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Political parties fail e-lectorate

Just paying lip service to the Net

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All three main political parties have failed to address the needs of online voters, according to a survey by the Hansard Society.

The Society found that Labour, the Tories and LibDems failed to reply to emails sent in by voters. When they did reply, it took more than 13 hours for a response. Many were automated replies or referred voters to another source of information.

In one case a 25-page document was attached to an email.

The research shows that despite all the hype about 2001 being the year of the e-lection, Britain's political parties simply aren't geared up to use the interactivity of the Web.

While they're happy to issue propaganda via email or text message, they are incapable of meeting the needs of individual voters.

Of course, there's little surprise in this. The resources needed to handle all the enquiries would swamp even the most well resourced organisation.

Hopes that the Net would somehow herald a dimension in political accountability appear to be unfounded.

Dr Stephen Coleman, director of the Hansard Society's e-democracy programme, said: "The parties are offering lots of opportunities for the public to interact with them, but for the most part they are failing to provide the kind of authentic democratic interactivity that the Internet promises."

Anyhow, back to the research. The Hansard Society sent out the following nine questions via email to the three main parties:

1. How does your party feel about using the internet more often to involve the public in policy making?
2. Is it true that most MPs don't accept emails from their constituents? Would you accept - and reply to - them if elected?
3. Do you agree with me that Britain should join NAFTA?
4. Does your party support free eye tests for all?
5. I am unemployed and would like to know your party's policy on enabling people to open bank accounts who are currently rejected by the major banks?
6. What is your party's view on stem cell research?
7. Would you favour lowering the voting age to 16?
8. Who would you regard as the best Prime Minister of the 20th Century?
9. I am seven and when I grow up I want to become an MP. How do I learn to do this and which party should I support?

And here are the results.

Labour

  • Labour's average response time was 945.6 minutes (over 15 hours).
  • Labour responded to 89 per cent of the emails.
  • But 70 per cent of these were 'automated responses' that did not specifically answer the questions put - referring enquirers instead to the party manifesto or the Web site.
  • Only one response email from Labour contained information pertaining directly to the question asked - on the topic of free eye tests.

Conservatives

  • The Conservative response time was the fastest - with responses averaging at 771.6 minutes (about 13 hours).
  • The Conservatives were least likely to provide any response at all - replying to only 56 per cent of emails.
  • However, if enquirers were lucky enough to receive a response from the Conservatives it was in all cases related directly to the questions they asked.

Liberal Democrats

  • The Liberal Democrats' average response time at 1035.3 minutes (over 17 hours) was the longest of all the parties, but enquirers can expect to receive a personalised response.
  • The LibDems provided a response to 78 per cent of all email inquiries. The responses varied between one word on several occasions ('Yes' or 'No') and 10,000 words (a 25-page policy document was attached to one email) ®

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