Jane Wakefield: Will technology catch election fever?

What can Labour (or the Conservatives) offer you?
Written by Jane Wakefield, Contributor

It is that time of year again, when sleepy commuters emerge from their dark offices to eat their sandwiches in the sun and Tony Blair hopes the change in weather will bring an equally sunny election.

I never thought that the world of technology could be more interesting than politics but at the moment it seems that it is. Every day brings a fresh story of tech woes, lack of broadband, delays to 3G, job losses and occasionally a little bit of good news too. Meanwhile politics seems to be inducing little more than snores from people.

With technology so key to Labour's objectives for an information society, we all are waiting with bated breathe to find out what we can expect from the almost inevitable second term of Labour (technology under the Tories bears thinking about even less -- their shadow technology minister Alan Duncan has confessed to knowing nothing about the subject).

Labour has set itself some tough goals which, if it returns to office in June, it will actually have to convert from soundbites to reality: Government services all online by 2005; the UK as the best nation for broadband by the same time; oh, and the UK to be the best place to do e-commerce thrown in for good measure. It may start to wish a) it hadn't made these somewhat rash promises or b) it had let the Tories win so that they were forced to clear up the mess.

Patricia Hewitt -- the government's high profile eMinister -- is almost certainly not going to be around in her old role. In official circles it is suggested that she will move on because as one of the original New Labourites and a hardworking, dedicated and intelligent minister, she deserves to sit on the front bench with Tony. Personally I think her move is more likely to be down to the fact that even a savvy minister like Patricia can only make so many excuses for BT before she runs out and has to agree with the rest of the industry that the telco has done all that it can to make Internet access in the UK as expensive and rare as a Van Gogh painting.

So who will step into the formidable shoes of Ms Hewitt? Given Labour's recent decision to stick an upperclass ex-Tory in the stoutly working class constituency of St Helens it could be any old Tom, Dick or Harry. Who knows it may even be an opportunity to resurrect the prince of darkness himself -- Peter Mandelson.

As Hewitt is clearly good at her job (even though she errs to much on the party line and not enough on that of industry for my liking) perhaps the ideal solution would be to have her keep her job but promote her to the front bench anyway. Pretty much everyone I have spoken to in the industry has expressed a desire to see the eMinister elevated into a cabinet position.

Whoever becomes Labour's second term eMinister, they will have their job cut out to make the government's digital divide strategy stand up. Attempts so far to give all citizens equal access are backfiring embarrassingly. Residents in Kensington in Liverpool have found a novel way to use the free PCs they were given as part of the plan to wire the nation. In a kind-hearted gesture to other people without PCs they are selling them on at a fraction of the price they are worth. Avoiding any Scouser jokes I merely have one message to the angry civil servants charged with delivering the PCs -- calm down.

The way the government has handled the so-called digital divide illustrates an attitude of patronising complacency similar to that displayed by Blair when he announced the election in a school and then lectured a group of school girls about the economy. It obviously seemed like a good idea to associate the start of the Labour campaign with one of the key election issues of education, but beyond that the embarrassing event had clearly not been thought through.

So too the digital divide strategy. Of the 100,000 PCs due to be delivered to the poorest areas of the UK only 6,000 have so far reached their destinations (for some the journey didn't end there but carried on to the back of a waiting lorry). Offering hardware to people in poverty is rather like offering a hungry man a set of new cutlery. It simply does not help.

According to Demos, one of Labour's favourite thinktanks, the government may be looking at the digital divide from completely the wrong perspective anyway. Instead of it being about the information-haves and havenots it is more likely to be about companies misusing digital information to exclude citizens from commercial activities.

Those still able to muster any enthusiasm for this election have apparently been using the Internet for some mischief making with domain-name hijacking proving a powerful tool in political campaigning. Some over-eager Tory geek has registered www.newlabour.co.uk and redirected visitors to the Conservative Party's official site with the message. "please wait while we redirect you to common sense". Not to be outdone, the Socialist Workers have taken Tory-party.co.uk and redirected disgruntled Conservatives to its own Web site. While most people outside of William Hague's house do not believe the Tories stand a chance in hell of pulling off a victory, one site -- www.tacticalvoter.net -- is determined to make sure, offering a site on which people can work out where they need to vote tacitically in order to be assured of a Tory defeat.

While these little titbits of Web talk don't exactly amount to online democracy, they are the closest we are going to get in this election. Unfortunately online voting is not a possibility this time round so, if you can drag yourself away from the computer screen, try and remember a date you have on 7 June with your local community centre, the old-fashioned art of pen and paper and an old tin ballot box.

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