Italy’s politics are broken

Weakness on the left allows Silvio Berlusconi — and even worse — to prosper.

While political debate in Britain is dominated by assessments of the regressive coalition Budget and the Labour leadership election, it is easy to forget what is going on in our European neighbour countries.

Of most interest to the British left should be the turmoil in Italy that could end the career of Silvio Berlusconi, the scandal-ridden and erstwhile pal of Tony Blair. Unfortunately, my fear is that his possible replacement as prime minister would be even worse.

In the roller-coaster that has been Berlusconi's political career, the events of 4 August, when he avoided a humiliating defeat in a vote of confidence (the 630-member Chamber of Deputies voted by 299 in favour, with 229 against) only because 75 of his own deputies abstained, may amount to just a short footnote. But he no longer has a parliamentary majority and may well be forced to call a snap election this autumn because, in Gianfranco Fini, Berlusconi has a new and powerful rival -- one who also has the "Teflon touch" that allows him to keep power despite controversies of a kind that would end most lives in politics.

Berlusconi is justifiably loathed by the centre left in Italy and regarded as a bit of a laughing stock across Europe, but he is a great survivor. A series of corruption and sex scandals, coupled with huge infighting within his parties and two general election defeats, would have finished off the careers of most. But he has been prime minister for nine out of the past 16 years since his Forza Italia party first swept to power, and remains so.

"Fascism is alive"

The make-up of the current Berlusconi government is frightening. It is a mixture of the corrupt right and the extreme right. And in the battle for the soul of the Italian right, Berlusconi, incredibly, is the lesser of two evils.

The man who would be king is Gianfranco Fini -- a man who has either had a "Road to Damascus"-style conversion, or remains a fascist. Fini's political career started in the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI) a far-right party inextricably linked with murderous bombing campaigns and civic violence, particularly in the 1970s.

Having been elected as an MSI MP in 1983, Fini became the party's national secretary in 1988. Back then, Fini was either an unabashed fascist or, at the very least, a staunch admirer of Mussolini. In a series of statements in the early 1990s, he stated that "after almost half a century, fascism is alive", "Mussolini was the greatest Italian statesman of the 20th century" and "fascism has a tradition of honesty, correctness and good government".

In the early 1990s, the MSI (which consistently polled between 5 and 10 per cent from the 1950s to the 1980s) morphed into the Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance) in an effort to become more credible. It described itself as "post-fascist" -- a term that Nick Griffin would probably use to describe the British National Party. It also developed links with the extreme right of the Conservative Party, particularly the now-disbanded Monday Club, and had particularly close links with the Tory MPs Andrew Rosindell and Bill Cash.

Yet Fini is an ambitious man who wanted to cement himself firmly in the mainstream right of Italian politics. The next logical step, which he took in 2008, was to unite his party with Berlusconi's to form the People of Freedom party -- a pretty unlikely name, given Fini's history.

Fini is unquestionably the most dangerous man in Italian politics. Despite his fascist past, he was deputy prime minister and foreign minister between 2001 and 2006. Since 2008, he has been president of the Chamber of Deputies. Now that he sees that Berlusconi is weak, following sex and corruption scandals and an unpopular austerity budget, he and his supporters are angling for the main prize.

Anti-immigrant ticket

Meanwhile, we shouldn't ignore Berlusconi's other coalition partners, the Northern League, which was originally set up to campaign for autonomy for the region of Padania, but in reality is an anti-immigrant and overtly racist party. Indeed, in the European Parliament, the nine Northern League MEPs sit with the UK Independence Party.

We might think it astonishing that a man like Berlusconi is not in prison, let alone that he is prime minister of one of Europe's largest countries, and that the likes of Fini and the Northern League deputies are elected to parliament, never mind government ministers.

But it is also astonishing that the Italian centre left is not in a position to take power convincingly. The centre-left Democratic Party, despite facing a scandal-ridden and unpopular government that is split down the middle, is still below Berlusconi's party -- on 28 per cent, according to the latest opinion polls.

My guess is that Berlusconi will survive once again, as he always has done. If he is forced into calling a snap election this autumn, the chances are that he would just cling to power and should just be able to hold off Fini. The desperately sad thing is that, if the Democratic Party and its allies cannot get their act together, and fast, Berlusconi will probably prove to be the lesser of two evils.

Ben Fox is political adviser to Edward Scicluna MEP, vice-president of the economic and monetary affairs committee of the European Parliament.

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David Cameron’s starter homes: poor policy, but good politics

David Cameron's electoral coalition of buy-to-let retirees and dual-earner couples remains intact: for now.

The only working age demographic to do better under the Coalition was dual-earner couples – without children. They were the main beneficiaries of the threshold raise – which may “take the poorest out of tax” in theory but in practice hands a sizeable tax cut to peope earning above average. They will reap the fruits of the government’s Help to Buy ISAs. And, not having children, they were insulated from cuts to child tax credits, reductions in public services, and the rising cost of childcare. (Childcare costs now mean a couple on average income, working full-time, find that the extra earnings from both remaining in work are wiped out by the costs of care)

And they were a vital part of the Conservatives’ electoral coalition. Voters who lived in new housing estates on the edges of seats like Amber Valley and throughout the Midlands overwhelmingly backed the Conservatives.

That’s the political backdrop to David Cameron’s announcement later today to change planning to unlock new housing units – what the government dubs “Starter Homes”. The government will redefine “affordable housing”  to up to £250,000 outside of London and £450,000 and under within it, while reducing the ability of councils to insist on certain types of buildings. He’ll describe it as part of the drive to make the next ten years “the turnaround decade”: years in which people will feel more in control of their lives, more affluent, and more successful.

The end result: a proliferation of one and two bedroom flats and homes, available to the highly-paid: and to that vital component of Cameron’s coalition: the dual-earner, childless couple, particularly in the Midlands, where the housing market is not yet in a state of crisis. (And it's not bad for that other pillar of the Conservative majority: well-heeled pensioners using buy-to-let as a pension plan.)

The policy may well be junk-rated but the politics has a triple A rating: along with affluent retirees, if the Conservatives can keep those dual-earner couples in the Tory column, they will remain in office for the forseeable future.

Just one problem, really: what happens if they decide they want room for kids? Cameron’s “turnaround decade” might end up in entirely the wrong sort of turnaround for Conservative prospects.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.