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Do online moms hold key to next British election?

By Barry Neild, CNN
British mothers are expected to prove key to securing victory in next year's general election.
British mothers are expected to prove key to securing victory in next year's general election.
  • Britain's top politicians clamor for access to parenting advice site Mumsnet
  • Web site's audience seen as demographic key to winning next election
  • Both Gordon Brown and David Cameron have faced tough audiences online

London, England (CNN) -- As Britain heads for its tightest election battle in years, politicians chasing the votes that could tip the balance are zeroing in on a new group of power brokers -- online moms.

While politics is no stranger to the maternal voter -- "soccer moms" were seen as a key pillar of U.S. President Bill Clinton's 1996 re-election -- the next UK vote, slated for early 2010, is being pinned by some exclusively on mothers who log on to one Web site: Mumsnet.

The site, a compelling blend of childcare tips, social networking and spleen venting, now boasts a million-strong audience of educated and opinionated moms, precisely the demographic that some say could prove crucial to securing election victory.

Latest opinion polls have raised the prospect of parliamentary deadlock: the ruling Labour party is currently gaining on opposition Conservatives after a dip in popularity that has threatened to end their run of three election victories.

"Next year's poll will be the Mumsnet election," Britain's Times newspaper reported recently in a piece headlined: "This election will be won at the school gate," that predicted the Labour party, fearing the wrath of mothers, will abandon plans to cut childcare tax relief.

It's no surprise then, that Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his main rival David Cameron of the center-right Conservative Party have both recently taken part in highly-publicized Web chats with Mumsnet users -- forays into online interaction that represent uncharted territory for Britain's top politicians.

And though these might sound like cozy dialogues with a pushover crowd, for both men they resulted in severe maulings at the hands of unyielding inquisitors.

"It's a really tough audience, this isn't the breakfast television sofa," says Mumsnet co-founder Justine Roberts, a former sports journalist who has helped steer the Web site from its spare room origins to a 25-employee venture based in an airy open-plan office in north London.

Brown's session last month ended in embarrassing headlines when papers picked up on his apparent failure to reveal, when asked repeatedly, his favorite cookie -- a seemingly frivolous inquiry that the media in tea-drinking Britain infused with weighty reflections on spin and personality.

Cameron also suffered headline ignominy last week when the laptop he was using for his Web chat malfunctioned resulting in an awkward silence that led to audience hostility.

It's a really tough audience. This isn't the breakfast television sofa.
--Mumsnet's Justine Roberts

But the two party leaders endured more serious humiliations when grilled on key policies.

Given the apparent antipathy of the audience, it is testament to the perceived power of Mumsnet that both have asked to come back for more -- while the leader of the center Liberal Democrat party, Nick Clegg, has also requested an appearance.

Says Rosie Campbell, a senior lecturer in politics at London's Birkbeck University, the Web site's influence should not be underestimated, particularly by the Conservatives who are seeking to rebrand themselves as female-friendly in the same way Labour did ahead of Tony Blair's election victory in 1997.

"The parties think they are an important group, and they are moveable and undecided," she says. "Women are less likely to have already made up their minds about who they're going to vote for, and obviously that means they're more open to persuasion.

"They're also less interested in politics than men, so it might be more difficult to reach them using ordinary routes. They're less likely to be watching news programs, so perhaps going through a route like Mumsnet might trigger some interest."

Says Roberts, judging from the chatter on Mumset, the politicians are spot on in identifying a key battle zone, one which they've also realized could be a useful testing ground for new techniques of online election campaigning.

"I think there is this idea that our group are early adopting opinion formers, quite influential, they understand social networks and are liable to be viral marketers, all that stuff," she says.

"This is the first time we've really had an election where social media will be given as much attention as traditional media or nearly as much -- and the politicians are grappling with it and what they need to do to use it in a non-embarrassing way."

But while Campbell says the politicians see Mumsnet as a place to air policies related to health and childcare that they believe are key to women, Roberts warns they must broaden their scope to win users' votes.

"I think the problem is, slightly because of the name, politicians come along and think this is all about mothers' issues, parents issues and they come across as a bit patronizing because they don't realize that these women are actually experts in lots of areas," she says.

"They want you to be emotionally intelligent, and chatty, and to connect, but at the same time they're really firing off tough some questions and won't be fobbed off with pigeon-holed answers."

So who will win the Mumsnet vote? With both Cameron and Brown falling short of the mark so far, Roberts thinks the race remains wide open.

"I think they did as well as they could, but pretty much everyone who has been on could do better. But someone's going to pass the test with flying colors at some point."