I Wonder Why it's Party Time on the Web

Cyberschools Column

First Published in The Herald May 1997

Modern Studies. Modern methods. It's always been the way. Well it has since the relatively recent arrival of the subject. When your syllabus is designed to include party policies and you're expected to teach about recent changes in party ideologies, textbooks are out of date before the requisition budget has even been allocated.

Teachers of Modern Studies were quick to record television programmes when the Broadcasting Act (1988) made it legitimate for schools to do so. They're often found at the photocopier with their carefully cut-out newspaper articles. What if they could read, even hear, the original speeches? What if they could read the press releases before a mediated version even appeared in the newspapers or on television? They can.

Each of the major political parties use the World Wide Web to communicate to the 10% of the electorate who have regular access to the Internet. The rest of the world can read the pages too but the name of the game is presenting information to the ones who could make a difference. Contrary to popular belief the average Internet user in the UK isnºt a student, in fact 49% of students have never accessed the Internet. Those travelling along the Superhighway in modern Britain are "thirtysomethings with children", just the sort, with their stake in the future, that the politicians want to impress.

Only the Internet can provide the breadth and depth of up-to-date political material required by Modern Studies. Itºs a "publishing system" made for the subject.

The Labour Party - no matter where I begin someone will cry, "bias" - has a pretty Web site with nice pictures of Tony and an element of actual flag-waving as well as spinning budget cases. This illustrates the downside of party Web sites. There is often extensive use of graphics and images, all of which means they take longer to download. Labour, however, scores by offering a text only version of the site and you could always turn off the automatic loading of the images. Itºs a bit like being able to buy your newspaper without the half-page photographs.

Most of the political parties, Labour included, provide the text of selected recent speeches. The Internet, for all its gloss, might actually cause a decline in the status of the sound-bite. On their own Web sites politicians get to have their say, context and all, and the public is left to formulate its own views and values. (There might be an interesting study in democracy in all of this.)

The text of one particular Prescott speech is interesting, not only for its content but also for its style. Pupils preparing for debating competitions could analyse his use of repetition, rhetorical questions and the way his speech is structured, the way in which the main points are delivered.

Labour policy is explained in the "pledges" area - maximum class sizes of 30 for the under-7s, jobs for the under-25s. There is no obvious index and that's a weakness, although the major issues are considered. There is also a list of MPs, some with e-mail addresses. The Scottish National Party, on the other hand, has what is described as the "policy library" and there is detailed information on the party's view on everything from agriculture and anti-racism to violence against women. It's all helpfully listed alphabetically.

There"s more evidence of the democratic nature of publishing on the Web at this site. The SNP recently launched two posters on the back of a trailer. The posters will not be appearing on billboards because of the prohibitive cost. On the Web the costs are low and the Scottish National Party site is extensive and well designed.

Current press releases are available, even on the day they are released to the media. There are articles and transcripts of lectures and the "clip art" area has a collection of recent leaflets, all ideal texts for teachers and students of Modern Studies. The leaflets could be saved as "sources" and printed or read off-line. Saving items such as the press releases or tables as "text" means that they could be copied and pasted into worksheets, handouts or even future exams.

The SNP site also provides links to pressure groups such as Scottish CND and the Edinburgh Greenpeace group. The Herald, the BBC, STV and even the Proclaimers can be reached from the site.

The Liberal Democrats by contrast have not made such impressive use of the medium. Their policies are there, very well indexed and explained. There is an interesting statement about additional funding for Special Education. There is a preamble about their constitution and materials are available from the "Parliamentary Press Office". There is a link to the Hansard site which has questions, debates and answers from the previous day but there is no link to the Electoral Reform Society which is an excellent resource with lots of material about the concept of the Single Transferable Vote and a link to statistical data about all UK elections between 1945 and 1992. the Conservative Party site carries an early warning that it's best viewed with Netscape 3.0 or Internet Explorer 3.0. If your browser is older than that, problems may arise. Many schools are still using Netscape 2.0 or even Netscape 1.0 so this could cause some difficulties in using the material.

The Conservative "press room" has the usual press releases, fact sheets and speeches but one of the best areas of this massive site is the "Guide for the Young". In its Fisher Price primary colours it gives details on Parliament, candidates, campaigns and the process of calling an election.

Looking at the sites of the UK political parties does no more than scratch the surface. The Center for Voting and Democracy provides useful statistics on American elections whether of presidents, senators, or congressmen (and they are usually men). Only nine Senators and two Governors are female. The site also provides interesting information about the Supreme Courts ruling as unconstitutional, the "majority-minority" districts in Texas which had increased representation of Hispanic and African-American minorities.

The politics of food can be investigated at the World Bank while international aid can be considered at Tear Fund. Save pages and look at them off-line or quickly click through all the pages you want to read and then disconnect. They're still there, stored in the cache. You can view them without being online and even without saving them, at least until you quit out of your browser. They're listed in the Go menu.

As John Major says at his party's site, "I hope you enjoy surfing."