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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 April, 2005, 15:13 GMT 16:13 UK
e-Election column: Week I

Column
By Alan Connor
Daily Politics' online election reporter

It's a big place, cyberspace. And it can be a difficult business trying to find information, especially when not every site is what it seems.

For celebrities, it's an occupational hazard. The likes of Julia Roberts, Eminem and Robbie Williams have all had their names used as web addresses by other people. And now it's happening in politics.

The Daily Politics is on BBC Two every day during the election campaign from 1130 to 1230

It's called "cyber-squatting": and it works like this. You buy up the name of a party or a politician and then you say what they don't want you to hear. Campaigners and web satirists have been doing it for a while. Never ones to miss a trick, the parties are now getting in on the act. And as you might expect, it started in America.

Back in the late '90s, Zack Exley, a computer programmer from Boston, noticed that no-one had bought up gwbush.com. Seventy dollars later, he was in business, and used his site to portray the future president in a less-than-flattering light, doctoring pictures to show him downing bourbon and snorting cocaine.

George Bush
Mr Bush called Labour's latest recruit a "garbage man"
An angry Bush called Exley "a garbage man" and announced that "there should be limits to freedom", but the site broke no campaigning laws because Exley, a registered independent, wasn't working for any political party. He moved on - to a site called MoveOn - and more controversy.

Continuing the approach of negative campaigning, MoveOn hosted films comparing George Bush to Adolf Hitler. The Republicans tried to link the site to the Democrats, and made a lot of noise when John Kerry employed Exley as his Director of Internet Campaigns.

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Parties need to be a lot more careful than activists when it comes to campaigning, which makes Zack Exley's new job all the more surprising: he's working at Labour HQ. Labour are tight-lipped about his appointment and what exactly he's doing, no-one knows - but the Tories are not at all happy to find out that a list of websites using Michael Howard's name have been registered by the Labour Party.

One of the objections to universal suffrage in the UK was that the great unwashed would sell their votes for financial gain
Labour aren't the only ones at it - the Lib Dems have already been in trouble for registering plaid-cymru.co.uk - and none of it is especially helpful to voters.

Politicians find it hard to keep up with the web, but techniques used by online pornographers a decade ago aren't very good "netiquette", and the problem of trust in politics isn't helped if they go out of their way to mislead us. We'll be keeping an eye on them for you.

VOTES FOR SALE

You can find pretty much anything for sale on eBay, the online auction house - several UK citizens have even been offering their vote to the highest bidder.

There's a tradition of strange items on eBay: a Scottish woman renting advertising space on her breasts, and a man from Newcastle-upon-Tyne offering his soul for 11 are two of the bazaar's more bizarre lots.

So it's not exactly surprising to discover votes in the forthcoming election have appeared, with prices ranging from 15p to 5, although eBay insists it has taken now taken them down.

But what's going on in the minds of those who would risk a two-year jail sentence by selling their votes?

Tactical voting is politics' dirty secret - or, at least, one of them

Is it a laugh, a form of protest, or a bad sign for democracy?

Waggish commentators have reacted to the eBay vote auctions by calling them refreshingly honest, and the people selling their ballot papers have been using the rhetoric of protest as a kind of justification. But this fails to convince, and compares poorly to the new website notapathetic.com, where you can find some reasoned explanations for why many UK voters will be abstaining again this time.

What's more, this isn't an isolated incident. American elections have seen entire blocks of votes for online sale, state by state, and it's happening in the offline world, too. Liberal Democrat councillor Ayoub Khan has said that he's been offered a vote for 15 when doorstepping.

It's all rather sad. One of the objections to universal suffrage in the UK was that the great unwashed would sell their votes for financial gain. It would be a shame if the elitists were proved right.

TALKING TACTICS

Ever thought about decapitating your MP? Don't worry! I haven't suddenly taken a turn for the macabre; I'm talking about voting tactically to remove your MP, or express support for a particular issue.

Tactical voting is politics' dirty secret. Or, at least, one of them. Said to have been in operation in by-elections since the 1960s, the phenomenon is more visible and a lot easier in the age of the internet.

Voting was once a simple affair. You picked the candidate you liked the best and put a cross next to their name. But not any more. Up to 20% of us may vote tactically this time, trying to unseat an MP, or even swapping votes in marginals.

Billy Bragg
Billy Bragg is running his own tactical voting site

Tactical voting normally targets the incumbent party, and this election is no different.

BackingBlair is a website which does anything but back Blair: it's trying to seriously reduce Labour's majority. If you type in your postcode, you're told who poses the greatest threat to Labour in your constituency. So disillusioned are the bloggers behind the site that they even advocate Labour supporters vote Tory to punish Tony.

The site uses animations of the party leaders to bring in traffic - over the part month the site has already had half a million hits. A similar service is offered by John Harris, author of So Now Who Do We Vote For?

But the Conservatives aren't safe from the web either. TacticalVoter.net has a hit list aimed at decapitating the Tory top guns - like leader Michael Howard, shadow chancellor Oliver Letwin, David Davis and Teresa May. The site claims to have swung two constituencies in the last election with its use of internet vote swapping.

So it's not just about choosing the "least worst" option any more. Vote-swappers want something in return for their tactical votes. The site describes itself as a sort of dating agency for lonely Lib Dem and Labour voters trapped in seats where the party they love can't win. The site matches them up and they agree, "I'll vote for yours if you'll vote for mine": the centre-left united in their desire to hurt the Tories. Billy Bragg is using the same technique in the south west, at VoteDorset.net.

And what about the Liberal Democrats? Well, tactical voting works out rather well for them. There are no websites targeting Kennedy's party - not yet, anyway - and tactical voting tends to work against two-party systems: Charles Kennedy is one of the few leaders to acknowledge how much tactical voting goes on, and while not exactly endorsing it, he described the practice as "do it yourself proportional representation".

Tactical voting has become more popular with every election, and internet vote swapping is another small way in which technology allows us to rethink the way we do politics.





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