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Thursday, 26 April, 2001, 22:31 GMT 23:31 UK
E-mail 'could win' key seats
Prime Minister Tony Blair
Mr Blair has taken internet lessons
By BBC News Online's Ray Dunne

E-mail could play a key role in deciding the winner of key marginal seats in the forthcoming general election, according to experts.

Many MPs will be defending slender majorities when the country goes to the polls, widely expected in June.


In some marginal seats, [e-mail] could even now shape the results

Sir Paddy Ashdown
And analysts believe that some sitting MPs and many candidates would be well advised to use technology to help them into the House of Commons.

Research by the Democracy Online Project after last year's US elections found that 40% of all US internet users regarded the internet as "important in providing them with information and helped them to decide how to vote".

Even taking into account the lower penetration of the internet in the UK, analysts believe that around 10% of the population will use the internet to make up their minds.

In areas with greater penetration the impact could be even higher.

Winners and losers

Some experts suggest that e-mail campaigning could mean the difference between winning and losing in some constituencies where only a few hundred votes could separate the leading candidates.

They add that e-mail could be a very cost effective way of winning votes in an election that will be governed by strict limits on how much individual candidates and parties can spend.

US presidential publicity in London
Will US email techniques be used in the UK election?
"E-mail is a much cheaper medium," says Dan Jellinek, director of Voxpolitics.com, a website that aims to encourage politicians to use the internet and email to engage voters.

"It is as cheap to send an e-mail to one million people as it is to send one letter to just one person and that is probably using a second class stamp."

It is also less costly that spending money on advertising either in the traditional media or the internet.

"We estimate that the three main parties have already spent in excess of 300,000 on developing state-of-the-art websites.

"However, evidence from both the US and Britain strongly suggests that the relatively cheap medium of e-mail will be the key on-line distributor of core messages and vote movements," says Mr Jellinek.

James Crabtree from the Industrial Society lobby group adds: "E-mail really worked in the US. Both parties and individuals really used it.

"In contrast, websites were mostly visited by supporters and did not prove effective."

Web warning

However, Mr Jellinek warns that e-mail messages need to be thought out carefully and suggests that unpopular "e-campaigns" could backfire on candidates.

His website has drawn up a document aimed at helping politicians to use email and the internet effectively.

Conservative leader William Hague
E-mail was used as part of a Tory 'keep the pound' campaign
It includes "golden rules" on what should and should not be sent - steer clear of "serious political messages" it proclaims.

Instead, the document suggests, parties and candidates should opt for messages based on humour or satire - but incorporating a serious political undertone.

Its authors believe entertaining e-mails are most likely to have the much sought after "viral effect" in that they are sent to multiple users quickly: "Humour spread by email is fast," it states.

The document accepts that such campaigns could prove tricky for party headquarters, not least if it backfires, but it adds: "Local campaigns might take larger risks".

The policy appears to have the backing of at least one senior politician.

In a forward to the document, former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Paddy Ashdown suggests the power of the internet should not be underestimated.

"In some marginal seats, it could even now shape the results - where a few hundred votes decide between victory and defeat, having the right e-mail list could make all the difference."

Sir Paddy adds that the internet could be a valuable tool in helping the young to play an active role in politics and to vote in the forthcoming general election.

"As a liberal I am enthusiastic about its capacity to empower.

"As a politician worried about rising democratic apathy, especially among the young, I celebrate the potential of the net to engage a new generation in political debate and enhance our democracy."

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See also:

08 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Hague in 'email alert'
05 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Downing Street accepts 'e-petition'
18 Mar 00 | UK Politics
Kennedy calls for internet voting
19 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Only the net can save politics
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