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Last Updated: Friday, 25 February, 2005, 15:46 GMT
Will politics ever get e-serious?
If we're going to have an e-election then politicians need to respect the Internet culture, argues Bill Thompson.

The political classes will be surprised indeed if the next General Election doesn't take place on 5 May.

In fact Tony Blair might even lose votes if he disappoints us and goes for another date.

Apart from the date, the other thing

that is clear to all observers is that the internet will play a key part in the campaign, with exhortatory e-mails, party websites and candidate weblogs all being wheeled out to persuade voters of the merits of one party over another.

The campaign planners might be interested in a meeting taking place next Monday in the Grand Committee Room in the Palace of Westminster.

I just want them to take more notice of the online culture that has emerged in the last decade of mainstream internet use, and show more respect for the way things are done online

The Hansard Society and VoxPolitics will be talking about ways in which young people use the internet to engage in politics and the ways politicians try to get in on the online action.

I'll be there, but I will try to say very little, because the floor will belong to the kids present, invited to give their views about what the parties and politicians should do if they are to appeal to them.

My 13-year-old daughter Lili is one of them.

Since she built her first website when she was four (with a little help, but not that much), she's rather a veteran and I'm looking forward to hearing what she says.

Let's hope the MPs and campaigners present listen carefully - they have much to learn.

Hunt protests outside Parliament earlier this month
Hunt protesters have used the net to organise - will politicians?

One of the lessons that has become clear to anyone who wants to use the net to campaign, whether they are talking to supporters or trying to convert waverers, is that they have to respect the online world.

Whenever you join a new mailing list or discussion group, it is good "netiquette" to refrain from posting for a few days until you get a sense of the group dynamics and what is appropriate.

'Lurking' like this can avoid embarrassment or even exclusion in future.

It is a practice that the political parties have too often failed to take to heart, and it is one of the reasons why online campaigning in the UK has so often been amateurish, inappropriate or simply irritating.

I know this is starting to sound like the defensive ranting of an online old-timer who doesn't like all these arriviste politicians using 'his' internet, and since I've been using the net since 1984 in some form or other I can't deny the "old-timer" bit.

But I've watched it change massively since those early text-only days of e-mail, archie and newsgroups, and indeed I've helped drive many of the changes through.

I built the first website for a UK Member of Parliament in 1994, so if it is anyone's fault that the place is now infested with them it is mine.

I just want them to take more notice of the online culture that has emerged in the last decade of mainstream internet use, and show more respect for the way things are done online.

A few months ago I heard a fascinating talk from US online political pundit Phil Noble, who runs PoliticsOnline.

He described how the Republican Party had made effective use of the net in its campaign to get George Bush re-elected, far outstripping the efforts of the Democratic Party.

They raised more money, but also used their website and e-mail lists to create a virtual grassroots organisation that did not rely on people going from house to house.

It was a campaign that worked with the grain of the internet-using population, encouraging them to do the sorts of things they do anyway, but with a political spin.

After all, if you are going to forward a joke to a group of friends why not forward information about your preferred candidate?

And if you are happy to pull out your credit card to donate to tsunami relief why not make a donation to the party?

Sadly I fear we are going to see a lot of inept and almost embarrassing online activity from the main parties this time around, although it is to be hoped that it won't descend to the level of the 2001 election when we were all besieged with tragically naff text messages urging us to 'vt lbr'.

For one thing, it is clear that the prime minister does not know or particularly care much for the online life - last week he was forced to admit that he had never even visited the government's directGov portal. And Alastair Campbell's embarrassment over sending email from his Blackberry to the wrong person shows that he's far from comfortable with the technology.

The other parties may fare better. Both Conservatives and Lib Dems have been thinking about the online campaign for some time, and in Richard Allan, retiring MP for Sheffield Hallam, the Lib Dems have one of the few elected representatives who can cut code and configure his own servers.

Whether any of this will work for Lili, who sees little of value in the party system but desperately wants to make the world a better place, I can't tell.

Ask her on 6 May.


Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.




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