Meet cyberwoman, the battleground for the next election

This year’s, it seems, is to be the internet mums ? those educated,
middle-class women at home with their tiny children, for whom internet chat
sites have supplanted coffee mornings as their primary means of staying in
touch.

Tomorrow, David Cameron will spend an hour online answering questions put to
him by users of the Mumsnet site. It will be his second guest appearance.
The first worked out very well, because he appears to be equally at ease
whether he is asked about policy or more personal matters such as his home
life.

Gordon Brown, by contrast, does not handle personal questions comfortably, and
endured days of ridicule after his Mumsnet experience, when he was unable to
answer a question put to him a dozen times about what his favourite biscuit
was.

David Cameron is unlikely to have the same difficulties as he is bombarded
with questions ranging from the serious ? whether child benefit should be
means-tested, for instance ? to the deeply trivial, such as whether he
prefers oatcakes on their own or with cheese.

“That is Mumsnet to a T,” its founder, Justine Roberts, said
yesterday. “It can be very serious, and it can be very silly. From my
perspective, it did not matter at all whether Gordon Brown answered the
question about biscuits. I think the reason it got asked 12 times was that
people were slightly frustrated that the answers they were given to other
questions were a little bit by rote, and because it seemed to be the easiest
question to answer.”

After his roughing up over “Biscuit Gate” it might be thought that
Gordon Brown would never enter a virtual chat room again, but on the
contrary, at the end of the hour he seemed delighted by how it had gone.

It is one symptom of the great mystery confronting the people who are planning
next year’s election campaign, for any political party. They know that it
will be the first British general election that could be won or lost on the
web, just as Barack Obama’s victory last year was due in a very large part
to his internet-savvy team. What they have not yet worked out is how to use
it.

One of Tony Blair’s undeniable talents was that he could spot changes in the
social weather and seize on a vote-winning formula to deal with them. In
1992, the Conservatives adroitly held on to the votes of the middle-income
homeowners, the ones they called the “Pebbledash People”.

In 1997, Blair and his team fought back by targeting “Mondeo man” ?
who owned property without being rich enough not to need to use state
schools and the NHS ? and “Worcester woman”, who lived in
town but outside the usual Labour strongholds.

One of Tony Blair’s greatest successes was to persuade women, who had made up
the bulk of the Tory vote, to switch in huge numbers to Labour. He did this
partly through his own media-friendly personality, but also by being
surrounded by more than 100 women Labour MPs. While Labour looked like the
family-friendly party, the Conservatives, as their former chairman Theresa
May memorably put it, were the “nasty party”.

It is that image which David Cameron has worked assiduously to change, while
Gordon Brown, who is 15 years older than Cameron, is plainly ill at ease in
this era of personality politics. The contrast between their styles has
helped to create an uncertainty about how the entity that used to be called “Worcester
Woman” will cast her vote next time. Panic bells were sounding recently
in the offices of the pro-Labour Fabian Society, when they received the
findings of a YouGov poll which suggested that Labour had lost the female
vote. Andrew Hawkins, from the polling company ComRes, thinks that has not
happened yet. His company’s findings show that in every social group, Labour
is still less unpopular among women than among men. “Labour has lost
the middle class, big time, but I don’t think that’s gender-specific,”
he said. “If anything, it’s the Tories who have got to do more to get
women’s votes.”

Deborah Mattinson, of the polling company Opinion Leader Research, who carry
out much of the Government’s polling, said: “The women’s vote is up for
grabs. The women who are using sites like Mumsnet are a small group of
voters, but they are iconic and it pays for the politicians to be seen to be
talking to them.”

But the problem perplexing party strategists is how to reach them, other than
through guest appearances by politicians, which can be done only
occasionally. Private companies with household products to sell have puzzled
over the same question, and have tried having their PR people sign up and
join the conversations ? but the reaction has not been what they hoped. For
the people using the sites, having someone coming on to push a product or
promote a political cause is like having a private conversation interrupted
by a gatecrasher.

Robin Goad, research director of Experian Hitwise, which advises on internet
marketing, and father of a four-month-old boy, said: “There is an
important and growing market as I know from personal experience. Over the
last 18 months we have seen a marked increase in the number of searches for
pregnancy sites as well as forums like Mumsnet. Women are increasingly using
the internet during pregnancy as well as afterwards.

“The politicians are right to see them as an important target audience,
but they are tightly run forums. The way to influence may be to target the
people who are influential within the forums, because you will always have
people who have a lot of authority within any online community, and you can
try to get them to act as your advocates.”

Roberts thinks anyone who tries to infiltrate online sites to promote a
political party will soon get found out. “There is a sort of etiquette
and politicians and others do well to observe it,” she said.

Female intuition: Mumsnet on politics

*I judge Gordon Brown on his appearance: not his looks per se, but the way
he carries himself. He often looks ill at ease, which doesn’t really inspire
confidence.

*How is your health? I really, really don’t want to vote for you and
suddenly find David Miliband is running the country

*There’s only one person who could make the Labour party even more
unelectable than Gordy ? Harriet Harman.

*One thing that has been annoying me: the constant hum that Smith “wasn’t
up to the job” of Home Secretary … Is there any particular evidence
that Smith wasn’t up to the job, rather than simply implementing some crazy
and unpopular policies?

*I’m oop north and I hate Blears. “Squirrel” is a good
descriptive word, kind of ratty and shrill and nuts.

*You can’t trust people who have worked their way up to power. People born
to power (like, er, the Queen) and people who, like parents, have power
thrust upon them are a different matter.

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