"... just voting might start a process that leads to the parties taking them more seriously..."
We have been told that this is going to be a Mumsnet election, the parenting website whose users are principally affluent, ‘aspirational’ women in their thirties and forties concerned with ‘quality of life’ issues. They are the latest version of the classic ‘swing voter’ who lives in the kind of marginal constituency that now supposedly decide general elections - the Worcester Women for our own times, the British cousin of the American Soccer Mom. Since 1997 many other names have been coined for what is basically the same group of women. In 2005 Labour focused on the School Gate Mum. Last year the Conservatives said they would woo Holby City Woman. More recently Douglas Alexander referred to Take a Break Woman as critical to Labour’s fortunes in 2010.
At the risk of sounding post-modern, all these groups are obviously made up; they only matter because the parties (and journalists) think they matter. Those who study elections are sceptical that any one group holds the key to a general election: when support shifts from one party to the other it is pretty much the same across social groups. The real significance of these groups of phantom women lies in what they say about how the parties think about the electorate, about who is important (and who is not important) to them - and why.
Alexander’s invocation of Take a Break Woman is in this regard really interesting, if only because he got it so wrong. Those who read Take a Break are not the affluent, early middle aged women whose votes he is trying to chase. The kinds of women who read that august weekly have, in fact, long been disregarded – and continue to be ignored - by Britain’s political class.
Let me declare an interest. I was commissioned (by a drinks company whose name will soon become obvious) to write a report on the politics of women in their twenties and early thirties in the social groups C1/2 and D, many of whom work in part-time jobs, all of whom are on below average incomes and a significant number of whom have to juggle their work with caring for pre-school or young school age children. When asked in a survey that accompanied the writing of the report what were the biggest issues affecting their everyday lives, the top answer – at 58% - was ‘money worries’. We gave these women a name, and because it had to alliterate we called them the ‘Lambrini Ladies’. The report is out now.
These women are a ‘lost political generation’. They are amongst the most disengaged from formal politics, and the most likely not to vote – even before the campaign began many had already decided that it was not for them. This has always been the case – young women on lower incomes have long seen politics as something that men do, and have failed to connect their everyday lives with Westminster where middle aged, middle class men (and a few women) get together and shout at one another. They are, we suggest disengaged at least partly because the parties have failed to engage with them.
Our report points to a problem shared by all the main parties. But it also gestures to - as they say in cheesy management manuals –an opportunity. Our findings very much accord with a recent Observer poll of Netmums users. Now, those who go on the Netmums site – not to be confused with the more middle class Mumsnet (do keep up) – are very much in the same mould as those we talk about. The Observer poll revealed that while Labour had lost ground with such younger, lower income women the Conservatives had failed to make a strongly convincing alternative case. Their votes are up for grabs. But no-one is talking about them, even in a campaign that looks like it will lead to a hung Parliament.
Why? One answer is that they live in the wrong constituencies – too many are in safe Labour seats – although how ‘safe’ some of those are now might be questioned. In any case, we estimate that there are about four million Lambrini Ladies, and they are everywhere, even in the marginals where just a few votes can determine who becomes an MP. Of course their very disengagement plays against them – the parties only talk to those who they think will vote, like affluent middle-aged women. But if the parties started to address the kinds of issues that these women consider important, then they might make a difference. For what the Lambrini Ladies want are concrete, specific policies that plausibly promise to make their lives a little bit easier. What they do not want is politics as soap opera – they might watch East Enders but that does not mean they want the leaders’ wives gushing on about how their husbands are wonderful fathers who make the coffee in the morning. Pictures of David Cameron holding a baby will not wash – these women know what a baby looks like. In the accompanying survey they were asked if they were proposing to vote because politics was like a soap opera – only 6 % said so. The rest had more serious reasons, although many of them were negative, it seems that – if nothing else - it is dislike of Labour (25%), the Conservatives (18%) and even the Liberal Democrats (9%) will get many Lambrini Ladies into the polling booth.
In a few weeks what can be done? That is very much up to the parties. It is also up to the women themselves. One reason why we are told that this is going to be a Mumsnet election is because the kind of women who use the site demand to be heard. Young women on lower incomes who find making ends meet a daily problem do not tend to be that kind of woman. They do not have the cultural resources which many of those once referred to as Worcester Women simply take for granted. There are lots of deeply embedded issues that need to be overcome here, but just voting might start a process that leads to the parties taking them more seriously.
Professor Steven Fielding