Election 2010: Why technology is a political hot potato

As the General Election campaign kicks off, Simon Brew finds out why technology is going to have such a massive part to play in the weeks ahead.

tech voting

Depending on which pollster you believe - or ignore - the current general election is the most likely since 1992 to produce a hung Parliament.

Granted, many opinion polls are giving David Cameron and the Conservative Party a very healthy lead, but such is the size of the Labour majority in the House Of Commons, that it's going to take a very sizeable swing to return a Tory majority. It will, hype and hyperbole aside, be the closest election for nearly two decades.

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And that puts three parties firmly in the spotlight. For the mere prospect of a hung Parliament inevitably increases the emphasis upon the contents of the Liberal Democrat manifesto more than usual.

Click here for the tech side to each party platform:

Labour

Conservative

Liberal Democrat

Pirate

Some believe that the upcoming trio of televised debates between party leaders could also benefit the Liberals, giving the party primetime exposure it otherwise might struggle to attain.

It also means that the parties are keen to embrace whatever populist issues they may uncover in a bid to swing crucial votes in their direction, and inevitably, technology matters have bubbled up this time around.

Football

Technology has always been a political issue to an extent, of course, but in this year's campaign, there's a feeling that it's going to be more important than ever. Granted, technology and the way we interact and rely on it has evolved since Britain last went to the polls in 2005.

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But beyond that, there are also the ongoing arguments over the current Government's attempts to push through the Digital Economy Bill, which has not been shy of generating headlines itself.

The work of the bill is not complete, as it's in the Parliamentary wash-up- system that allows legislation to be transferred between Parliaments. And that means this is an issue still very much to play for.

As such, whether the assorted parties believe in the work that's been done as a consequence of Lord Carter Of Barnes' Digital Britain report, they're each keen to push forward ideas of their own, as the issues contained within it aren't going to go away.

Broadband

The key positive headline-grabber, of course, is the promise to roll-out universal broadband by 2012, albeit at a minimum speed of 2Mbps. That's progress, to be fair, but it's a figure with significant headroom for improvement.

Cutting digital exclusion is something on the policy books of all, it seems, and thus far, some trading of blows between the Conservatives and Labour has been the most high profile debate on the matter thus far.

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This was spurred when the Conservatives announced its specific technology manifesto - the first time a political party in the UK has published such a pre-election document - with the headline claim that it would deliver 100Mbps broadband services to most homes by the year 2017.

The Government responded by arguing it was promising the same thing, albeit part-funded by the already announced 50 pence levy on fixed telephone lines. It wasn't the most significant trading of blows to date, but it's already demonstrating the importance of the issue.

It seems that the parties have a degree of consensus over the improvement of the broadband networks in the UK, but differ over how to pay for it.

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Primarily the dissent seems to focus on how much the public purse should contribute - a possible contribution from the BBC licence fee is one Tory solution - and how much should be left to private investment. The obvious area of contention in that being that the private sector will invest where it sees a profit.

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Further issues that are set to be kicked around over the coming month are the ongoing debates about how to combat filesharers - although this is an issue that the Liberal Democrats more than the Conservatives and Labour will be keen to raise - issues of data protection, the congestion of mobile phone networks and combating the digital divide'.

What's interesting too is that technology appears to be at the heart of the inevitably round of cost savings that whoever emerges victorious on 6 May will have to embark on.

Cutting the national debt is one of the key battlegrounds of the election, and we're already seeing parties exploring the likes of open source software and cloud computing as one of tackling the overspends associated with Government IT projects.

Campaign tool

From a practical sense too, technology is of significant importance even outside the direct policy arena. It's little secret that the Conservative Party has a greater budget than its rivals to fight the current campaign, and also that the balance sheet of political parties is far from healthy.

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As such, making pennies count is going to be crucial. That, combined with lessons learned from how well Barack Obama supporters were mobilised using online tactics - and also how easy it made donating to political parties - means that technological tools will have massive appeal.

All this goes beyond the likes of Facebook and Twitter, too. Parties will be looking to use viral techniques, online competitions, digital advertising sites and text messaging to spread their messages. That too taps in to an increasing desire to get to younger voters.

While we're still some time away, it seems, from technology sitting at the heart of voting itself, it's set to cover pretty much everything but where the campaigning is concerned.

2010 is not going to mark the first time that technology matters have been part and parcel of an election campaign, and nor is it the first where digital campaigning techniques are being employed. But it's the scale that's changing.

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A policy area such as broadband access is being seen as an issue of fairness - with debates about whether web access is a fundamental human right ongoing - and one that every major party is both interested in and talking about.

They do that because and perhaps this is the biggest sea change it's an issue that the voting public care about more than ever.

Technology, however, won't be swinging the result of the upcoming election. But it's an issue that will have some influence, and would be folly to ignore.

Furthermore, the increased digital toolkit offers the kind of communication channels that aren't going to be passed up either.

Let battle commence...

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