Does mumsnet know best?

Are politicians right to woo mothers at the election? And does internet behemoth mumsnet, which has hosted all the main leaders, really speak for Britain's mums? Janet Street-Porter crosses swords with Justine Roberts, founder of the website its critics dub 'smugsnet'
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Indy Politics

Politicans have singled out mothers as a key group to woo in the forthcoming election, as we reported last week. But does their rush to address them through the internet website mumsnet show they don't really understand Britain's mothers at all? JanetStreet-Porter takes on Justine Roberts, the website's founder.

Janet Your critics say mumsnetters are middle class, and not representative of the electorate at large. I find it weird that political leaders are spending their time sucking up to your members – surely the big issues in the next election, public spending, education, the NHS and jobs, are relevant to both men and women?

Justine I don't think it's odd that politicians want to talk to voters in the run-up to an election, and there are a lot of voters on mumsnet. Last time I checked, women, even middle-class ones, had the vote. You're wrong to portray mumsnet as solely the domain of middle-class women. We have plenty of users who would chew off their arm before describing themselves as middle class.

Janet But you have about a million registered users and there are eight million women with kids of school age or younger. Why are mums so important? The two groups who are really suffering are school leavers, with one in three facing unemployment, and female pensioners who have seen pension values drop more than men's.

Justine I wouldn't suggest mothers are any more important than any other group, least of all school leavers or pensioners. It seems all the major parties have concluded, based on their own research, that mothers will be a key group, and at election time it's no surprise that politicians follow the pollsters is it? And mumsnetters aren't only interested in the fortunes of mothers – only a small proportion of the questions put to politicians when they come on mumsnet for a web-chat are about "family issues".

Janet Politicians tell us they are listening to women and go on mumsnet – but isn't this rather patronising? In the end, 17 million people didn't vote in the last election, and they were both sexes and all ages. I find this feminisation of politics spurious.

Justine It is true nearly all the major politicians who have come on mumsnet are men, but it doesn't make it a bad thing that they are courting the female vote. Politics has been such a masculine preserve for so long, surely a bit of feminisation is no bad thing? I have never suggested mumsnet as an answer to apathy about politics. You're right, the idea that women are going to vote for a party on the basis of the leader's wife is patronising, but in our hearts don't we know that seeing a bit of the wives is helpful in making our minds up about what the leaders are really like?

Janet I think that the wives are being packaged just as carefully as their husbands – and it depresses me that they are allowing it to happen. Sarah Brown has had an image makeover and Sam Cam's changed her accent. Surely the best way for all women (not just mums) to engage in politics is by becoming MPs and changing the system from within? And if more of us went into politics then the House of Commons would sit at sensible times, and not be run like a boys' club. The images of men shouting abuse at PM's Questions on television just turn all voters off. Politicians aren't connecting with the public and they know it.

Justine You're right, we need more women in politics but it's such an unattractive job with its macho posturing, un-family friendly hours and public disdain. For many of us it is too high a price to pay. In the meantime coming on mumsnet to engage with and to listen to women – whilst no substitute – is better than nowt.

Janet Is chatting on mumsnet the best way to debate serious issues like long-term unemployment and Tory tax proposals for married couples? My friends who have joined in say your discussions are often very aggressive. What do your users regard as the most important election issues?

Justine But I don't think "aggressive" is right. Compared to most web forums, mumsnet is phenomenally civilised, and the questions have been mostly about serious policy issues. Most mumsnet users would probably see the economy and how we deal with the burgeoning public debt as the most important election issue. That of course has ramifications across lots of things such as spending on health and education as well as long-term interest and mortgage rates.

Janet I don't see these subjects being discussed in any depth online. But in your heart of hearts, do you really think that these men (the ones who run things) will be taking a blind bit of notice of what your members think once the election is over? Aren't you just being used?

Justine Well yes, I doubt the leaders would be quite so eager to engage if it wasn't election time. To be frank though they'd be mad not to take notice of what's being said on sites like ours. It's rare a webchat doesn't throw up something revealing, and I think very often politicians learn something about the way a policy or issue affects people. In my view that's a good thing. Politicians talk at us too much and don't listen enough, as a rule.

Janet Polls show that 49 per cent of women don't think politicians consider their views on subjects like the economy. But if there are big cuts in the public sector, the losers will be women, who make up 65 per cent of the workforce. Women are also the biggest users of public services. Politicians can talk all they like – it's cheap – but how do you know they are listening? Ultimately, targeting the female vote is just a means to an end for them, isn't it? Equality is the only thing I'm interested in – equal pay and equal representation in democracy. And both are a long way off.

Justine Mumsnetters are interested in equality too and collectively we have a better chance of being listened to than individually. And there is some good evidence that they are listening. Gordon Brown's office has been instrumental in progressing consideration of our members' proposals for improving the way the NHS treats parents who miscarry. Both the main parties have expressed support for our Let Girls Be Girls campaign which challenges retailers not to sell clothes that prematurely sexualise kids. The idea that mums are only interested in narrow, selfish issues such as childcare or maternity services, or that there's a mumsnet vote is nuts and, once again, a wee bit patronising.