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Last Updated: Friday, 13 April 2007, 17:12 GMT 18:12 UK
Deputy contenders turn to MySpace
By Emma Griffiths
Political reporter, BBC News website

Lily Allen
Lily Allen is among the music stars to use MySpace
Labour's deputy leadership candidates are trying to reach out to the MySpace generation in their bids to succeed John Prescott.

Social networking websites have helped launch the careers of pop stars - now ambitious MPs hope a little of the magic will rub off on their campaigns.

Peter Hain, Hazel Blears and Hilary Benn have set up pages on MySpace and Facebook as part of their campaigns.

Alan Johnson and Harriet Harman have had pages set up for them.

Supporters of fellow contender Jon Cruddas have also started a Facebook group, with more than 100 members.

The sites have been credited with launching the careers of the Arctic Monkeys and Lily Allen, who has nearly 225,000 registered "friends" on MySpace.

'Free agent'

While they are more usually associated with teenage chit chat, the websites are increasingly being used as a campaigning tool by politicians.

In the US, Barack Obama is estimated to have accumulated hundreds of thousands of supporters for his bid to run for the Democrats in the 2008 presidential election.

In the UK, Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell has registered on MySpace - and has an unofficial fan club page, "Proud to be a Minger", with 161 members.

Meanwhile, the Boris Johnson Appreciation Society, which recognises the shadow higher education minister as "the vital free agent of British politics", has stacked up a very respectable 7,751 members.

Now Labour's deputy leadership hopefuls has joined the craze. Leading the pack are party chairwoman Ms Blears and Northern Ireland Secretary Mr Hain.

Both have set up their own campaign pages MySpace and Facebook, as well as campaign videos on video-sharing website YouTube.

'Depreciation society'

Ms Blears' campaign page on Facebook, calling for a fourth Labour term "on a platform of aspiration and success", has signed up 160 members. A less-than-supportive site, the Hazel Blears Depreciation Society, has 35.

Among Ms Blears' fans is Howard Dawber, from London - who has been keeping a close eye on the rival page for Harriet Harman - the only other woman in the race.

He writes: "If you don't yet know why Hazel is going to win - here's a clue. We have just overtaken the Harriet Harman for Deputy Facebook group after just one day of the campaign... and that was a Sunday."

Hilary Benn: 230
Alan Johnson: 216
Hazel Blears: 160
Jon Cruddas: 126
Harriet Harman: 65
Peter Hain: 56

By that rationale International Development Secretary Hilary Benn is steaming ahead.

He has 230 members on his page, which proudly boasts the message: "Now officially the most popular deputy leadership candidate on Facebook."

Alan Johnson's Facebook campaign appears to have been started for him and has picked up an impressive 216 members full of praise for "a moderniser who has strong links with the party's grassroots".

James Bond villain

Mr Hain has set up his own sites - which he says will be a place to "network, debate and keep up to date with all Hain4Labour events".

But on MySpace, his own page, boasting of plans for "progressive internationalism" and narrowing the wealth gap, has to compete with a spoof Peter Hain site describing him as "a health and tanning enthusiast".

Ms Harman has two Facebook pages, set up by followers to support her campaign - while another 15 people have joined an anti-Harman page, describing her as a James Bond-villain type character.

"I think what they need to do is to get themselves a 15 or 16-year-old advisers. Or maybe even 14
Professor Stephen Coleman

Stephen Coleman, professor of political communication at Leeds University, said politicians were right to try to use the sites - but they had to want to listen, as well as talk.

"The way politicians are using it at the moment, there's no difference at all from the old web pages in the mid 1990s, where they put up a picture and said: 'Aren't I great?'," he told the BBC News website.

"What I would like to see is people in the deputy leadership contest having a debate with internet users about what kind of policies they would like them to be developing, where they think things have gone wrong... There is no indication of any of this."

"I think what they need to do is to get themselves a 15 or 16-year-old advisers. Or maybe even 14. Basically they need to be asking: 'How are debates about issues occurring these days?'"

'Has to be done'

Technology consultant and BBC columnist Bill Thompson agreed politicians had to try to use the sites - as it would be more embarrassing now not to have a web presence.

But he added: "The question is whether it can be done well enough. My fear at the moment is that UK politicians don't have an instinctive understanding of what to do on the internet.

"It has to be done. I doubt it's going to be done very effectively this time around."

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