Not a nice pear: not all babies love avocados, you know. Photo: Getty
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The baby manifesto: no to avocado, yes to Calpol

Calpol. It tastes fantastic. Works a treat. Helps me to sleep. All round, it’s a winner. It’s the pre-Calpol debate that bores me. 

If middle-class babies could talk, what would they say to their parents?

Were I such a baby, there are a few things I’d like to chat through. First, clothes. When it’s just us at home, I am perfectly sensibly dressed in stretchy, comfy, all-in-one baby outfits. No waistbands, loopholes, epaulets, belts or extraneous buttons. Perfect. Then there’s a social engagement and I am suddenly kitted out like a Ralph Lauren mannequin. Those buttoned shirts, faux-cords and sleeveless jumpers – everything collects and gathers in inconvenient ways around my arm-pits. Might look nice enough from your perspective but very restrictive of my new rolling technique.

Food. I don’t like avocado. More generally, can’t we relax about food, just a tiny bit? I’ve got my whole life to fondle aubergines at Waitrose and worry about sourcing and organic credentials. In the meantime, how about a nice rusk? Overhearing my menu, you’d think I was having lunch in a Michelin-starred restaurant. You also imagine I’ve got a rather more precise memory for food than I do. The fact I ate a slice of pear 28 hours ago doesn’t mean I don’t want another one now. Don’t change a winning formula, I say. Having spoken to Granny, I gather your generation ate pretty much exclusively Frosties sprinkled with extra sugar until you were 13. So are you absolutely certain about this diet-IQ correlation that’s currently touring the Sunday supplements?

Why do you guys find it impossible to make even short journeys in the car without packing the entire house into the boot and back seat? Acres of books, stacks of toys, bath seats, my activity gym, high chairs, enough monitors to supply the SAS, various beakers and several allegedly sleep-inducing blankets. No wonder I’m feeling claustrophobic. You’re indulging the neurosis of control. Mummy and Daddy convince themselves that if they do X, Y and Z – after all, it worked once before – then I’ll definitely fall into line in the future. Pure narrative fallacy, post hoc ergo propter hoc. I’m a lot more contrary than you give me credit for. Even sensing the existence of a long-term plan – a military-style operation with my co-operation at the heart of it – sends me cheerily in the opposite direction.

When you’re next invited to a social engagement that you’d rather miss, try to be honest about it and say, “Sorry, no.” I resent being used as a dinner-party avoidance strategy. You say, “We’d love to come, of course, but sadly it’s proving impossible to arrange childcare.” Really? Exactly how many babysitting options have you tried to make this work? Man up.

Teething. What’s so bad about admitting that I’m not always in a brilliant mood? Like everyone else, I have good days and bad days. This has nothing to do with my teeth. Yes, emerging teeth are uncomfortable. But as a causal explanation, it is being rather stretched. Can’t you rummage around for another excuse or two to explain away my latest tantrum? Long before I’d sprouted any teeth, “teething” was being trotted out to justify even blatant attention-seeking. I like a good excuse as much as the next person but can’t we just accept the occasional mood swing?

Calpol. It tastes fantastic. Works a treat. Helps me to sleep. All round, it’s a winner. It’s the pre-Calpol debate that bores me. Same every time: should we, shouldn’t we, didn’t we last night, isn’t there a hint of a dependency culture, what about his little liver . . . blah blah? Just pass the syringe, dispense the dope and spare me the guilt. After all, I’m teething.

Other children. Why this presumption that I will be pleased to see other children? It’s baffling. They’re self-absorbed, attention-seeking and unforgivably uninterested in me and my inner life, so what’s to like about other children? I much prefer the pandering attentiveness of multiple adults. The presence of rival children reduces the staff-baby ratio most uncomfortably.

I’m with Philip Larkin, who said he had initially thought he didn’t like people in general, then he realised he just hadn’t liked other children. How much clearer can I be? I’ve tried hair-pulling, eye-gouging, ear-tugging and general bullying but still you insist that it’s a ham-fisted effort to make friends. Nope. Trying to get rid of them.

Apparently, someone called George is doing similar kinds of things to me right now. Why should I be interested? Never met him, though he is doubtless quite like all the other children I’ve recently poked in the eye.

I’m also rather tired of being used as an excuse for unfulfilled parental creativity, as though if I wasn’t around you would inevitably be writing Anna Karenina. I blame Cyril Connolly and his convenient little aphorism, “There is no more sombre enemy of great art than the pram in the hallway.” (Good book, though, so do read the other chapters of Enemies of Promise.) Perhaps the problem, Cyril, is always leaving the pram in the hallway. There’s nothing I like more than being wheeled outside, into city parks and along country lanes, during which time I invariably fall deeply asleep for an hour or two.

What more do you want? You get to claim the domestic moral high ground – pulling your weight on the parenting front – while actually drifting off into your own creative space. Nope, sorry, look elsewhere for your excuses. After all, J K Rowling and J G Ballard were both single parents.

Do pass me a rusk on the way through the hallway.

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.