How to spend money and not influence people

The web is not the best medium for every organisation’s message. Mainstream party political sites are generally an object lesson in ineffective, ill-thought through investment.

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The main political parties in the UK have suddenly discovered the web. When I first looked at them for this column, in late 1998, the piece was given the headline “Shambolic, boring and inadequate”. The sites slowly improved – by last autumn they were professional, if hardly interesting – but it is only with this election that they have suddenly become all-singing, all-dancing celebrations of the website creator’s art. ‘Let’s see what we can do if we hurl huge amounts at the internet!’ seems to have been the simultaneous cry in Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat headquarters.

The result? Three years ago, the sites were a waste of money. Now, they are a much bigger waste of money. The reason: the needs of a mainstream political party and the qualities of a website are a poor match. The party or country hardly matters – even in the US, homeland of the web, the parties struggle to give their sites a raison d’être.
Websites are good at doing some things and not others. Their strengths include the ability to hold large amounts of information, to transmit it cheaply, and to offer interactivity and multimedia. The chief weakness is that there are so many of them – why should anyone come to your site, rather than any of the 20m others out there?

Storage capacity and interactivity combined give sites the ability to offer massive and easy choice. On the Dell site, you can configure a computer to any one of thousands of specifications; on Amazon, you can choose from a couple of million books. But the last thing political parties want is to offer choice. They offer one complex product; take it or leave it.

Preaching to the faithful

The parties certainly use the storage capacity in other ways – to provide a mass of news stories, press releases, policy documents and videos. I signed up for eNews from Labour, and received a daily newsletter linking me to even more material. Labour also has extraordinary detail on the benefits to each constituency of its four-year rule. Both Labour and the Conservatives will also send messages to WAP phones. Escaping UK election fever I had a look round the US Democrat and Republican party sites – again a mix of news, thoughts and opposition bashing. The Democrats offer a “100 days of Bush T-Shirt”: “It’s not what they’ve done, it’s what they’ve undone!”. During the election campaign last year there was much more, but much more of the same. It is a similar story at Mr Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Mr Jospin’s Parti Socialist. Different languages, same formula.

Most organisations do themselves a favour by offering large amounts of information – but not political parties. The more words they offer, the more choices they present. The dilemma is illustrated on Labour’s ‘youth’ site, RUUP4IT (text messaging shorthand is essential, as those modern people at Millbank know). Under “The Difference” we are allowed to tick which statement we agree with. But whether we decide that the minimum wage is “a vital part of a strategy to make work pay” or “an irresponsible measure that adds to business costs”, we are given exactly the same text when we submit our answer. The interactivity is a sham – the party has one message and it is not going to vary it just to please the citizen.

Multimedia is used in several ways – videos of speeches, downloadable screensavers and wallpaper (“The asylum system is in chaos” is a deathless Tory offering) and games (“Boom n’ bust” from Labour). The Americans were a little more imaginative last year: the Democrats had the Millionnaires for Bush site, where you could put in your annual salary (from $1m to $1bn) to see how much you would save under George W’s tax plans.
But overall, party sites fail miserably to counter the medium’s main weakness. Why should anyone visit them? Party loyalists will, I suppose, and so will journalists. But they are cared for in their own areas (I spotted a LibDem extranet link on www.libdems.org.uk – presumably there are others), which do not need to be fed with millions of pounds. The big money is aimed at the average voter. I cannot see why he or she would be impressed.

Fringe benefits

The only party sites I have seen with a real use are those of fringe parties that do not get the wall-to-wall coverage of the main contestants. Three years ago Sinn Fein had a site that was far better than anything the main UK parties offered – because it knew it could use it to influence Americans. The party still has the same site; it looks dated now, perhaps because it has outlived its use.

There are other intriguing political sites, but they are not run by parties. For example, www.tacticalvoter.com is designed to help “swap” votes between Labour and LibDem voters in marginal constituencies, with the aim of reducing Tory wins. The idea was borrowed from the Americans (for example, www.voteswap.com), where supporters of consumer champion Ralph Nader made tactical alliances in an effort to cut Republican success. And there is one site that should exist but does not (as far as I know). One where can I tick boxes, on the lines of RUUP4IT, and be told for whom, on balance, I should vote.

Were I feeling gung-ho, I might claim that the web will help undermine the rigid party system, and lead to a purer form of democracy. It will certainly help single issue groups that need to a create a virtual network of supporters. And it would be ideal for referenda. But so much for fantasy. In the meantime I suggest parties – and every other organisation – ask themselves a simple question before committing millions to the web: “Why are we doing this?”

First published on 01 June, 2001