4 May 2001
Internet to be election battleground?

By Isabel Davies

PARLIAMENTARY candidates in rural areas could adopt the Internet as their secret weapon to win votes from farmers in the run-up to the General Election.

With an election expected on 7 June, farmers trapped on farms because of foot-and-mouth restrictions want to quiz prospective MPs in cyberspace.

The National Farmers Union has asked political parties to take part in online sessions on its website, rather than risk spreading the disease by visiting farms.

NFU parliamentary adviser Sarah Beach said: “We believe this facility has the opportunity of providing an important link between candidates and farmers.”

Internet use among farmers has boomed during foot-and-mouth. Traffic on FWi has increased almost five-fold during the crisis.

New media editor Julian Westaway said the site had recorded 50,000 separate users in a month, with more than 300 new users registering each day.

Discussion groups such as uk.business.agriculture have also proved a lifeline for farmers hungry for information about the disease.

This newsgroup was first to report the disease. Farmers who have used it have stayed ahead of events by sharing information with producers across the country.

The NFU wants its members to use the NFUnet website to encourage candidates to address election issues identified in the unions farming manifesto.

The document, which will be published next week, calls for cuts in red tape and an end to excessive currency fluctuations, which devalue subsidies.

Other rural organisations are equally eager to keep agriculture and the countryside near the top of the political agenda as the election draws near.

The Soil Association has written to its supporters asking them to convince candidates that they should support an action plan for sustainable farming.

Some polls have shown that Labour could afford to ignore rural voters and still be re-elected comfortably for a second term in office.

But the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) insisted that MPs would not necessarily lose urban votes if they supported rural-based policies.

The CLA wants the next government to install faster internet connections in the countryside so rural businesses can compete with their urban counterparts.