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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How gendered are this year’s most popular Christmas present toys?

Meet the groups fighting back against the gendering of children’s toys over the festive season.

You’re a young girl. You go into WH Smith’s to pick out a colouring book for Christmas. You could buy the Girls’ World Doodling and Colouring Book, a "gorgeous gift for any girl". In this, the pictures range "from flowers, fans, feathers, to birds, buttons and butterflies". Or Colouring for Girls: Pretty Pictures to Colour and Complete, where you can colour in "beautiful birds, seashells, cupcakes, pretty patterns and lots more". The counterpart Boys’ Colouring Book has a range beyond buttons and feathers: "Planes, trains and automobiles – plus the odd alien spacecraft".

In the run-up to Christmas, this kind of gendered marketing is rife, particularly finding its way into the predominantly pink colour scheme of girls’ toys.

Take Amazon’s page "2016 Toys for Girls": a pink icecream trolly set, a pink light-up tablet, pink building blocks, pink and purple friendship bracelets and so on.

There are several groups taking action against the "pinkification" of children’s toys. One of these is Let Toys Be Toys, a group that targets large supermarkets with the aim of reducing the gendered marketing used on children’s goods.

The Let Toys Be Toys blog focuses on specific examples of targeted gendering within shops, catalgoues and online. A particularly revealing example of how prevalent this has become in recent years is in two pictures published from the Argos catalogue, one from the Seventies, and one from nowadays. The eye-wateringly pink page from now makes the 1970s page look dour by comparison. The lack of change over four decades of what kind of products are marketed at girls is equally striking:

Despite the efforts of campaign groups such as Let Toys Be Toys, the prevalence of gendering within the highest-rated children's gifts for 2016 is staggering.

Look no further than the Ultimate Christmas Gifts Guide from Toys R Us. One of the most immediately obvious examples is the way in which the pink/blue colour schemes are used to market identical products. This is repeated again and again:

This identical drawing board is uniquely packaged to the binary colour codes that are so common within children's toys stores.

The same applies with this keyboard, where the young girl and boy are pictured almost identically, save for the coordination of their clothes to the colour of their toys.

The message is a hugely limiting one: one that allows little movement away from the binary of pink/blue. The effects of this are longstanding. A recent poll from YouGov shows that "only a third of parents approve of boys playing with Barbies". The data goes on to explain that "while most parents approve of girls playing with toys marketed to boys, a minority of adults approve of the opposite".

Images like this were the inspiration behind Let Toys Be Toys, back in 2012. The campaign began on Mumsnet, the forum for parents, on a section called "AIBU", which stands for "Am I Being Unreasonable?". One parent posted the question: "Am I being unreasonable to think that the gendered way that children’s toys are marketed has got completely out of hand?" The heated discussion that followed led to a sub-section with the founding memebers of Let Toys Be Toys.

This aside, Let Toys Be Toys has made signifcant progess since it began. It targets large stores, focusing on gendered signage both in store and online. In their four years, they have campaigned for signs like "girls' toys" and "boys' toys" to be removed from retailers such as Boots, Debenhams, Morrisons, Toys R Us and TK Maxx. It is the go-to hashtag on Twitter for examples of the often shocking gendering of children’s toys.

"This is ostensibly about toys, but what we’re really talking about is gender stereotypes that shape our children’s worlds in an apparently very unassuming way," says Jess Day, a Let Toys Be Toys campaigner. "It seems very innocent, but actually what we’re doing is giving children very clear instructions about how to be a man and how to be a woman."

These clear instructions work beyond colour coordination: where girls are sold the image of the pink "girly girl", for instance. This is evident in children’s fancy dress costumes. Early Learning Centre’s (ELC) children’s fancy dress range imposes very rigid gender roles. To give examples from the current christmas range:


Credit: ELC

Again, the predominant colour sceme is pink. The roles offered are mainly fairies and princessess: generally make-believe.

“I found it really interesting that there were almost no ads showing girls doing anything," comments Day. "Physically they were very passive. The only physical activity we saw girls doing was dancing. They weren't really moving around much."


Image: ELC

By contrast, young boys are offered the possibility of pretending to be a firefighter, a policeman or a doctor, among other practical, professional roles.

This year's Toys R Us Christmas advert follows on from this, with girls mainly dressed as princesses, and boys dressed as knights and kings. Much like the pink/blue colour scheme that we see all over children's shops, these fancy dress costumes create an unnatural binary. They send out a message that restricts any kind of subversion of these two supposedly polar opposites.

What's more, the subtext is one that is deeply rooted in expectations, building up a picture where careers such as that of a policeman and fireman come more naturally to boys, who have been socialised into these roles from childhood through fancy dress costumes of this type. Instead, girls are later forced to learn that most of us aren't going to become princessess, and none of us fairies – and so the slow process begins to unlearn these expectations.

There are certainly groups who try to counteract this. Manufacturers such as the toy brand IamElemental aims to break down the gendered distinctions between boys' toys and girls' toys, by creating female action figures.

“We always say that we are not anti-doll or anti-princess, but that if you give a girl a different toy, she will tell a different story," says Julie Kershaw, a member of the organisation. "As the mom of two boys, I always say that it’s just as important to put a strong healthy female action figure in a boy’s hand as it is a girl’s”.

Like the campaigners behind Let Toys Be Toys, IamElemental sees children’s toys as the starting point.

“We want kids – both girls and boys  – to internalise these messages early and often,” says Kershaw. “While there are certainly biological differences between girls and boys, gender-specific toys are not a biologically dictated truth. Toys are not “for girls” or “for boys”  – toys are for play; for exploration and creative expression.”

This attitude is ingrained in a child’s early years. Only through reconfiguring the gender sterotypes of the toys we buy for our children can we begin to break down their expectations of how to behave in age. We challenge you this Christmas to avoid these highly gendered products. Below are our three favourite Christmas presents for children this year, for girls AND boys, as approved by Let Toys Be Toys:

Mini Table Tennis (£7.99)


From: The Little Toy Box

Djeco Intro to Origami - Animals (£3.99)

From: Rachel's Toy Shop

Seedling Make Your Own Dino Softie! - Dino(sew)or Kit (£5)


From: Gifts For Little Ones