Smoking Kurt Cobain

Hermetic America? Nobel Prize controversy

Nobel Prize judge Horace Engdahl’s criticism of American literature this week has incensed the literary world. His claims that American novels were ‘too isolated, too insular’ merited no more than a one-word response from author Giles Foden, and Harvard Professor Werner Sollors, specialist in American literature, complained of Engdahl’s ‘historical and literary myopia’.

But perhaps Engdahl has a point – or more of a point, at least, than Foden’s angry ‘Bullshit!’ allows.

Professor Sollors points out that 'European bookstores are filled with works by American authors’. And yet, the same cannot be said for the fate of European novels in America. Of the 185,000 books printed in English in the United States in 2004, only 874 were adult literature in translation – a discrepancy that Salman Rushdie has called ‘shocking’. The lack of foreign literature in the States has been described by Brooklyn-based writer Paul Auster as ‘the great tragedy of American publishing’, and one French publishing magnate speaking in the Telegraph this week agrees: ‘It is true that American publishers rarely buy books in translation from foreign languages. That is to America's shame and also its loss.’

However, Philip Roth, the Nobel’s eternal bridesmaid, need not give up on his chances this year yet. ‘It is of no importance, when we judge American candidates, how any of us views American literature as a whole in comparison with other literatures,’ Engdahl has since added.

The Devil's party

John Milton will turn 400 on December 9th, and the Williamsburg Art and Historical Centre in Brooklyn celebrated last Saturday with the Grand Paradise Lost Costume Ball. Revellers were promised an evening ‘as sinfully delicious as “Man’s first disobedience” and the most fabulous extravaganza since Adam & Eve had to cover their nakedness!’

Music was provided by the JC Hopkins Biggish Swing Band, but surely a better choice would have been Philadelphia rockers Milton and the Devil’s Party. Formed by two English professors with a penchant for the Eagles, the Blake-inspired band are currently touring to promote their new album, How Wicked We’ve Become. They excitedly announce the poet’s birthday on their Myspace page: ‘Milton turns 400 this December! So, the rock band he incorporeally fronts is dedicating all its 2008 shows to everybody's favorite Puritan pariah!’

Kurt Cobain smoked in spliff, released into ether. (Apparently.)

If your funds don’t stretch to the $500-a-ticket Obama benefit concert and the thought of Maroon5’s contribution to the Campaign CD is already giving you nightmares, you might want to head down to Baron’s Court Theatre in London for The Obama Musical instead. Written by campaign member Teddy Hayes, it promises a comic behind-the-scenes look at the presidential race to the sounds of jazz, gospel, pop and soft rock. Listen out for the song ‘Obama and Me’, in which a particularly devoted team member comes out with the couplet: ‘We are a pair / Like chocolate and éclair.’

Elsewhere, artist Natascha Stellmach has announced that she will smoke a spliff allegedly containing the ashes of Kurt Cobain at the close of her current exhibition. ‘This final act,’ Stellmach said, ‘aims to release Cobain from the media circus and into the ether.’ Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, reported the theft of her husband’s ashes earlier this year, but was quick to retract her statement on hearing about Stellmach’s plans.

Less morbidly, but no less confusingly, performance artist Mark McGowan ‘rowed’ through the streets of London on Thursday in a raft made from recycled plastic bottles and rollerskate wheels, in a bid to convince people to drink tap water rather than bottled water. This is a more conservative effort than usual from McGowan, who has always worked in mysterious ways: he has been known in the past to eat corgis to promote vegetarianism, and catapult the elderly in ‘space capsules’ to promote pensioners’ rights.

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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.