The under-reported Italian revolution

In Bologna, the student city in the ideological heartland of the Italian left, the youth are rising

The young man grips the megaphone, lamplight illuminating his features as he speaks animatedly in Spanish about the need to "find jobs and overthrow the government". The ring of faces clap and cheer as he rounds off, beer bottles held aloft as someone in the crowd shouts out, "Bravo!" Because this isn't Madrid, or Barcelona, or even Spain. This is the city of Bologna, in Italy, finally making its voice heard.

The significance of Silvio Berlusconi's unprecedented election defeat on 31 May in both his home town of Milan and the usually safe seat of Naples cannot be overstated, as it points to the real possibility of political reform in the country.

But this result, rather than being a harbinger of change, merely marks the most recent (albeit most concrete) manifestation of the turning tide of public opinion in Italy. This is a tide that the population of Bologna – the student city in the ideological heartland of the Italian left – has been riding for years.

According to the national statistics office, in 2010 one in five young Italians was classified as Neet (not in education, employment or training), the highest proportion of "idle" youths in the European Union.

So is it any wonder that the push for change in the country is being driven by this generation of "lost" youths?

Corruption and philandering aside, it is becoming increasingly clear to the average young Italian that their prime minister has failed them. Miserably. And they have had enough.

Hope is in the air

While Spain's "indignados" have made international headlines, there's a quieter series of revolutions taking place in Italy.

One such "revolution" is currently running its headquarters from a pile of sleeping bags and cushions in the city's main square, watched over by the erotic statue of Neptune, his strategically placed hand and entourage of scantily clad nymphs a favourite with tourists. But the tourists visiting now have something rather different to take holiday snaps of.

On 20 May, and inspired by events in Spain and the Middle East, several hundred protesters took to the streets of Bologna in a peaceful (and mostly unreported) occupation of Piazza del Nettuno, Neptune's Piazza, in the city centre.

Squatting on the stone cobbles with the others, squeezed between the cold, naked statues and this beating mass of humanity, I too couldn't help but be overcome by a feeling of hope. The atmosphere was jubilant; the crowd infected by their own sense of power and the sensation that they are taking control of their lives.

That was twelve days ago. They are still there, and as I write this post I speak on the phone to Antonio, one of the protest's organisers, who describes the scene to me.

"There are 30 or 40 of us here permanently, sleeping in the street," he says, "but during the day, and especially in the evenings, as many as two or three hundred people come and join us.

"People are tired of being on the periphery of their own lives," he goes on. "Citizens want to feel that they are protagonists on the political stage."

The system cannot hold

Scenes like this are becoming increasingly frequent in Bologna, where friends on the radical scene speak animatedly to me about recent demonstrations – numbering thousands of individuals – that shut down traffic around the city after protesters spilled out on to the motorway.

Across the rest of the country, too, copycat protests are springing up in the most unlikely places. A photograph in La Repubblica, one of Italy's few newspapers that are not part of Berlusconi's media empire, shows a protester on the Spanish Steps in Rome holding a placard that reads: "We are not against the system, the system is against us."

The tide may be turning, but it is a slow and uncertain transition from a handful of committed activists sleeping on the streets to a full-scale political revolution. For those camped out in the squares of cities across Italy, Europe and the Middle East, one can only hope that the social and political winds that brought them there continue to blow in their favour, and do not turn against them.

"We need to do this," Antonio tells me. "The people need us."

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is a freelance journalist currently living and working in London. She has written for the Sunday Express, the Daily Telegraph and the Economist online.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is the editor and founder of The Arab Review, an online journal covering arts and culture in the Arab world. She also works as a freelance journalist specialising in the politics of the Middle East.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses