has led to the Labour allegation of "spamming''. But they are adamant that the only people who receive them are those who have contacted the party in response to traditional campaigns and agreed to be e-mailed.

Labour emphasise that they too use a permission-based system of e-canvassing. The success of their Excalibur rapid rebuttal IT system at the last election convinced the party of the importance of the computer as campaign tool. After a heavy revamp, Excalibur is back in action and the Tories are understood to have their own version.

The new Excalibur is only part of a massive IT investment which probably beats the Conservatives' spend. Labour have a redesigned, user-friendly Web site. At its heart is a "critical map'' allowing voters not only to find the national manifesto, speeches and campaign points but to home in on specific issues and policy areas. Users can also focus geographically on the benefits Labour claim to have brought to the region, constituency or even ward in terms of jobs, schools and hospitals.

One Labour IT chief said: "We have been looking at how to put our message across in new ways to new people. People who surf the Web don't want to see the same old policies in the same old way.''

Some of the evidence says the opposite - that those voters who access the party Web sites are already heavy consumers of politics in terms of TV, radio and the newspapers. And a senior Labour strategist agrees. "It took a decade for the use of the telephone as the main means of contacting voters to catch on by 1997," he pointed out. "E-canvassing could take as long, if not longer.''

And there is another factor. Many of those who use the Web are young and less engaged in the traditional political processes than older voters. In short, they are just the people Tony Blair, William Hague and Charles Kennedy are looking to enthuse.

If more of these young people are encouraged to use their votes and if more traditional electors use the Web to get their information, e-campaigning could have a profound effect on the UK's democracy and on the understanding and use of the electronic media.

Just as Wilson's 1964 TV triumph marked the dawn of a new era, 2001 could be the year e-politics comes of age. And in ten years' time - when Blair might be bidding for his fourth term of office - e-voting may be the main means of registering our choice.

That's if it doesn't happen even sooner.

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