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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 April, 2005, 14:33 GMT 15:33 UK
e-Election: Week 3

Column
By Alan Connor
Daily Politics' internet correspondent

Once upon a time, it was all so much simpler. Manifestos were launched. Party election broadcasts were shown. Politicians gave interviews to the national media. And none of it matters any more.

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

Okay, let's not get carried away. All those things still happen, of course - but the main parties have now realised that the internet helps them get their message across to you. And I really do mean YOU.

Since the first "television election" in 1959, there's been a push to send out one clear message - from the parties, to the electorate. But the strategy with the web is more dynamic: it's also about getting information back: as much data about the voters as they can.

It's the same principle that a supermarket uses: find out as much about the consumer as you can and then sell at them, hard. But instead of being interested in potato wedges or washing-up liquid, you might have preferences about the environment, or how many policemen are on your street.

How can the parties tell? Well, when you visit their websites or e-mail them, they glean as much information as they can, ask a few more questions, and infer what they can from the data.

Starry-eyed strategists

When it's all collated, you're divided into specific sub-groups. The Tories are using a system called Voter Vault, and both they and Labour are crunching through Experian Mosaic, a database of postcodes that is usually used for marketing and junk mail.

The dream of the more starry-eyed strategists is to campaign, not just on a country level, nor even on a constituency level, but to position the party differently in every household and on every desktop in the land.

When you enter your postcode at a party site, the information may be tweaked not only to reflect your local area, but also to appeal to the categories of people they believe are to be found in that postcode.

Rosettes for Labour, Tory and Lib Dem parties
Like supermarkets, parties use the web to glean data on their targets

In an internal training video, Conservative co-chairman Liam Fox walks through Tory Campaign HQ and explains how it works: "First, we take the basic information - people's names, addresses and post codes.

"Over that, we lay a lot of factors like people's voting intentions and voting history, their membership history, their telephone numbers and their views on selected issues. Then, on top of that we add information from Experian, information on the income of the household for instance and about the people in it."

The Lib Dems, by contrast, have hit on the ingenious idea of acquiring e-mail addresses in each constituency to try to build relationships by actually contacting voters directly.

As ever, these techniques were developed in America, and they work on the premise that some voters are more important than others, and the vast majority don't matter at all.

The parties are interested in the tiny majority of 838,000 who they believe will swing the result. Once these mythic beings have been spotted, they're targeted relentlessly - whether through election literature, canvassing or by e-mail.

But will it work? It's certainly not an exact science, and the techniques are in their infancy. Accordingly, it's not an especially well-regulated area, and it's unclear how long the parties will hang on to the data, and what they'll do with them in the future.

But perhaps there'll be guidelines by the time of the next election. After all, if the politicians are watching you, who's watching the politicians?

TO SPAM OR NOT TO SPAM?

If you listen carefully, you can hear the sound of squeals up and down the country, as people log on to find e-mails from Alastair Campbell in their inboxes.

And they're not all squeals of delight. The Conservatives might be winning the battle to get traffic to their websites, but Labour are steaming ahead on the e-mail front. The only problem is: not everyone wants them.

Blokey and chatty, the e-mails are also arriving from Matt Carter and humorist John O'Farrell, trying to make you laugh while they try to make you vote Labour. And it's the "thank you for your support" tone that's kicked off the debate as to whether the mails count as spam.

John Kerry and George Bush
New techniques are based on those tried out in the US elections

For those fortunate enough to have escaped it, spam - usually adverts for Viagra or poker - is unsolicited mass e-mail. The Labour e-mails are certainly sent in bulk, and despite their content, they're by no means only going out to Labour supporters.

One example is Richard Allan, the former Lib Dem MP for Sheffield Hallam. As well as having fought Labour in the last two elections, he's also been involved in drawing up anti-spam legislation.

Then there are bloggers who sent e-mails to The Big Conversation in December 2003, and are now hearing their mail clients pinging, whether their comments were sympathetic or not. And one computer technician says that his only contact with the party was when his local MP paid him to fix his laptop.

Labour have said that anyone "taking part in a party activity" will have given their consent to be contacted in the future, and that they're within EC guidelines on spam.

All the parties are struggling with "netiquette" to some degree, and e-mail differs from leaflets in that the restrictions are both legal, and bound by web users' concept of acceptable behaviour. The trouble really stems from the conflation of people who have encountered the Labour Party with people who are campaigning for its victory on 5 May.

And this may well end up being counter-productive. Certainly, it's to be hoped that the other parties aren't following suit, since the world of political e-mail would be devalued before it's even had a chance to develop.

A FREER DEBATE?

This is the first election since the explosion of blogs - but still not everyone knows what they are.

If you're one of the blogerati, you may prefer to skip another description of this complex and ever-changing system of self-publishing. If you're new to weblogs though, you may be wondering what makes them different from websites of old.

The most important thing is that they allow you to concentrate wholly on the writing: you can know next to nothing about computers and still have a good-looking website. At the same time, technology has moved along, which means that blogs can allow comments from users, and for each blog to link to others in various useful ways.

It allows people who aren't party and privy to the Westminster set to create debates of their own
Iain Duncan Smith

And among an estimated 50 million blogs, there's no shortage of talk about politics. In the last American election, bloggers acted as fact-checkers to the mainstream media, breaking stories of their own, and even claiming the scalp of revered TV news anchor Dan Rather, after querying the authenticity of documents he'd used in a report.

The British media operate in a different way, and are getting in on fact-checking themselves, but British blogging still allows for a different, freer kind of debate.

Iain Duncan Smith thoroughly approves, and explained it to me as a democratisation of the national conversation: "It allows people who aren't party and privy to the Westminster set to create debates of their own that others then build up - and those are the debates that matter most to them."

The effect of blogging is providing MPs and candidates with a new way of keeping in touch with constituents. If you're tired of the endless polls in the print media, you can keep up with the campaign by following the sites of politicians like Austin Mitchell, Boris Johnson and Sandra Gidley - and if any of them they win their seats, you can tell them how they're doing once they're back in Westminster.

In a paranoid age, it's encouraging to see politicians willingly putting themselves on the record.

Blogging can never be a substitute for constituency surgeries, of course, but it does allow us to move from a one-to-many form of communication to a world where all of us - politicians, commentators and electors - speak to each other. Let's hope we listen!





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