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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 April 2005, 12:18 GMT 13:18 UK
e-Election: Week 2

Column
By Alan Connor
Daily Politics' internet correspondent

Democracy is dead, nobody cares, and we're drowning in a tidal wave of apathy.

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

So we've been told since the 2001 election, when less that 60% of those entitled to vote did so.

From the sounds of things, you'd expect the online community to be totally ignoring the election - but not a bit of it. Internet users are responding to the campaign with wit and invention - and on their own terms.

And for a campaign that's been called boring by some, there's a whole lot of satire and commentary online.

The web is a huge, massively open publishing platform where anyone can be a Rory Bremner or a Private Eye.

Ever since workers were given email addresses, they've been used to break up the day by exchanging tidbits and jokes - and political material is just as popular as tittle-tattle.

Spin On
Spin On: 'Weird, wonderful and scurrilous'
Spin On, Order Order and Bloggerheads are three among many blogs offering weird and wonderful images - often very scurrilous - and the electoral reform campaigners Make Votes Count have a diverting site called Subservient Blair, where you can waste hours thinking of instructions to give to a dancing lookalike of the PM.

But it's not all fun and games. The interactive nature of the web throws up new ways of digesting the reams of information from the parties.

The huge hit at the moment is a site called Who Should I Vote For?.

You answer 23 questions on major policy issues, and the site tells you which policy best matches your views.

Launched last week with an announcement in 100 emails, the quiz has spread like wildfire, with 200,000 participants and counting -- a staggering number for a new website.

The users aren't just the traditionally political: the first big surge of traffic came from the readers of the cheeky celebrity gossip-sheet Popbitch.

And, if they've got their sums right, you might be surprised with how the parties are ranked when voters choose on the basis of policy rather than reputation.

The old establishment is getting in on the act too. News organisations are offering fact-checking services and constant updates. A plethora of candidates are using weblogs to deliver their messages - or, in the case of Boris Johnson, to share their poetry with us.

What's really making a difference is the do-it-yourself approach of the internet users.

mySociety is a bunch of self-confessed geeks who knew that they'd be spending their time mucking about with computers and decided they may as well be doing something useful.

Labour needn't feel too despondent about having taken advice from the losing side

One of the biggest projects they've been involved with was taking the bewildering text-heavy Hansard website, and re-coding it into They Work For You, a user-friendly record where voters can track MPs, match speeches to the Register Of Members' Interests and even add comments.

Their newest venture is Not Apathetic, where people who won't be voting give their reasons why. We tend to assume that apathy stems from a single problem, but this means we're conflating a lot of different phenomena, such as low turnout, declining party membership, and young people's disengagement with the political process.

The site is a good reminder of the diversity of reasons for a lack of trust in politicians, and should be required reading for anyone working in Westminster. It's characteristic of the web as a whole: self-organised, lively and working to a new set of rules - and, like the name of the site, not apathetic.

TORIES AHEAD ONLINE?

Some interesting research from the Financial Times suggests that the Conservatives are making the biggest impression online.

The paper monitored eight million internet users, and found that Labour's website was "trailing the Tories by ten points". This might reflect the ways in which the parties have concocted their online strategies.

The Labour Party has been working with John Kerry's internet campaign director, but the research suggests that mobilising disillusioned Labour supporters may be quite a different proposition to encouraging Democrats to turn up and vote against Bush.

The Conservatives, by contrast, have been using the new technology developed by the Republicans' Karl Rove to target voters with highly-personalised messages.

Labour needn't feel too despondent about having taken advice from the losing side, though. If their figures are accurate, one of the begging letters sent out by novelist John O'Farrell raised 50,000 for the campaign. They might be getting fewer visitors, but those that do come are arriving with their chequebooks open.

HAVING A FLUTTER

Are you a campaign-aholic? Can't wait for your next fix of poll results, key marginals and campaign trail updates?

Bookmaker
Is the real money going on the election?
Never fear: you're not alone any more. There's a place where you can meet other people like yourself and discuss the election - from home or work, by day or by night.

We're talking about the internet, of course.

And we're talking about voters who are addicted to politics for a very good reason - they've got money riding on the outcome.

Political Betting is a website where every clue to the result of the election - opinion polls, defections, and campaign gaffes - is picked over and analysed by punters, and it has over 15,000 visitors every day. Gamblers originally used chatrooms to talk about politics, but were having to filter out a lot of visitors who preferred to talk about reality TV: Kerry McFadden rather than John Kerry.

So the men - and they are mainly male journalists, political insiders and inveterate gamblers - set up their own home. The debate is lively, and so detailed that it works as a news resource just as much as a support group for the political gamblers.

And they need the support, because the stakes are high. The biggest draw at the moment is spread betting.

You pick a party, guess how many seats they'll win, and see what happens on polling day. For every seat they get over your guess, you win your stake back.

But guess too high, and you lose your stake for every seat you got wrong, and in a close-run race, that can leave you seriously out of pocket.

It really took off during the last American election, when British punters staked over 20m on who would become president.

In a typical spread, you'll stake fifteen or twenty quid per seat. But the bet that's really got everyone talking this time is by a mysterious punter who's put 3,000 on the Lib Dems - and he expects them to get 67 seats. So if they get the same result they did in 1997, he stands to lose 63,000!

Lunatic? Overly loyal to Charles Kennedy? Clairvoyant? Or maybe he knows something the rest of us don't.

There's only one tip that's 100% reliable as to who'll be celebrating on May 6th - it's the bookies.





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