Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

What we can learn from Conor Lamb

With the Arizona 8th up for grabs tomorrow, and the midterms on the horizon, there is much to learn from Conor Lamb’s victory in Pennsylvania, writes Felix Behr

Once midnight struck signalling the 14 March, Democrats across America began celebrating. While this enthusiasm died down, the results that spurred it were confirmed a week later. Conor Lamb had defeated his Republican rival, Rick Saccone, by a staggering lead of 627.

It is far from hyperbolic to describe his lead of 627 votes as staggering. It would have been staggering even if he had lost by the same margin. The previous representative for the district, Tim Murphy, was a Republican who had held his seat since 2002. Moreover, he had faced no Democratic opposition in his last two elections. When Murphy was forced to retire by a personal scandal, Lamb was barely in the running, let alone a winner.

So the race for Pennsylvania’s 18th district caused some excitement. As a special election (the American equivalent of a byelection), Democrats are hoping this is an indication of success to come in the midterms. Considering the developments over the past month – with former FBI director James Comey releasing a ‘tell-all’ book, and Trump bringing former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani on to his legal team to face off against special prosecutor Robert Mueller.

However, they cannot afford to be complacent. Conor Lamb’s victory was based not on his opposition to Trump (although that played a role) but rather on a platform focussing on local issues rather than national politics. He favoured advocating a stronger system of background checks but not new legislation on guns, as well as bring pro-fracking and maintaining a focus on the opioid epidemic in the district.

📖 The Trump agenda

Lamb’s success can tell us a lot about why progressives have failed. When progressivism was the status quo, we held its rightfulness as self-evident, and so we did not argue for them. The argument for Remain was against Brexit, not for Remain, and the argument for Clinton was against Trump, not for Clinton.

For progressives to succeed we have to show a path to the future. Despite Donald Trump’s regressive policies, ‘Make America Great Again’ created a  forward-looking narrative. This is also why Owen Smith failed to beat Jeremy Corbyn. He could not provide a positive vision for the future of Labour.

So Lamb led a campaign based on promises to champion his constituency, not his party. He’s even claimed not to follow either Nancy Pelosi or Paul Ryan, the Democratic and Republican leaders of the parties in the House of Representatives. He is responsible to those whom he represents. What that actually means, though, shall be seen later.

This picture of progressive bliss also hides issues like Lamb’s stance on gun control. While one can argue for ideological concessions in exchange for power, this might not be the place to make it. With the number of school shootings and the campaigning this has created, other Democrats will find Lamb’s position unpalatable.

Obviously, a local solution cannot solve a national problem. That said, it offers a potential way forward for the Democrats. To be successful the Democrats must remember that all politics is local, and their performance in Arizona – and the midterms – will signify if the tide truly is turning.


Felix Behr is a writer based in Copenhagen


Photo: By Media Arts Department Robert Morris University from Moon Township, PA (IMG_0541) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

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Felix Behr

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