Britain's three main political parties are all failing to capture the family friendly vote – that was the verdict of a recent Populus poll for the Family and Parenting Institute. Respondents placed Labour in a flimsy lead over the Conservatives as the most family-friendly, by 27 per cent to 24 per cent. The Lib Dems lagged behind with just 10 per cent.
So The Independent convened a panel of mums – that holy grail of the politician seeking social legitimacy – on a sunny spring morning in Harrow, north-west London. Nine women sat round the kitchen table, their older kids at school while four-month-old Emily nodded drowsily on the lap of mum Katie Lecky, 19. Some of the women are single, others married, divorced or separated; several had their children in their late thirties, others as teenagers.
First question: with politicians of all parties now targeting the "mums' vote" with a raft of family-friendly-sounding pledges, do the nation's mothers feel their concerns are being addressed?
The suggestion was met with snorts of laughter from the women, who met through Netmums, the internet parenting forum.
"Perhaps if a few more women politicians were involved in their campaign to engage with mothers it would help," said Nicky Heskin, 46, the mother of two children aged 10 and six and a full-time film executive.
Asked what issues matter to them, there was broad consensus: school places, a lack of support for working mothers, and concern about David Cameron's proposed tax break for married couples. The Conservative leader's warning that Britain was becoming a "broken society" struck a real chord with the group, particularly for parents of teenagers.
The biggest worry was the battle for school places – that not all schools are good enough and too many children are competing for too few places at "good" schools.
Clare Simmonds, a 35-year-old mother of two, who voted Labour in 2005 but is unsure this time, said: "You hear all these rumours from other parents – like the sibling rule [giving younger siblings priority to attend the same schools as older brothers and sisters] is going to be abolished. School places causes a huge amount of stress." The mothers looked appalled when 49-year-old single mother Liz Clifford told how her daughter was rejected by her first four choices of schools.
All nodded as woman after woman recalled stressful stories of working through their lunch hours and taking work home in order to leave at 5pm – only to see colleagues regard them as slackers.
"When my son Jackson went to nursery I'd have to pick him up at 6pm and I remember being on the train in floods of tears because it was delayed and there was no way I was going to get there in time," said Heidi Haywood Crouch, 41, now a stay-at-home mother of two boys aged five and three, who voted Conservative at the last election but is not sure who to vote for this time.
Michelle Rayner, a 34-year-old single mother of two, voted Labour at the last election and plans to switch to the Conservatives – but she is critical of Mr Cameron's plan to give tax breaks to married couples, fearing it will stigmatise families like hers: "I think it sends the message that some families are not good enough."
Election Highlights of the Day
Hissy fit of the day
Tory spindoctor Henry Macrory is in a bit of a state over his boy's performance in the leaders' debate. After posting four tweets during the debate claiming his charge was winning he is now telling us that only 9.9 million tuned in. "Or to put it another way... approx 35 million UK electors DIDN'T watch last night's debate." He never liked those stupid debates anyways.
Changing tune of the day
The stattos at Sky News also seem to have had a bit of trouble getting to grips with the popularity figures. An hour in and with Cameron trailing Clegg and Brown in other polls, they had Cameron in the lead. By the end though, that had been revised to show Clegg winning, followed by Brown then Cameron. Mr Murdoch won't be pleased.
Trooper of the day
One man who does know on which side his bread is buttered though, is Tom Newton Dunn, political editor at Murdoch's Sun. Most now acknowledge that Brown marginally outshone Cameron. But Newton Dunn won't be put off the party line that easily, claiming Brown finished last. "When you've been twisting the truth for years, it's hard to stop," claims the paper's leader. Couldn't agree more.
Spoilsports of the day
ITV News, understandably eager to inject some "viewer interaction" into its leaders' debate coverage, broadcast a shot of its website showing comments from viewers. All well and good, except one got carried away and deployed some rather industrial language. Due to "copyright reasons", the video clip has been removed from Youtube.
Kevin Rawlinson and Alexa Phillips