Time for a big party

Observations on Italy

Launching a process virtually unheard of in Europe, almost 3.5 million Italians turned out on Sunday 14 October to pay a euro each to vote in the "primaries" for a new Democratic Party. Walter Veltroni, Rome's popular, left-wing but very pragmatic mayor, was given an overwhelming mandate to lead a new, centre-left party into the next general election.

Born out of long-held ambitions of former communists like Veltroni to merge democrats of the left with progressive elements among one-time rivals from the defunct Christian Democrats, the new party becomes the largest in parliament with about a third of seats. And, given the precarious composition of Prime Minister Romano Prodi's broad coalition government, supported for now by Veltroni, the next election could happen at any time.

After 15 years of steadily fragmenting factions, left and right, the new Democratic Party believes it can steer Italy towards a two-party system.

One old communist told Radio Popolare of his sense of amazement that he was voting for the same party as a friend who had been a Christian Democrat until its collapse amid the Tangentopoli bribery scandals of the early 1990s that destroyed the established parties.

Yet, despite Veltroni's aim to be all-embracing, a sizeable section of Italy's left feels he is betraying their legacy. The Rome mayor has been accused of abandoning the workers and caving in to Confindustria, Italy's main employers' organisation, particularly over a package of labour and pension reforms that Prodi will soon present to parliament.

Liberazione, the daily newspaper of the Communist Refoundation Party, paid tribute to the high turnout but accused Veltroni of using the language of the left while competing with the right on its own territory - for example, by backing mayors who want to expel illegal immigrants. The editorial went on to express the fear that Italy's once-powerful trade unions were becoming "spectators"; the "real" left had to push ahead with its own alliances, it said.

The first challenge to the Veltroni-Prodi leadership comes a week after the primaries when communists and trade unions take to the streets to defend labour rights. Prodi's government draws comfort from a nationwide referendum this month that showed 78 per cent support for the proposed labour-pension reforms. Nonetheless, the 22 per cent against form a militant core that can undermine his weak coalition.

In contrast to Liberazione, the communist daily Manifesto has backed Veltroni in a front-page commentary, saying the dream had become reality and now the new party has to produce results. After a summer of anti-Establishment rallies, led by the acerbic comic Beppe Grillo, who has given new life to Italy's periodic movement of anti-politics, Manifesto expressed relief that so many Italians have shown that they remain engaged.

"Italy is a country with a passion for politics. . . But for a long time this passion has been manifested in little things that did not change the course," it warned Veltroni.

Guy Dinmore is the Financial Times correspondent in Rome

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s afraid of Michael Moore?

Getty
Show Hide image

The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times