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Last Updated: Monday, 2 August, 2004, 08:03 GMT 09:03 UK
Send us your top political sites
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News Online political reporter

In 1994, Labour's Anne Campbell became the first MP to launch a website.

Back then, few people outside the tech community had heard of the internet and its potential as a forum for political debate was untried.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson: Westminster's favourite blogger?

Ten years later, nearly all of the 659 MPs at Westminster have got an online presence.

But - with a few notable exceptions - MPs' websites tend to be perfunctory affairs that attract little traffic.

The big parties have also invested heavily in developing web sites as a showcase for their policies and a chance to get their message out unmediated and unspun.

But they are only just beginning to investigate the potential of the net as a campaigning tool or - as in the case of Labour's Big Conversation - a forum for generating policy.

'Impact'

It has largely been left to fringe parties, pressure groups and the legions of political web loggers to truly explore the internet's potential as a medium for political communication.

A report out this week by The Hansard Society, identifies blogs - essentially online journals written in the first person - as a "fresh and exciting" medium that will have a "significant impact on political engagement" in the UK.

openDemocracy
openDemocracy: Stimulating global debate
It is easy to see how freedom from proprietorial control - and censorship - makes blogging an irresistible proposition for the politically motivated - or anyone with an axe to grind.

For a small fee, anyone can become a media owner and gain a platform for their views.

'Further investigation'

But members of the public drafted in by Hansard to try out a selection of political blogs found most were only likely to appeal to "internet connoisseurs".

"The jurors could not find enough to empathise, or even disagree with, in what they read," the report says.

The report concludes blogging needs "further investigation" and experimentation before it can be judged a "permanent and credible" addition to the Westminster scene.

Labour MP for Bromwich East, Tom Watson, is probably the best-known Westminster blogger. He has recently been joined by the likes of Labour's Austin Mitchell and for the Lib Dems, Richard Allan and Simon Hughes.

With characteristic cheek, the blogging community has stepped into the breach and started creating weblogs on behalf of MPs.

Enter Tory frontbencher Tim Yeo's name into the Google search engine and instead of Mr Yeo's own, official website the top link is the Tim Yeo weblog "dedicated to the stalking of one of our finest Conservative MPs".

'Stalkers'

The site's author claims his motivation is to get more MPs blogging but his offer of a "truce" with Mr Yeo, which would involve the MP taking over the blog, has not, so far, been met with a response.

Ex-Labour minister Alan Milburn is also among the select band of MPs to have his own "stalker" blog, allegedly written by a constituent who believes Mr Milburn is not pulling his weight.

While the scabrous Lib Dem Watch must be an endless source of amusement for the party's opponents.

Beyond the narrow world of party politics sites such as the excellent openDemocracy provide a forum for open-ended debate and serious analysis of global issues.

In the run-up to America's November presidential elections, the London-based site is running a series called Letters to Americans, in which "non-Americans and Americans share their thoughts and feelings about the world's lone superpower".

While, in the US, advocacy sites - such as moveon.org and meetup - allow groups of like-minded people to form powerful political lobbies.

Similar sites in the UK, such as Your Party, are still in their infancy, but are showing promise.

The BBC's iCan, an online information source and meeting place for people who are turned off by traditional politics, has also got off to a promising start.

But there is still a feeling that the medium is in its infancy - and its full potential remains untapped.

  • BBC News Online wants your nominations for the best political websites and blogs, preferably with a UK focus. We are looking for lively, thought-provoking sites that stimulate genuine debate, rather than just pushing a particular narrow viewpoint or agenda, but all suggestions are welcome.

    We will feature as many of them as we can over the next few weeks. Send your comments and suggestions using the form on the right hand side of this story.




  • Send your suggestions for political websites you want to see featured on BBC News Online using the form below.
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    Disclaimer: The BBC may edit your comments and cannot guarantee that all e-mails will be published.

    SEE ALSO:
    Wales@Westminster weblog
    27 Jul 04  |  Wales
    Bloggers take message to MPs
    15 Jul 03  |  Politics


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