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Cyberspace is no place to put your X

Were you lucky enough to receive Labour's 'first public statement upon calling the election', an Email from Tony Blair straight to your inbox? Apparently, he rushed back from Buckingham Palace, knocked off a few words about 'what's at stake at the election and how you can help', and despatched them to 100,000 Labour Party members and supporters. Impressive stuff.

Meanwhile, listening out for the digital starting gun were hundreds of blogs, political cyberdiaries written by Jo and Joanna Public, dissecting the campaign with ruthless efficiency; an army of fact-checkers and bullshit detectors laying siege to the Westminster village. They should, in the words of former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith, 'put the fear of God into metropolitan elites'.

Commentators last week promptly concluded that we are embarking on the UK's first Internet election, as if the battleground is cyberspace rather than disaffected council estates in Cardiff Central or Enfield North.

In a sense they are right. The Internet has opened up the potential to skew the race in new ways. There are vote-swapping websites to coordinate the efforts of tactical voters. There are sites for scrutinising MP voting records, for hassling would be non-voters into turning out, for putting up pictures of the campaign taken from mobile phone cameras. Some citizens briefly - and illegally - put their votes up for sale on auction site eBay.

But those who celebrate the arrival of a new Internet democracy miss a simple fact: that the people who get Emails from political parties, access smart Websites or write blogs are the sort of people who are already politically engaged.

True, the Internet mobilised grassroot voters in last year's US presidential election. Sites such as the anti-Bush definitely played a part in that campaign, not least by helping raise cash for the candidates' campaigns. But they owed their success to the fact that almost 80 per cent of homes in the US have access to the Internet.

In the UK, the figure is barely 50 per cent. Tomorrow the Institute of Public Policy Research and Oxford Internet Institute will publish figures showing only 43 per cent of people who earn less than £25,000 a year have an Internet connection at home - around half the number who earn over £37,500.

Tony Blair should be aware of this digital divide. The Government's IT strategy, announced last month, painted a stark picture of the gap between Internet haves and have-nots that shows no sign of closing. The rate of connection among the poorest households has been stuck at 20 per cent since 2001.

The heartfelt welcome extended to the blogging community's entrance on to the electoral stage is in fact a cheer for a very small group of cybergeeks who appeal to politicians and journalists because they give the illusion of being able to connect with the 'ordinary voter'. But many of the people who most deserve the attention of politicians aren't online. The revolution doesn't start here.

Written by Sri Carmichael for the Observer 10th April 2005.

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