Caught in the net

14th March 1997 at 00:00
Communication is life-blood for politicians, and no one is surprised by our MPs' insatiable appetite for column inches and broadcast airtime.

Nor is it remarkable that all the major parties have web sites. The Internet, with its ability to spread the word, the slogan or the soundbite further, faster, and at a lower cost than any other medium, might have been designed for the spin doctors and campaign managers of Westminster.

The Internet, of course, is also supposed to be an interactive medium. But only the most politically nave would be at all surprised to find that the one

feature of the Internet so far under-exploited by British politicians is its potential to carry the democratic process directly into the bedrooms, boardrooms, or classrooms of constituents.

The web sites of the three main parties are excellent sources of information, once one gets past the obligatory sloganeering of the homepages. Each provides access to policy statements, speeches, and lists of MPs, MEPs, lords and ladies.

The Labour Party (http:www.labour.org.uk) and the Conservatives (http:www.conservative-party.org.ukindex.html) both appear to have used the same piece of beige woodchip wallpaper as background for their Web pages. Apart from plenty of encouragement to use the on-line party membership forms, neither goes out of its way to encourage feedback.

The rule seems to be that the further from power, the more interactive that party's site. Thus the Liberal Democrats (http:www.libdems.org.uk) actually encourage surfers to respond to the site, with a postbox icon on the main index. The Lib-Dems also provide a fantasy general election game in which you become Paddy Ashdown, and have to choose which constituencies to send your best candidates to.

Enthusiasts of electronic democracy can of course register their vote on the Referendum Party's "Let the People Decide" site (http: host.euroscape.comreferen-dum) : a "yes" or a "no" to Britain remaining in the European Union. Or go to Plaid Cymru's electronic plebiscite on devolution ("Do you think Wales should have its own senate? Yes, no, don't know") on http: www.wales.compolitical-party plaid-cymruenglishindex. html.

If the party sites are more about propaganda than provoking debate, then maybe the Web sites of individual MPs will offer a little more insight into grassroots politics? In some cases, yes. If not the only, then certainly the most effective, constituency-based individual Web sites are from the handful of wired-up Labour MPs, which includes shadow education secretary David Blunkett. The long list of MPs with Web pages on the Conservative site, disappointingly, links you merely to sub-pages of the same site, offering little more than a potted biography of the honourable member. The Tory constituency association pages are more informative, but adhere equally rigidly to the house style.

It would seem reasonable to expect members of the European Parliament to be more aware of communications technology. Not necessarily so, according to Pauline Green, the Labour MEP for London North, whose Web site (http:www.leevalley.co.ukPaul-ineGreen) was recently launched at a press conference at Barnet College, during which Mrs Green answered e-mailed questions about the EU from students at other sites.

The fact that this was newsworthy in itself indicates how slowly European politicians (as opposed to governments) are learning to exploit the Net. Mrs Green has the enthusiasm of the recent convert: "As well as providing instant access to a wide range of information about my activities and the role and work of the European Union," she says, "the Web site offers another way of making contact with me wherever I am."

It also, she notes, allows her to read on-line versions of the UK Press (via her trusty portable PC) first thing in the morning, wherever she is in Europe, or further afield. According to Mrs Green, Scandinavian and German representatives are currently well ahead of the rest of Europe in their use of the Internet, "but the rest of us are catching up fast."

Bill Hicks can be contacted by e-mail to: bill.hicks@newsint. co.uk

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