Tea party victories provide hope for Democrats

The latest primary victories for anti-establishment and Tea Party candidates could give the Democrat

The electoral backlash from US conservatives has intensified, as Tea Party candidates once again confounded commentators by defeating mainstream Republican candidates in the latest round of congressional primaries.

Undoubtedly the biggest upset of the night came from the traditionally-Democrat state of Delaware, where Sarah Palin-endorsed Tea Party candidate Christine O'Donnell defeated long-serving Congressman and former governor Mike Castle to be the Republican candidate for Vice President Joe Biden's former Senate seat.

O'Donnell, who is pro-gun, anti-abortion, fiscally conservative and believes masturbation is a sin, defeated Castle with 53 per cent of the vote. Given that just a week ago O'Donnell was engaged in bitter in-fighting with some of Delaware's elected Republican officials and had been termed "unelectable" by some fellow Republicans, her victory in last night's primary is not only a blow to the GOP, which committed significant resources to the fight in Delaware in an attempt to prevent a repeat of the upset in Alaska, but also adds yet another dimension of unpredictability to the final outcome of November's midterm elections.

The majority of states have now held their primaries. Eight mainstream Republican candidates have been defeated by Tea Party or otherwise right-wing challengers, a number which could rise to nine pending the outcome of the recount in New Hampshire.

The consensus, especially from the left-leaning commentariat, seems to be that while these primary victories for anti-incumbent candidates demonstrate the power and reach of this new right-wing movement, it is very unlikely that any of these challengers will be victorious in the midterms themselves.

In an election season that had otherwise long been considered to be potentially disastrous for the Democrats, with the possibility that the Republicans could regain control of both the House and the Senate, these ultra-conservative candidates represent an opportunity to claw back some momentum in advance of polling day. For instance, Delaware, previously considered to be a serious prospect for the Republicans, is now much more likely to be a hold for the Democrats, especially if their candidate, Chris Coons, is able to capitalise on Christine O'Donnell's unpopularity with a significant faction of Delaware Republicans.

Just as a footnote, it's worth noting that the electoral fortunes of some of these insurgent candidates could have a knock-on effect for Sarah Palin's presidential hopes. Palin notably endorsed Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire and Carly Fiorina in California, as well as O'Donnell in Delaware. As she is apparently already moving into position for a 2012 campaign, embarrassing defeats for candidates Palin has personally endorsed and campaigned for could dent her appeal to Republicans beyond the confines of the Tea Party movement.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

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