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Will's Web Watch: What's the story dawning e-Tory?

What do you know, the Tories 'get' the net...
Written by Will Sturgeon, Contributor

What do you know, the Tories 'get' the net...

When you find yourself talking to a Conservative politician who understands technology and the genuine benefits it can deliver to democracy you start to realise that we do indeed live in strange times.

In fact, from my own personal point of view, when I find myself talking to a Tory who is personable and actually fairly likeable it makes me aware there have been some major shifts in the political landscape.

But sure enough the Tories are starting to shed the air of technophobia which once befit their public school, twin-set and tea party style.

In recent months the Conservatives have increasingly recognised technology is a key battlefield in modern politics and they have also been using it as a stick with which to beat the Labour government.

Leading the way in the e-Tory revolution is Grant Shapps, MP for the constituency of Welwyn Hatfield, Hertfordshire – which sounds about as far from associations with high-tech innovation as you can get, bar the fact it's not a million miles from Silicon Fenn (or Cambridge to those not given to such monikers).

Shapps tells me: "I think I'm probably the British MP who uses technology for campaigning more than anybody else."

And he's modest with it.

But to give him his due Shapps can back up that claim. At the last General Election he utilised the internet and email to rally voters and ensure a high turnout among his supporters. A background in email marketing certainly helped.

And it paid dividends.

"My use of the internet was the most important reason for my winning at the last General Election, with one of the biggest swings," he said.

Shapps claimed an eight per cent swing from Labour to Conservative.

The turnout was nearly 70 per cent – up four per cent on the previous election and up nearly eight per cent on the national figure. And he's confident his efforts in rallying the voters meant all those extra crosses in boxes, above the national average, were against his name.

There's no great secret to Shapps' success beyond realising the power of the internet which has found its way into millions of homes up and down the country now. By utilising such a powerful medium and demonstrating genuine success at the polls, Shapps hopes to inspire other politicians to do likewise – though just those on his side of the House.

If technology can combat the apathy which currently glues the British public to their armchairs while the polls are open, Shapps rightly claims it will be "bloody good news for democracy".

For example, he claims 10 to 15 per cent of his voters are on his mailing list – that's around 10,000 constituents – and they are constantly kept up to date with his constituency initiatives and his other life in Westminster. He argues that such inclusiveness goes a long way to ensuring they will come out and vote.

The email list is compiled as a result of running very specific public interest campaigns – all via his own website - and he signs people up as they opt-in to receive more information on those campaigning subjects.

"All of these campaigns have the secondary purpose of collecting email data," he told me. Though he's quick to insist the list is "100 per cent" opt-in and says that is vital for keeping his constituents happy.

"It's pointless to spam," he said, adding that doing so would likely turn potential voters away. It's advice the Labour Party may care to consider next time around after emailing voters at the last General Election who claimed they had never signed up to receive such emails.

"You could go out and buy 50 million email addresses on a CD but if there's no loyalty on the list then it's worth bugger all," he told me.

Shapps tells me that his mailing list is growing all the time, adding it's likely it will do him even more favours at the next election.

"I'm pretty confident that next time I will probably drive the turnout up even higher," he said, throwing down the gauntlet to the other parties - which can chose to either stay in the dark ages, or work out how they too can use the internet to shepherd an increasingly tech-savvy electorate into the polling booths.

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