This article is from the August issue of Total Politics
“If I didn’t understand its importance and influence, my press secretary and special advisers certainly did. They were keen that I do it, and that I treat it as a conversation rather than a confrontation.”
That advice served Alan Johnson well, and the former secretary of state, according to Mumsnet founder Justine Roberts, “... was the first big success – not on volume, but on attitude, charm and openness. Many politicians have come a cropper because they underestimate the audience, pigeon-holing mums as only interested in family issues.”
Johnson recalls: “The venue helped to emphasise the informality... I was in somebody’s very nice kitchen... and once it began it was not only instructive for me as a minister, it was also enjoyable. You can’t say that about every ministerial gig.”
That informality, the cosy chat across the kitchen table, is what politicians dream of. Being seen to engage with the electorate is a holy grail that attracts politicians like moths to a flame, and eclipses the narrative and triangulation so beloved by campaign strategists.
In short, it is sought by all political parties. Get it right with real people and you are a political winner. Get it wrong, and the ‘ordinary people’ show less mercy than the worst of the Westminster Lobby pack.
But just what is Mumsnet and how was it born? Roberts, a former journalist, admits her surprise at the phenomenal success of her baby.
“The initial impetus was a failed family holiday. There were lots of magazines about pregnancy and babies, but nothing peer-to-peer. It grew by word of mouth, through a gradual, long, slow, upward process, with no cash or marketing and no marvellous master plan. I really didn’t think I’d still be doing it 12 years on.”
The parenting website has been labelled “Boden and biscuits”, and accused of being anti-male.
Recently, there has been scornful comment in the press about how Mumsnet members flout their disdain for housework and regard a dirty oven as a badge of honour.
Primarily, though, Mumsnet is about parenting and all that it entails, be it flexible working, family-friendliness, the constant juggling and the economic situation.
And because women are perceived as floating voters, they can be key to electoral success, hence their political attractiveness at election times. Combine that with the explosion of social media, and it’s hardly surprising that the 2010 campaign was dubbed “the Mumsnet election”. So much so, in fact, that cabinet ministers and other prominent political figures were demanding to know when they would get their turn on the site, even though only two had been invited.
“They thought it was easier than Twitter or Facebook,” says Roberts, “and that they knew who they could get to, but it’s patronising to think mums only care about family matters. Mumsnet is a smart crowd; you can’t talk down to members, and you have to be prepared to engage, whether on the NHS, the environment or nuclear power. Some people are surprised, I think, by the intelligence and expertise as well as the size of the membership base.
“It’s a conversation, so it’s best to be open and willing to enter into discussions. Nick Clegg made a risqué joke and Michael Gove got some hostility, but did well.”
The education secretary, in turn, took part in a Mumsnet webchat shortly before the last election, during which he memorably described future coalition partner Clegg as “an attractive, humane, thoughtful and constructive politician who fell in with a bad crowd”.
David Miliband is a regular Mumsnet blogger, although his brother Ed, Roberts reveals, “... came a cropper by citing an out-of-date report on reusable nappies. David Cameron came on in 2006 when he was on paternity leave and has been on several times since. ‘Biscuitgate’ was about Gordon Brown not answering a question – over 12 times of asking.”
Despite the ensuing media storm over what he dunked in his teacup, Brown hailed Mumsnet as “one of the great British institutions” at its 10th birthday party not long afterwards. While describing it as an ‘institution’ may be debatable, the popular site’s influence in high-profile campaigns, such as that for better miscarriage care and support, respite care for parents of disabled children and against the sexualisation of children, is undeniable.
And it is not only politicians who listen to Mumsnet members. Retailers and manufacturers are avid visitors too, as is evident from the number of product tests and reviews on the site, adjacent to the prominent ‘Boycott Nestlé’ logo. As every marketing expert will testify, word of mouth is the most valuable endorsement in the business, and in some sectors the Mumsnet stamp of approval is as good as ‘By appointment.’
Which politician, or advertiser, wouldn’t love to connect with Mumsnet’s circa 40 million monthly page views and close to five million monthly visits? As Roberts, says: “It’s an authentic voice, a 24/7 focus group... the new GMTV sofa.”
Whilst Mumsnet is aware of its value, and shows a canny business sense in dealing with journalists, product placement or commercial partnerships, Roberts is adamant that the power of the organisation lies with the members.
“Unanimity stops us becoming a vehicle for single issues. We’ll offer airspace to other campaigns, but they have to feel they’ve grown out of members’ concerns.”
Like all successes, Mumsnet has its detractors, among them writer Toby Young, who described the site as “peopled exclusively by university-educated, upper-middle-class women who are only swing-voters in the sense that they swing between voting Labour, Lib Dem and Green”.
In the last 12 years, the site’s scope has become wider and, perhaps, more political as its influence and membership have grown. But Roberts affirms that there is no top-down, management approach about which battles to fight or causes to support: “We don’t plan campaigns, they bubble out of members’ concerns, where the community has been roused to anger.
"It’s totally organic, but there’s a sense of having the ear of politicians, and it would be remiss not to use that access, whether it’s to the prime minister over miscarriages or writing to health authorities and getting MPs to table EDMs.
“The ethos is about making parents’ lives easer, and policy evolves through their conversations. Members often have very innovative ideas, and they’re passionate about consulting.”
Now she says she could spend her life sitting on committees if she were to accept every invitation. She’s a member of the government’s steering group on family services and is “happy to give insight, but not in an exclusive way. We talk to all political parties when we think we’ve got something to offer, but we’re not prepared to be co-opted by them.”
What future plans does Roberts have for the site? “The key thing is to keep listening, to be engaged. It’s the wallpaper of our lives. Women are much more willing to self-identify as parents. They’re in touch with reality, with the issues raised by our users. So, we’re a fantastic focus group for policy-makers, for businesses or just for someone who’s got problems getting their child to sleep.”