What the books don't tell you

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

‘‘Mummy, there’s a pretend mouse in the kitchen.” Larry has stomped into the bedroom with the imperious air of somebody bearing Very Important News. Instantly – and with a sinking feeling in my stomach – I know what this means: there is a mouse caught in the glue trap.

Glue traps are the last resort. For months, hordes of mice have been frolicking nightly around the slightly too-small flat, snacking on leftover rusks and bits of rice that have escaped my half-hearted attempts to clean up after baby Moe. We have tried “humane” traps, snap traps and poison, all to no avail. They may look small, brown and not particularly intelligent but clearly these rodents are a highly evolved super-breed.

The last straw came at 4am the other night when, having finally dropped off after settling Moe for the third time, I was awakened by the sound of scratching right next to my pillow. One thing I do not need in my life right now is anything else keeping me awake at night. So, the next morning, I marched to the corner shop and bought the glue traps: square bits of paper covered in a substance so sticky that once the mice run on to it, they can’t get off.

I creep into the kitchen. Sure enough, there on the sideboard is a tiny baby mouse, stuck fast to the trap. It must have been there for some time; it is still moving but only feebly. I creep over and look into its bulging, terrified brown eyes. It looks back at me imploringly. All I can think about is its poor mouse mummy, hiding somewhere behind the cooker, watching her baby die a horrible, prolonged death. I think about all the time that she must have waddled around pregnant, how she must have carefully built her nest, foraged for food, fed her baby right through the day and night: all for nothing. All because of me.

But there is nothing I can do. The baby mouse’s legs are so fragile that they would break if I tried to disengage it from the trap. The only course of action available is to kill it as soon as possible. I gingerly pick up the trap and the mouse and shove them into a plastic bag. Then I put that bag into another plastic bag. I don’t like to waste plastic bags but if it spares me the sight of spattered baby mouse guts, I feel it is justified.

“Mummy, what are you doing?” Larry has materialised at my side. I know from his shrewd expression that there is no way I can pussyfoot around.

“I am putting the mouse into a plastic bag, Larry, and then I’m going to take it outside and hit it with a brick.”

“Oh.” Larry looks at the floor. “Can I see?”

“Er, no. Yes. Well, I suppose so.”

So we both tromp down to the garden and Larry watches as I batter the baby mouse to death. In hindsight, I think this might have been the Wrong Parenting Strategy. It is decisions like this that the books just don’t prepare you for.

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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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.