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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 May 2005, 13:06 GMT 14:06 UK
e-Election: Round up

Column
By Alan Connor
Daily Politics' internet correspondent

Was this an internet election? For journalists, the answer is "no". For web junkies, it's "of course". And for electors? Well, that may be the most interesting question.

Read Alan's previous columns

As journalists, we like to tell stories about election campaigns, and the web has stubbornly refused to offer up snappy narratives and easy copy.

If a key marginal had been swung by a dedicated site; if a party with a funky internet strategy had made colossal gains; especially if there were a "face" of the web, then the online political world might have generated more mainstream attention.

And last year's American election offered some unrealistic expectations. The internet there threw up not only a new personality in the form of Howard Dean, but also an election issue in the case of the Swift Boat Veterans, and a bloody nose to mainstream media when news anchor Dan Rather was toppled.

Talk among yourselves

But big stories are not the whole of the election. A lot of online political activity is invisible - we know that the exchange of personal emails had a much bigger effect than any of the above on voting decisions in the USA, and email is as normal a part of life over here.

We're not talking about the emails from the parties, which were a little disappointing this time - some were indistinguishable from spam, some aroused concerns about hidden "spy ware", and many of them stuck to the grimly familiar formula of negative campaigning.

It is emails exchanged by colleagues and family members that have more of a sway on the result. Just as it would be daft to ask whether the election was won in the pubs or at the dinner table, so is online political chat such a normal part of life that we would never hold the front page to report it.

And such chat is better-informed now, too. There were more than 45 million page impressions on the BBC News website's election section on 6 May, with more than 3 million people using the site to keep up to date with the latest developments.

Spoof Alastair Campbell blog page
This spoof Alastair Campbell blog was a popular read
Looking at the visible end of the net, though, gives us a useful window on how politics in general is changing. As a newer forum, the web has been very quick to reflect the different attitudes in the British system.

Party membership, for example, is plummeting, and party loyalty a much more fluid affair than it was a generation ago. Nowhere was this trend starker than in the plethora of tactical voting sites.

Rather than putting a cross in the same box as last time, voters have been using the net to make a choice based on other factors: the likelihood of it making a difference, the past record of the candidates (regardless of their manifesto pledges), or to prioritise specific issues, especially Iraq.

It is tempting to characterise this kind of voting as the consumerisation of politics, but that trend is better reflected in the limited but depressing phenomenon of votes for sale, illegally, on the auction website eBay.

By contrast, online strategic voting and vote swapping is far more passionate and dedicated, as with the massively popular voting advice websites we have been looking at, like Who Should You Vote For? and The Public Whip.

It would be heart-warming if this were the last election where cyber squatting was an official party campaign ruse
The online behaviour of the parties also gave a good insight into their newest stratagems. They still prefer a one-way street of communication with voters, and they are in thrall to the latest American wheezes.

The ghost-written emails and online diaries "by" senior politicians fooled no-one. The rise of targeted campaigning might be an affront to representative democracy, but the parties were keen to believe that it was hugely effective for the big parties in the USA, the losers as well as the winners.

And it would be heart-warming if this were the last election where "cyber squatting" was an official party campaign ruse, rather than limited to its natural home of pressure groups and mischief-makers.

Lest this sound despairing, individual candidates have surpassed the party machines in their use of the web, using email and blogs to talk with, rather than at, constituents.

Weblogs provide a medium where politicians, commentators and voters are on a more equal footing: without the restrictions of mainstream media, you stand or fall on how well you communicate.

Here again, we may have expected a little too much of British political bloggers, waiting for them to "break" a hot story. But we're blessed with a livelier press than many other countries, and it would be a shame to judge blogs on scoops alone.

During the campaign, bloggers provided analysis no better nor worse than Fleet Street's, and more importantly, acted as the glue that makes the web so useful.

Campaigning groups such as Make Votes Count relied on blogs as opinion-formers when getting their messages out, and various e-democracy projects benefited from being mentioned in the same space as the passion and irreverence we tend to expect from online commentators.

And so it is a pity that one of the biggest issues in the blogosphere was, predictably, blogging itself, following a casual but intemperate dismissal of blogs by Mark Lawson in The Guardian.

Of course, this is now a familiar angle: the press are most interested in the net when journalists see it as intruding on "their" territory.

Putting the Houses in order

Bigger, and far more exciting, is the web's potential to counteract some of the worrying trends in our democracy.

Politicians, seen as remote, are relentlessly documented by sites like They Work For You, and are responding well to the offer of a many-to-many form of communication.

The mainstream media, often stodgy when it comes to politics, have been joined by the livelier world of blogging.

And most importantly, we no longer have an excuse for guessing what voters are thinking. The army of abstainers have recorded their reasons for staying at home at Not Apathetic, and those who have voted have many more ways of holding the elected to account.

Even if the web is "just another" part of the political world, it's one of the most invigorating and democratic parts, and we would do well to seize this huge potential between this election and the next.



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