Internet politics for the people

Early hype alert: this will not be Britain's "first internet election". I'm pretty sure that, some point soon, someone with a vested interest will say that it will be; but 2001 will not mark the shift, any more than 1951 was in any real way "the first television election". Use of the web as a news and views medium is still far too limited in this country. Even in the US, where it is much more established, the Bush-Gore campaign was only an internet battle at the margins.

But slow change doesn't mean no change. There are plenty of signs that the web can do, and will do, things that the older media are less good at. For instance, according to a new report from the Hansard Society, although the Republican and Democratic conventions last year "were a major disappointment as online events" the presidential debates on TV were accompanied by innovatory "e-buttals" by the rival camps. The Bush team site "reloaded every 80 seconds during the TV debates and provided between 20 and 35 instant rebuttals per minute". It makes you tired just to think about it.

The hype, though, should be seen against the backdrop of a sharp fall in the major players' interest in web journalism. The licence-fee-funded BBC still puts big resources into its online journalism, but Rupert Murdoch has just announced he is pulling the plug on a lot of e-hackery, while other players, including the Express papers, are effectively shutting up electronic shop. So here's the real question: does the internet mean anything at all for this democracy?

I think it does. If the arrival of broadcasting is anything to go by, the effects of the internet will be cumulative, but will shape the parties and the political battles, election by election. During the first 60 or 70 years of the past century, newspapers - able to convey huge amounts of information - were the great medium of the ideological battles between organised socialism and capitalism. They were (by modern standards) dense and crammed with political reporting, alongside great argumentative columnists and writers.

Today, the power of the press has been rivalled, at least, by the rise of television and radio. TV is less good at conveying detailed political argument - you get the top line of a new policy or a speech after watching the news, but none of the finer points. But TV is better at showing the characters and personalities of politicians. It can also cross-question with more impact. So the rise of broadcasting has promoted personality politics - the great ritual arguments on the morning's Today programme, the emergence of inquisitorial superstars such as the late Sir Robin Day and now Jeremy Paxman.

They haven't replaced newspapers. But speeches in print have been elbowed out by verbal cross-questioning for TV audiences. Printed rhetoric has been supplemented by made-for-TV-news poster campaigns and people dressed up as chickens.

The internet, as it slowly trickles into the political system, will not replace newspapers or TV, but it will add to them and it will change things as it does. My son, who is 11, increasingly sees little difference between television and his computer, which can receive TV. He has one single little window on the world (and spends far too much time looking out of it). He has shown me recently how to use interactive TV news, a screen with one or more small films running at once, plus text news and menus alongside - in effect, a pick-your-own constant bulletin that can be manipulated.

The coming together of the web, digital "narrowcasting" and conventional TV will help the millions who couldn't give a damn about politics to avoid politicians and party political broadcasts. They will no longer be trapped by the arrival of the nightly news as they sit on the sofa. As politicians worry about ever lower turn-outs, here is another villain to blame.

Meanwhile, what about the more positive aspects of the web? It is very fast, and can carry immediate, detailed answers, so there is sure to be development of "rebuttal politics" to influence the hacks. Next, it allows endless home pages and special sites, and this in turn means that individual MPs and smaller political groups can get their say in a way the press and national broadcasters don't allow. The sharper MPs already have their own sites to communicate with some, at least, of their constituents. They don't always need to go through the press lobby or party press officers.

The Hansard report suggests two other intriguing possibilities. First, because the net is clustered around user groups, rather than a mass communications system, party fund-raisers and then political communities will cluster, too: "There will be attempts to recruit volunteers and target key groups . . . eventually we might see the demise of generic party sites, giving way to 'environmentalist Liberal' or 'Asian Conservative' or 'Labour teacher' sites designed to convey a much more focused message."

Second, in the US election, the so-called "Nader traders" - the environmentalist Ralph Nader's supporters - used the net for a sophisticated campaign of tactical voting, trading votes with Gore's supporters in areas where they would have the most impact. As tactical voting becomes more important here - it will be this year - the parallels are clear.

Most of us who are interested in politics are cultural conservatives; we were brought into the game through old media, favourite columnists or TV formats. But technology never rests. We may be heading for a smaller real electorate, and a more divided one. But it may be a better-informed and active one, too. The only constant seems to be this: each new medium makes it harder for the politicians to take the voters for granted. Two cheers for the internet.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the great cover-up