British Politics Dives Into the Web

By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 4, 2005; 10:12 AM

Great Britain's three main political parties made a big effort to revamp their Internet operations in time for the 2005 campaign ... not that it will make a single bit of difference in how the elections turn out.

More than 35 million Britons -- 60 percent of the population -- use the Internet, and more than 5 million of them have gone online to visit candidate or party Web sites this year in the run-up to tomorrow's general election. But even as U.K. politicians brush up their online presence, they must be wondering if it's a futile exercise when the pundits agree that the election will be won and lost in the streets, not in cyberspace.

At the very least, it must strike them as the British remake of an American movie. The 1996 U.S. presidential campaign saw candidates using crude Web sites to present general information, and by 2000 having a slick site was a requirement for any serious candidate for Congress or the White House. Last year's presidential race saw the candidates using the Internet in several exciting new ways, not to mention former presidential contender Howard Dean's much-hyped ability to raise big cash through numerous small online donations.

Despite predictions in the United States that 2004 would usher in an era in which Web campaigning would rival the 30-second TV spot in importance, elections are still about knocking on doors and glad-handing on the sidewalks. The same appears to be holding true in Britain.

"I think it would be a mistake to assume that the Web has become a significant campaigning tool either at the national level or at the constituency level of candidates," said Stephen Coleman, a professor at Oxford University's Internet Institute and an expert on the use of the Web in elections. "They have a fairly symbolic value. You need to be seen to have one, but [the parties] are not quite sure what to do with them."

Labor Party spokesman Adrian McMenamin talked up how interactive the party's Web site is, and he's right. But "to be honest and realistic about it, the key use of it is basically [to rally] the converted," he said.

That doesn't stop the parties from trying to win over the unpersuaded. Labor and its arch rival, the Conservative Party, have spent time crafting handsome, clean home pages that are loaded with information yet don't make visitors feel like the sites are chaotically arranged. Both Web sites contain attractive videos, party platforms and invitations to donate to or join the parties.

Labour.org.uk is a study in simplicity. It offers visitors several key choices, including a map of Britain that allows users to zoom in on where they live to see "what Labour's done for you." There is also a prominent link to Prime Minister Tony Blair's campaign diary , presented as a text-and-video combination.

The diary is the perfect resource for anyone who wants to see Labor's marketing approach to Blair's reelection bid, an emotional dodge-and-feint popularly dubbed "the masochism strategy ." It is unorthodox to say the least. In the April 25 video entry, Blair is set to meet with a focus group. Before he arrives, one member of the public predicts that the prime minister will evade his question. Blair doesn't, but after the group breaks up, another panelist says he feels Blair shied away from answering a different question.

McMenamin said the strategy is designed to "demonstrate that Tony Blair... will listen to criticism and give a straight answer to people."

The Tories, meanwhile, offer a Web site that is as conservative as their name implies. With a minimum of color (except for the arresting photo of a Union Jack undulating in the wind), conservatives.com offers the same roster of information and services. The campaign diary, however, is not of Blair's challenger for the PM slot, Michael Howard, but of his wife, Sandra. This is a pretty intelligent move, actually. Howard looks like just another politician. Mrs. Howard, on the other hand, can't help but coax a few voters into the fold as she's not only a former model (which never hurts), but her entries are flinty, aggressive and -- surprisingly -- appear to be really written by her.

The parties also try to get the word out via text messages delivered through regular e-mail or to mobile phones. The messages are short and simple, the approximation of a no-frills 30-second ad that American viewers would get on the radio or TV. "The choice before the voters May 5 is very clear," reads a message from the Conservatives. "They can either reward Mr. Blair for eight years of broken promises and vote for another five years of talk; or they can vote Conservative, to support a party that's taken a stand and is committed to action on the issues that matter to hard-working Britons." Following, in capital letters, is: "It's time to take a stand on the issues that matter. Vote Conservative on 5 May."


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