European anti-politics: reading the runes in Italy and Germany

The success of the Pirate Party and Italian comedian Beppe Grillo is symptomatic of our times.

There is no denying that the electoral results in France and Greece last weekend will have a significant impact on European politics in the short- term. But to get a picture of how things will look further into the future, it may be wise to pay attention to two rather more minor elections that took place this weekend.

The poll in Germany’s Schleswig-Holstein region not only signalled danger for Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition; it also confirmed the establishment of a significant protest movement – the Pirate Party. Meanwhile in Italy, surprisingly high levels of background support for Mario Monti’s technocracy have combined with the emergence of a populist comedian, Bepe Grillo, as a serious political figure.

These developments, diffuse as they may seem, are intimately linked. They point to a growing backlash against the mainstream parties (also in evidence in Greece), but this backlash is not just about disappointment in the parties’ handling of the issues of the day – austerity, growth and the rest. It is tied to the long-term emergence of an anti-political culture that places a potentially dangerous amount of faith in supposedly “neutral” solutions to political problems.

In Germany, the Pirate Party runs on a platform of abolishing copyright restrictions and radically opening up access to information. Their manifesto is a challenge to the old way of doing things – they want to end what they call the “principle of secrecy” and usher in a new era of transparency that allows citizens to interact with government in an entirely open information system.

But in making this claim, the Pirate Party reveals its troubling belief that representative politics can essentially be replaced by technology. Their own method for formulating policy uses an online platform called Liquid Feedback, which allows members to formulate and vote for proposals – the most popular policies eventually make it into the manifesto. The implication is that this supposedly non-hierarchical structure is how politics in general should work. It is as if citizens – left to their own devices and without the interference of traditional parties and the state apparatus – would be able to reach entirely uncontroversial policy decisions.

But this process neatly avoids the question of how executive power is wielded in such a radically open political system – indeed, evidence suggests that certain members of the Pirate Party are rather more equal than others when it comes to policymaking. And it entirely circumvents the age-old democratic problem of how to protect minority rights in a majoritarian system.

The Pirate Party’s success in Schleswig-Holstein this weekend is symptomatic of wider changes in the way citizens are coming to view democratic processes. The belief that technology provides a route to “neutral”, uncontroversial policy decisions is linked to a more general lack of faith in the traditional toolkit of representative politics – values-based partisanship, interest representation and the political skills of negotiation and compromise.

Further evidence of this move towards anti-politics can be seen in the results coming out of Italy. Much of the media has tended to frame this weekend’s local elections as a chance for Italians to show their frustration with the Monti regime. But in fact it is impossible for Italians to vote against Monti’s government, for the simple reason that the government is unelected. Granted, lower poll numbers for the mainstream parties which shore up the technocracy may be an indirect indicator of dissatisfaction, but the fact remains that the government is once-removed from political accountability.

What the election results really show is a rejection of the mainstream parties in favour of a comedian running on a fervently anti-political platform. Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement plays on people’s distrust of politicians, proposing to give "the entire public the role of government and guidance normally attributed to a few". Grillo’s success in these elections is a marker of the disrepute into which Italian representative politics has fallen. When this is combined with surprisingly high levels of support for the technocratic government, the trend is clear: people are increasingly inclined to believe that there are non-political, neutral solutions to political problems. Whether these solutions come in the form of a finance-oriented technocracy or a comedy-oriented populist, the point is that the answers to Italy’s economic and social problems are seen as having little if anything to do with democratic politics.

The scenes from Paris over the weekend were a timely reminder of what real democratic politics can be: a contest between different conceptions of how society should be organised, and a means of mobilising large numbers of citizens to take a role, albeit limited, in their own government. The danger is that such exhibitions of the value of representative democracy will become fewer and farther between.

William Brett is a PhD candidate at UCL and a research assistant at the Centre for Financial Analysis & Policy.

The German Pirate party leader Bernd Schloemer. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour's trajectory points to landslide defeat, but don't bet on a change at the top any time soon

The settled will among Jeremy Corbyn's critics that they need to keep quiet is unlikely to be disrupted by the result. 

Labour were able to tread water against Ukip in Stoke but sank beneath the waves in Copeland, where the Conservatives’ Trudy Harrison won the seat.

In Stoke, a two-point swing away from Labour to the Tories and to Ukip, which if replicated across the country at a general election would mean 15 Conservative gains and would give Theresa May a parliamentary majority of 40.

And in Copeland, a 6.7 per cent swing for Labour to Tory that would see the Conservatives pick up 52 seats from Labour if replicated across the country, giving them a majority of 114.
As the usual trend is for the opposition to decline from its midterm position at a general election, these are not results that indicate Labour will be back in power after the next election.. That holds for Stoke as much as for Copeland.

The last time a governing party won a by-election was 1982 – the overture to a landslide victory. It’s the biggest by-election increase in the vote share of a governing party since 1966 – the prelude to an election in which Harold Wilson increased his majority from 4 to 96.

To put the length of Labour’s dominance in Copeland into perspective: the new Conservative MP was born in 1976. The last Conservative to sit for Copeland, William Nunn, was born in 1879.

It’s a chastening set of results for Ukip, too. The question for them: if they can’t win when Labour is in such difficulties, when will they?

It’s worth noting, too, that whereas in the last parliament, Labour consistently underperformed its poll rating in local elections and by-elections, indicating that the polls were wrong, so far, the results have been in keeping with what the polls suggest. They are understating the Liberal Democrats a little, which is what you’d expect at this stage in the parliament. So anyone looking for comfort in the idea that the polls will be wrong again is going to look a long time. 

Instead, every election and every poll – including the two council elections last night – point in the same direction: the Conservatives have fixed their Ukip problem but acquired a Liberal Democrat one. Labour haven’t fixed their Ukip problem but they’ve acquired a Liberal Democrat one to match.

But that’s just the electoral reality. What about the struggle for political control inside the Labour party?

As I note in my column this week, the settled view of the bulk of Corbyn’s internal critics is that they need to keep quiet and carry on, to let Corbyn fail on its his own terms. That Labour won Stoke but lost Copeland means that consensus is likely to hold.

The group to watch are Labour MPs in what you might call “the 5000 club” – that is, MPs with majorities around the 5000 mark. An outbreak of panic in that group would mean that we were once again on course for a possible leadership bid.

But they will reassure themselves that this result suggests that their interests are better served by keeping quiet at Westminster and pointing at potholes in their constituencies.  After all, Corbyn doesn’t have a long history of opposition to the major employer in their seats.

The other thing to watch from last night: the well-advertised difficulties of the local hospital in West Cumberland were an inadequate defence for Labour in Copeland. Distrust with Labour in the nuclear industry may mean a bigger turnout than we expect from workers in the nuclear industries in the battle to lead Unite, with all the consequences that has for Labour’s future direction.

If you are marking a date in your diary for another eruption of public in-fighting, don’t forget the suggestion from John McDonnell and Diane Abbott that the polls will have turned by the end of the year – because you can be certain that Corbyn’s critics haven’t. But if you are betting on any party leader to lose his job anytime soon, put it on Nuttall, not Corbyn.

 

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