Ask a British schoolchild to name his favorite political party and you might be surprised. Instead of Labor, Liberal Dem, or Tory, you might hear, "Loony."
Yes, the Loonies are an official party with candidates and a Web site. The only problem is that, just as Great Britain's elections approach their climax, it's been down. That's because the Loony Webmaster fell ill. In recent days, all you'd find at The Official Monster Raving Loony Party Site was a picture of some strange-looking people and a promise the site will be "back online very shortly."
The Loonies are far from the only British party to invade the Internet. As the political eyes of the world turn to watch whether the heavily favored, Bill Clinton-like Tony Blair and his Labor Party trounce the long-ruling Conservatives and their stiff Prime Minister John Major, some snazzy Web sites are waiting to show them what's really going on.
While the proportion of Brits with Internet access is much smaller than in the United States, British politicians seem to be somewhat ahead of their American counterparts in using the Net to communicate with voters. They are eager to participate in online forums, such as the one on U.K. Citizens Online Democracy, to reach out to young voters.
What they said in that forum wasn't much different from what you'd hear in a televised U.S. debate. John Major showed a traditional British acerbity. "Labor's manifesto," he wrote, "was more revealing for what it left out. It didn't say that in six weeks they would sell out to Europe. In three months they would raise billions of pounds in tax in their emergency summer budget. And in 12 months they would hand more power back to the unions and start the process that could lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom."
By contrast, the "media savvy" Tony Blair's responses, as one participant in the subsequent online discussion noted, "only seemed to be an advert for the Labour manifesto ... whereas all the other replies seem to have taken some time in their approach to the questions." (Perhaps, suggested another, that's because Blair's advisers "had probably moved him onto something they thought more urgent half way through the piece, like buying [Rupert] Murdoch a drink, and someone else finished it off!")
In Britain, to be sure, only about 50 of the 641 members of Parliament have e-mail. In the United States, more than 80 percent of members of Congress had Web pages by November. But in Britain votes are cast for the individual candidate, not the party. Perhaps as a result, the sites maintained by the United Kingdom's major parties tend to be far more interactive and user-friendly than the 1996 U.S. party sites, which were little better than electronic billboards.
In addition, powerful independent political sites--similar to the now-defunct PoliticsNow and CNN's AllPolitics over here--churn out daily newsbriefs, analysis, and information. Two are outstanding: General Election 97 and Election 97.
GE97, in addition to polls, rundowns of the players, backgrounders on salient issues, events calendars, chat groups, and a wrap up of current betting odds, allows you to build your own "party manifesto." The site will then compare your choices on the issues with those of the various parties (also displayed) and tell you which comes closest to what you want. Or you can play the games of "Trivial Politics" and "Mystery Margins."
Election 97 uses a new Virtual Reality Modeling Language technology to provide 3-D maps that give British voters a better understanding of how constituencies are spread throughout the country and where the critical districts lie. It also provides an extensive set of links to other political sites, including those maintained by many candidates.
As in America, British news organizations offer a wide variety of information to Web surfers. In the United States in 1996, big organizations funded the general election sites that everyone used--ABC, the Washington Post, and the National Journal fathered PoliticsNow, and Time and CNN sired AllPolitics--and most major papers and TV channels, notably the new MSNBC, had election pages. But, except on election night, these were a relatively small part of their Web sites, let alone their overall news. In Britain, however, major news organizations are spending heavily to make their election sites the main focus of their overall Web sites. For example, the Financial Times has its U.K. Elections '97 page with guides, polls, and an election share-price index. The Guardian and the Observer have a broad site packed with information. And the BBC, which is adding five people to its 10-person Web operation, plans to provide live audio and video streams on election night.
Early in 1996, U.S. pundits, experts, and consultants heralded the Year of the Internet--to be climaxed by a presidential election in which the Internet would make a significant difference. It didn't happen. But a post-election poll by the Wirthlin Group showed one in nine voters claimed the Internet "influenced" the way they voted. And on election night, television networks saw their ratings drop while Internet users flooded election-oriented sites in record numbers.
Already this year, British pundits, experts, and consultants have been predicting that the Internet will make a difference in the U.K. elections. To watch politicians fawn over online tools and techniques, many might think so. There is, however, one thing for sure. On the evening of May 1, British political Web sites will be flooded by enthusiastic users. Some sites will crash. There will be delays in getting returns. And more than likely, historians will point to the May 1 election as the political dawn of Great Britain's Age of the Internet.