The political tide turns in Italy

Silvio Berlusconi's fragile grip on power seems to be slipping as Italians vote against his policies

The first I heard of the news was an excited phone call from my father, who delivered a gruff, breathless cry of victory down the line: "We got him!"

Today saw the results of four referendum votes in Italy to repeal Berlusconi-era legislation on nuclear power, water privatisation and trial immunity for government ministers. The last of these has been fundamental in allowing the semi-despotic prime minister to continue his rule free of the tiresome hassle of legal action on charges of corruption and sexual harassment.

This referendum has finally given Italian voters the opportunity to bring the charade to an end, with a resounding 95 per cent of voters coming down against the government's policies. This represents a huge victory for the ideological left in the country, who have been conducting a frenzied campaign against the prime minister in the preceding weeks.

But more than that, this vote represents a fundamental, ground-level shift in Italian politics. No longer can Berlusconi be upheld as the licentious, yet charming rogue who all Italians secretly aspire to be. In the international community, his continual grip on power has been regarded with a form of open-mouthed incredulity, tempered with mild amusement at the poor, delusional voters who keep him in the top spot. Not anymore.

Italians have come out in their thousands -- the turnout for the referendums was 57 per cent, easily surpassing the 50 per cent quorum needed to validate the vote -- to express their deep dissatisfaction and disassociation with their increasingly beleaguered ruler. Couple today's result with Berlusconi's heavy loss in last month's local elections, and the message is resoundingly clear.

Italians, it seems, have finally woken up to what the rest of the world has known for years - that their prime minister is nothing but an orange-skinned, white-toothed buffoon, masquerading as an intelligent life-form. And they have had enough.

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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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