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12 June 2024

Politicians ignore the Mumsnet manifesto at their peril

It is hard to read the list of policy demands and not reflect that life is getting worse for British women.

By Hannah Barnes

When an online forum for new parents was founded in March 2000, few could have imagined the influence it would come to have. Yet the Mumsnet co-founders, Justine Roberts and Carrie Longton, are now two of the most powerful women in the UK. And a grilling by the site’s members – or Roberts herself – can make or break politicians.

The 2010 general election was nicknamed the “Mumsnet election”, with both the sitting prime minister, Gordon Brown, and the Tory leader, David Cameron, taking live questions from users. And few can forget the opening question of CEO Roberts’ 2022 interview with the then prime minister Boris Johnson: “Why should we believe anything you say when it has been proven that you’re a habitual liar?” She could have been speaking for a nation.

Now Mumsnet has published its first election manifesto. The decision, Roberts told me, was “born in large part out of the conversations we saw on the site during the pandemic”. Though women bore much of the burden – juggling work with homeschooling, or facing the frightening prospect of giving birth alone – “decisions were being taken without the consideration or input of women”. Mumsnet is seeking to use its unique position to change this.

The site has nine million registered users, more than 90 per cent of whom report they “vote in every general election”; at the last census, the female population of England and Wales aged 25 or over was 21.5 million. With women also over-represented among undecided voters, politicians can ill-afford to ignore what the site’s users want.

Mumsnet’s 12 policy demands come directly from them. At the top of the manifesto is a demand for a statutory inquiry into maternity care. Investigations into specific hospital trusts have shown the deadly consequences for women and their babies when things go wrong. But, the Mumsnet manifesto argues, “repeated local inquiries will not allow us to make the systemic national improvements required”. With more than 600,000 women giving birth each year, their care is hardly a fringe issue. Yet only half of maternity units in England are rated good by the Care Quality Commission, and one in ten are inadequate. The UK performs worse than many of its European neighbours on maternal deaths, and black and Asian women are disproportionately affected. Medical advances should have made giving birth “safer than ever”, Roberts told me, and yet it isn’t. Why? It is “part of the health service that exclusively serves women… The failures in maternity care are representative of a culture which essentially still treats women as less important than men.”

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Closely allied, and at number two on the manifesto, is a call for immediate action to tackle birth trauma. In fact, half of the proposed policy changes relate to women (or their partners) and the period during or just after birth. There’s a call for more support with breastfeeding, and to reform the marketing regulations around infant formula. Parental leave is also addressed. Perhaps the most surprising policy ask is for a parliamentary vote on assisted dying. Roberts puts the high level of support for change – 87 per cent of users surveyed were in favour – down to women being disproportionately represented among carers. Many users had watched “their loved ones die a painful, undignified death”.

It is hard to read the list of policy demands and not reflect that life is getting worse for British women. Why else would reform of family law be called for in order to protect domestic abuse survivors? Or a demand to simply make women and girls safe? “Lots of things have changed for the better in the nearly 25 years that Mumsnet has been around,” Roberts said, “but the conversations we see on site every day show just how far we still have to go.”

Take the Mumsnet “Relationships” board. After just ten minutes’ browsing, it’s clear how endemic violence and misogyny still are. A single thread on leaving an emotionally abusive partner received 100 responses in just four days this week. It is upsetting reading: “One evening, he went for me and two of my children with a knife,” one woman wrote. “I left him after he raped and beat me following big family events he insisted on attending… I nearly died at his hand,” said another. A third woman added: “I asked him why he treated me so badly – he replied, ‘Because I can.’”

Roberts said roughly 1,000 women a year are helped to leave abusive relationships by fellow Mumsnetters. The most frequently posed questions those women ask are: “Is it normal that I gave up work to look after the kids and now my partner says I’m not allowed to spend ‘his’ money?” “Is it normal that he doesn’t want me to go out with my friends?” “Is it normal that he chokes me during sex?” “These questions don’t arise in a vacuum,” Roberts said.

Neither Roberts nor Mumsnet users see many issues as being the preserve of a single party. For example, the manifesto calls on the next government to amend the Equality Act to make it clear that “sex” refers to biological sex. As I wrote in last week’s magazine, this is not a partisan topic. “Mumsnet users certainly don’t see it as a right/left issue,” Roberts said, but an issue of basic privacy and safety for women.

Both Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer’s offices are in discussion with Mumsnet about speaking with its users, but nothing is yet confirmed. The benefits of doing so – if they perform well – are clear. Women form the majority of the country, and Mumsnet women in particular are seemingly more likely than any other demographic to vote. Politicians ignore them at their peril.

[See also: Who really holds power on the left?]

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This article appears in the 12 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The hard-right insurgency