Courting UK women's vote, online and unrelenting

The Mumsnet effect

Courting UK women's vote, online and unrelenting

Sarah, wife of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, meets residents at Bromley By Bow Community and Health Centre in east London on Thursday. AFP

As they prepare for the May 6 national election, the leaders of Britain’s main political parties are relentlessly presenting themselves as diaper-changing, beach-strolling, stroller-pushing, maternity-leave-supporting, dinner-cooking men.

Commentators are calling it the “Mumsnet election,” a reference both to the website that has become a new station of the cross for Britain’s politicians and to the added significance, in a tight race, of the amorphous thing known as the women’s vote. With the polls showing that many women are still undecided, the parties are working all the angles to seek their support.

The new approach is most evident in the Conservative Party, which in the old days was a bastion of stuffy masculinity whose leaders scoffed at so-called political correctness and whose wives knew that their place was in the shadows. (The category of “wife” included Margaret Thatcher’s husband, Denis, who, at old-fashioned dinners in which guests separated for single-sex post-prandial socialising, reportedly used to file out with the women.)

Not so for David Cameron, leader of the “modern Conservative Party,” as he puts it. Cameron, 43, presents himself as a sensitive new man, devoted to his equal-partnership marriage and to causes like better maternity benefits.

Cameron calls his wife, Samantha, his “secret weapon,” and she is turning out to be just that, with an increasingly prominent role in the campaign. It helps that she is relatively young (38) and photogenic, with a name that lends itself to delighted tabloid punning. “Wham Bam! Sam Cam to be a Mam (She’ll Need a New Pram),” The Sun reported when the couple revealed they were expecting a baby.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s wife, Sarah, 46, is an active participant in his career, functioning as the designated humaniser of a man who can seem dour, distracted and dysfunctional. Mrs Brown is also active in Mumsnet. The site began as a virtual meeting place for mothers but now, with 8,50,000 members, is seen as a potent political force.
When Mumsnet celebrated its 10th anniversary last month, the prime minister himself turned up to pay tribute, telling the guests that the site was part of a “social revolution”. (Mrs Brown said Mumsnet was “like having a new doting mum, a no-nonsense mother-in-law and a supernanny all rolled into one.”)

But “What do women want?” is a treacherous question, and some women are indignant both at the notion that their entire gender speaks with one voice and at the candidates’ touchy-feely methods of courting their support.

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