After Santorum

The unlikely ex-contender leaves a permanent mark on the GOP.

And then there was... one, and a couple others. As Rick Santorum yesterday ended his White House bid, the Republican party groaned, and sighed, in about equal measure. After a dirty, drawn out and, at times, beyond-petty primary season that began in Iowa on 3 January, Mitt Romney has now effectively sealed the nomination to take on Obama for the Presidency. With seven months until the November election we're forced to ask: are the Republicans any more united now they've "found" their man?

Santorum, out but not down

Little known before his February surge following Gingrich's falter, Rick Santorum has built a national presence beyond sharing the name of an egregious sex act. His bow-out spares Romney the embarrassment of losing any further states this late in the season, and also frees up the presumptive nominee a little cash and breathing space for the next two months while the final delegate votes trickle in.

But as wildly improbable as President Santorum ever was, the former Senator of Pennsylvania has left a number of marks on the political landscape. Not least of these has been the re-shaping of his opponent; as Jonathan Bernstein puts it, the candidate acted "as a mechanism for forcing Romney to hew to Republican orthodoxy". In his campaign suspension speech (below), Santorum notes he won more US counties than all the other Republican contenders combined. His appeal has demonstrated just how fractured - and in some quarters, extreme - conservative America is. To a significant proportion of the electorate - too large for either Romney or Obama to ignore - strong rhetoric on social issues (abortion, same-sex marriage, union of church and state) and immigration is a draw. Santorum will most likely run for statewide or national office again (see 2016?) so long as Tea Partiers and evangelicals share with him these beliefs. Before then, we should expect to hear from Santorum across commentary outlets (he's a former Fox News contributor) and as a fundraiser/advocate of conservative House and Senate candidates. This isn't the last of Rick.

The Grand Old Party in a fix

Speaking of the US media, various writers have been plotting Mitt Romney's political trajectory against that of Meg Whitman, the Republican gubernatorial candidate for California who swung to the right, dropped $150m of her own cash and burned out of the race. Eschewing his own opinions in courting the conservative Conservatives could very likely cost Romney the vote of mainstream America. Young, college educated women (a demographic that votes) are unimpressed, as Ruth Marcus writes; as are Hispanic Americans and, broadly, the middle class. Even on his own terms, though, Romney is not making gains: attacks on Obama's jobs record will neither stick voters with nor swing them round to Mitt. With his likeability stats in the doldrums, Romney will have to reinvent himself - again - between now and November.

Surrounded by his family, Rick Santorum suspends his White House bid. Photo: Getty Images

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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