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Last Updated: Friday, 6 May 2005, 14:20 GMT 15:20 UK
Netting the connected electorate
The Blair family
The net has made people a lot more informed and connected to issues
The General Election might have been very different if it had not been for the net, says technology analyst Bill Thompson.

I woke up on 6 May to find that "we the people" seem to have got the result we wanted from the Election.

Obviously there is a sense in which we must have got what we wanted, since the result depends on the votes cast.

But first-past-the-post voting is an imperfect way of turning popular will into political power.

It is chaotic in the strict mathematical sense, with very small changes in the initial inputs leading to major shifts in the outcome.

Still, after all the talk about the desirability of a weakened Tony Blair with a working majority of Labour MPs who will have to be persuaded to support him on more controversial policies, along with more Lib Dems able to keep the Conservatives on their toes as an effective opposition, it is somewhat surprising that we have actually got it.

At the start of the campaign I argued that the internet would play a key role this time around.

However, I was taken to task by Stephen Coleman, professor in e-democracy at Oxford University, for claiming that the net was somehow separate from the other aspects of the show.

Tools of the trade

He argued that any analysis of the political effects of the internet "should amount to more than aggrandising online politics in relation to other forms of communication."

In retrospect he is right. This was not an "e-election" in the sense that the internet and online activities could be considered in isolation from other aspects of the campaign and media coverage.

But while the way that online elements were simply part of the whole story may be significant, it is worth examining those areas in which internet tools were important because I think it explains something about the outcome.

The first thing to note is obviously the central role e-mail played at all levels.

The parties used it to communicate with candidates, and both central and local party organisations worked hard to harvest e-mail addresses from voters.

Labour even realised that it had to be distinctive to get its mails read by party members and supporters, and got the comic writer John O'Farrell to compose some rather funny messages.

The party websites may not have been exciting or distinctive, but that too demonstrates an understanding of the medium.

Since few people are going to be converted by a web page it is better to have it there as a resource, filled with policy details, candidate profiles, and other sorts of information.

We did not really see a blog breakthrough either, although that does not mean that there was not a rich and complex debate taking between those who write, read, and link to those blogs that took an interest in the election.

Technology analyst Bill Thompson
I do not think it is simply coincidence that the first general election where over 50% of the population had internet access also seems to be the first for many years where the popular will was accurately reflected in the final outcome
Indeed, I would argue that the quality of debate was significantly improved by the lack of any larger-scale media attention.

It is worth noting that the things that "went viral" this time around were not games but serious election sites with a twist.

Notapathetic.com, where the disillusioned can say why they are not voting, and the "Who Should You Vote For?" quiz both took off, but the Tories belated attempt at a "Bash Blair" game did not really make an impact.

And these serious sites demonstrate another thing the net brought to the election - easy access to detailed information in a way that was simply not possible last time around.

Engaging us

Anyone with even the slightest interest in the campaign had tools available to them that were the exclusive preserve of the parties and the press in 1997 or 2001.

If you wanted to explore the voting records of sitting MPs then They Work For You could tell you. If you wanted to check what candidates were saying then Channel 4's Factcheck was on the case.

So while we did not get an e-election or see any internet-related issues making a difference to people's voting intentions, we got something much more important.

We got an engaged and well-informed electorate.

Widespread access to and use of the net is influencing the complex balance of influences that determine voting patterns and electoral outcomes.

One of the comments made by several commentators this time around was that we did not seem to be having a "national" election but instead it was a collection of local contests.

I know that this is how it is supposed to work, but the last 50 years have seen this model break down as national questions and national politicians dominate the debate, manipulating a suitably pliant media into reporting it in these terms.

The net, by creating connections between people and giving anyone who wanted it access to a vast pool of information on candidates, policies, likely outcomes and strategic options, did what it does best: it connected the nodes on the electoral map and allowed information to flow.

I do not think it is simply coincidence that the first general election where over 50% of the population had internet access also seems to be the first for many years where the popular will was accurately reflected in the final outcome.

I think it is a sign of things to come, a sign that the MPs heading off to Westminster next week would do well to ponder.


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




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