Nice technology – where’s the politics?
Voxpolitics 'Internet election postmortem': the failures weren't online, but on the ground.
What will be your enduring internet-related memory of the UK’s 2001 general election?
- a) New Labour’s ‘ruup4it?’ website intended to tackle youth apathy? (1)
- b) The Conservative party’s ‘My Manifesto’ initiative, where you could read parts of the manifesto tailored to your interests? (2)
- c) MTV’s ‘Stereo MPs’ game, where you could make Tony Blair, William Hague and Ann Widdecombe dance comically to funky music? (3)
If you answered ‘c’, then you’re not alone. At the Voxpolitics ‘Internet election postmortem’ held on 12 June 2001, it transpired that political parody and games were far more popular with users during the election than serious attempts to engage the electorate.
Chairing was James Crabtree, whose report Whatever Happened to the E-lection?, published two weeks earlier, concluded that UK internet users are unlikely to access political information online. The event was attended by a mixture of party representatives and people from online political initiatives.
Candidates for local government came in for a hard time during the discussion. They were ridiculed for the backwardness of their websites, prompting them to protest that their available budget for web development during campaigning was restricted. Given that spiked gets around its budget limitations by using volunteers for design and development, couldn’t these politicians have mustered a few volunteers for their cause?
At the level of national politics, the discussion was less pessimistic. The Labour Party e-campaign adviser and the Conservative Party webmaster were proud of their achievements, with some justification. Party websites in 2001 were not without their faults, but at least they sported elegant design and a few innovative features, and made it easy to access party information.
The Labour representative, Anthony Painter, noted that the real issue in e-campaigning was not the technical shortcomings of party websites, but the political context in which campaigning took place. True – except that Painter went on to blame distorted media coverage for voter alienation. If the Labour Party wants to know why it fails to get people excited about politics, perhaps it should look closer to home.
Dr Stephen Coleman from the Hansard Society noted the significant achievements of various media websites that covered the election, praising the diversity and innovation of the resources that they offered. As a tool for delivering information the internet was superb, but whereas the information-providing media profited from this fact, the political parties failed to take the medium any further. The Conservative and Labour Party websites resembled partisan newspaper websites rather than campaign centres. Indeed, Conservative representative Justin Jackson confirmed that his party hired traditional journalists rather than party activists to provide web copy.
Attempts by parties to use the internet more proactively failed because no website feature, no matter how appealing, can act as a crutch for bland politics. Thus New Labour’s ‘Cut ‘n’ Run’ computer game tried to appeal to young voters in the form that it took – but it promoted a tax cuts message that was thoroughly unappealing (4). Conversely, if the substance of party politics had been appealing to the electorate, there would have been no limit to the possible uses of the internet to promote those politics.
Coleman drew a parallel between the 2001 election and its 1959 predecessor, which was the first UK general election in which TV played a significant role. He laughed at the naivety with which the new medium of TV was first used as a campaigning tool. But at least in 1959 TV was seen as a new platform for political contest. In 2001, the internet was too often seen as a plug-in solution to politicians’ lack of engagement with the electorate.
It is difficult to assess what the impact of the internet upon the election was, because web developers rarely had anything interesting to work with. Before the internet can be put to inspiring political use, there has to be an inspiring political debate.
Sandy Starr has consulted and written on internet regulation for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and for the European Commission research project RightsWatch. He is a contributor to Spreading the Word on the Internet: Sixteen Answers to Four Questions, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 576 KB)); From Quill to Cursor: Freedom of the Media in the Digital Era, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 399 KB)); and The Internet: Brave New World?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).
No votes for e-democracy, by Mark Birbeck
Connecting to what?, by Sandy Starr
(1) See the ruup4it? website
(2) See My Manifesto on the Conservative Party website
(3) See the Stereo MPs game
(4) See the Cut ‘n’ Run game
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