2010 - was it really the Mumsnet election?


In November 2009, leading political pollster Deborah Mattinson gave a quote to The Sunday Times saying: "Mumsnet is totemic of the modern mothers who will be the key political battleground at the next election." As her book, Talking to a Brick Wall, is published, we asked her to look back at the 2010 election and see whether it lived up to her prediction.

deborah mattinsonWomen's votes are crucial. Historically, the so-called gender gap worked in the Conservatives' favour. Had the Suffragettes failed, and women never won the right to vote, the mathematics of an all-male electorate would have resulted in a Labour victory in every election since the Second World War.

Labour's performance among women was so bad that it condemned Labour to years on the Opposition back benches despite an often reasonable performance among men.

In my book, Talking to a Brick Wall, I chart how Labour painstakingly addressed this gender gap, transforming a predominantly male party as seen by women voters:

"It's all blokes isn't it? You see them all on the telly at their conference."

"My husband's in the union and he and his mates go to all the meetings. I think they're very thick with Labour. I'm not bothered myself."

borisjohnsonMumsnet goes to City Hall

We sent three Mumsnetters off to quiz Boris Johnson at City Hall in London.
To see the resulting video interview for which BoJo 'prepped intensively' click here

It was a long slog to turn this round and achieve that triumphant 1997 victory. Soon after, the iconic 'Blair's babes' photograph of new PM Tony Blair and his female team became a symbol of hope for women voters:

"It was one of the things that made me feel optimistic. That this was a real fresh beginning…"

"I wondered if politicians would start to do things that I liked more... someone like me could be a politician."

Retaining power proved an even harder slog. Women were 'canary voters': the first to become disillusioned with Labour as they saw money wasted on the Dome and public services improve too slowly. After Iraq, they fell out of love with Blair himself.

In the 2005 election, Gordon Brown threw a life line to Labour. Women voters, tired of broken promises, warmed to his 'unspun', 'what you see is what you get' approach. They also recognised that, while they were disappointed generally with Labour, Brown himself was the architect of many valued Labour achievements: the strong economy, financial help for hardworking families, and help with childcare.

Key to this was how women see politics though the prism of the lives of their families. While men are content with a more abstract debate, women demand a granular analysis of how policies impact on their nearest and dearest – and it must be change they can see – they use public services and won't be fooled easily.

After the 2005 election, two academics at Birkbeck College confirmed this with a fascinating study into the different ways that men and women talk about politics. They reported that when guided through the same political discussion, women were a staggering ten times more likely than men to make political points by referencing the people in their lives: children, parents, husbands, neighbours. This is perhaps why women voters in focus groups, when asked to identify the 'ideal' politician, are more likely to choose a woman than a man.

How 'The Mumsnet election' was coined

In autumn 2009, I was interviewed for Channel 4 News. "The 2010 Election," I declared, "‘would be a Mumsnet election." What did I mean? Of course, in part I was referring to the electoral importance of women voters. But Mumsnet is not a passive demographic target audience. It is about women having their say and taking part, and it was this interactivity that I had uppermost in mind. I envisaged a campaign that actively involved women both as politicians and as voters, and focused on their concerns, expressed in their language.

Brand New Britain
Mumsnet co-founder Justine was asked to write an essay for the Editorial Intelligence Comment conference on the Mumsnet Election.
"To paraphrase one Mumsnetter to David Cameron: 'Just think of us as a great big 24-hour focus group and you won't go too far wrong.'"
To read Justine's essay, and others, go to www.commentconference.com.

In Talking to a Brick Wall, voters' diaries of the campaign demonstrate vividly how campaign 2010 failed to deliver to the Mumsnet promise. Women's voices went unheard. Dominated by men in front of camera and pulling strings behind the scenes, many of the lessons of how to engage women in politics were ignored by all parties.

The only women featured were the leaders' wives, and debate focused mainly on what they were wearing each day. Labour, taking for granted the women voters that had kept them in power through three elections, fared worst, coming over as technocratic, lacking empathy and emotional connection.

Labour lost but no one won. Looking now at the very male coalition Cabinet making cuts that will impact more on women than on men, with the opposition likely to be provided by a young male leader, it is hard to predict where the women's vote will settle in the future.

Twenty-five years of listening to women voters tells me it will favour whichever party shows a real understanding of the Mumsnet ethos.

Talking to a Brick Wall: Why We Don't Believe Politicians and How to Make Them Listen to Us, by Deborah Mattinson, published by Biteback, £17.99.

Last updated: about 3 years ago