Mumsnet, the general election and single-issue campaigning

Justine Roberts, founder of online mums and parenting community, Mumsnet, spoke at an Albion Society event on digital democracy last week and provided a fascinating insight into the future of politics, digital campaigning and organisational structures.

Justine questioned why so many politicians were keen to get in front of Mumsnet members and suggested the reasons may be more conventional than first thought.

Firstly, Mumsnet, as a concept or new media channel is much easier to grasp than other social media tools, such as Twitter. While Twitter is still largely a dangerous and mysterious tool to a lot of MPs, with inherent etiquette, esoteric terminology and demanding, difficult to manage real-time functionality, Mumsnet is much more like the Richard and Judy of media politics.

You have a 95% female community; mass membership (1m uniques a month) and since the media claimed the election a Mumsnet election the community has been on the watch-list of most Westminster hacks meaning what MPs say is likely to get reported in the traditional media.

Given this high level of awareness, does Mumsnet have any real political power, Justine asked.
The answer in short was, yes. Because, despite MPs' perceptions that Mumsnet is just another traditional media channel with a mass, passive readership, they've overlooked one major difference: participation and self-organisation.

Mumsnet real political potential lies in driving single-issue campaigns relevant to members. Justine gave an example where members had vociferously opposed plans by the Government to change the childcare voucher scheme, challenged the prime minister on a live webchat on the site, and pushed the most popular current Downing Street ePetition (currently standing at 99,000+ signatories). The campaign eventually caused Gordon Brown to change the unpopular policy.

Given this potential effect on policy, Government is now engaging the community proactively. The wisdom of the community is being exploited by the Department of Health, who are involving Mumsnet community members to help develop its policy towards women that have suffered miscarriages.

What this all adds up to, Justine suggested pragmatically, was that while Mumsnet may not have political power in the traditional sense, it certainly has power to mobilise its members in the same way organisations such as 38Degrees, the single-issue political mobilisation platform, can.

This was a fascinating comparison, given that Mumsnet is also a peer-to-peer support community for many other members as well as a more traditional news portal for even more.  I couldn't help wondering about the potential for a study of Mumsnet to test its organisational hybridity.

Finally, Justine dispelled the myth of the bloc vote in Mumsnet. Their own internal surveys of members' voting intentions revealed that party support is fairly evenly split across the three main parties. Despite this, however, the BNP was actually caught out trying to infiltrate discussions and shape debates around a fascist/far-right agenda.

While not entirely conclusive evidence of Mumsnet's organisational hybridity, Justine's conclusion could certainly be interpreted as reflecting the complex socio-technological structures at play within the community. “Mumsnet,” she concluded, “is a non-aligned mouthpiece for its community. It’s not a union bloc vote; it’s more like an octopus with pre-menstrual stress.”

About Simon Collister

Simon is Head of Nonprofit and Public Sector at We Are Social. He wil be guest blogging for us on topics related to the 2010 British general election campaign.