Italy’s elections and the European “misunderstanding”

Does the political return of Berlusconi represent a realistic danger for Western democracy?

Will Italy’s parties be able to establish a proper government? How long will this last before calling for elections again? These are hectic times for European politics. A weak leadership is evidently part of a European landscape characterised by an inability to cope with the economic crisis and, in some cases, a popular disillusionment with the same process of European integration. Anti-EU propaganda is unsurprisingly getting stronger across the old continent. Socially and politically, all this may generate an increasingly painful impact. Along with a group of other southern countries such as Greece and Spain, Italy is one of the main areas where the future of the same Euro-project, and of western economy too, is being played out. 

The Italian peninsula is in a state of agitation following an election where political coalitions were unable to get a realistic parliamentary majority. In truth, the electoral result showed not only the (now “historic”) inability of the centre-left to deal with Silvio Berlusconi, but also the massive victory of the Five Stars movement, the under-funded and recent group led by comedian Beppe Grillo. These elections demonstrated the impressive endurance of Berlusconism, and dealt a tremendous blow to Mario Monti, as well as the European Central Bank and other overseas political and economic actors (including Germany), which fully supported him.

International eyes across the Atlantic are therefore focusing again, and with some preoccupation, on Italian affairs. In particular, there are questions about the endurance of the Italian economy with a non-technocratic governmental phase and poor government stability. Another concern is whether the political return of Berlusconi represents a realistic danger for Western democracy at large. Given this, and for a number of other reasons, many world leaders and international institutions hoped and, implicitly or explicitly, backed another Monti’s leadership. Yet, they showed only a very limited knowledge of the Italian context (and Monti’s electoral strength), and  of people’s disillusionment and the country’s moral crisis.

International pressures on national politics might, at times, lead to tricky outcomes too. The Cold War years are, moreover, well behind us. Where is the democratic legitimacy of these often perceived “intrusions” in domestic affairs? Would this pressure be acceptable or well received in countries such as, for example, Britain or Denmark? In some cases, the missing real political unity of the EU would suggest using diplomacy and international relations more proficiently. Numbers (and votes) are numbers after all, and they are supposed to be weighted similarly in all western nations. It is true that international elites were, for example, rightly worried about the overtly anti-EU and anti-Merkel rhetoric of Berlusconi. However, what have they done to stop this? Did they pay the same attention when world-leading economists criticise austerity plans and EU policies? 

Foreign politicians who offer suggestions to Italians on how to vote, or who overtly criticise the media tycoon, are and will be seen suspiciously by some sectors of the electorate – and it is now clear that this is not only an Italian trend. Instead, they gave vigor to Berlusconi’s extremist discourse: portraying himself as the champion of Italy’s freedom against the plot orchestrated by financial markets, the European Central Bank, the EU, German banks, the US administration, and a (nebulous) international technocracy. In truth, intercontinental preoccupations with the current state of democracy in a major Mediterranean nation are – at least partially – welcome and accurate. Smart observers may, however, wonder where is the “novel story” here, or why the leading political and financial global institutions have not acted before. Berlusconi led his first government with the presence of a neo-fascist party and the promoters of a sort of autonomy for the northern Italian regions in the early 1990s. This idea of “bad” EU, Germany, and banks, similarly contributed to an overall picture which helped Grillo’s propaganda (though this is far from being the only reason for his success).

Monti’s semi-technocratic and serious platform certainly offered, in other words, a better electoral option to voters, but this proved not to be enough. Without any form of violence and street riots (like in other southern European democracies), this vote represented, in many ways, the Italian response to these peculiar European socio-economic (and political) times. However, to avoid the recurrence of these types of democratic emergencies in Italian history, it would now be time to promote a genuine transformation in national and popular culture to overthrow some obsolete principles and ideas – like the one promoted by Berlusconism. It is, nonetheless, too early to say if the “common people” elected by Grillo will be the best answer to all this. International elites cannot, however, really do a lot about it.

Andrea Mammone is a historian of modern and contemporary Europe at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is author of a forthcoming book on transnational neo-fascism (Cambridge University Press) and coedited “Italy Today. The Sick Man of Europe” (Routledge). He has also been a commentator on the far right, Italian politics, and other European affairs, for the International Herald Tribune, The Independent, Foreign Affairs, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, The Observer, BBC, and Voice of America, among others.

A woman walks passed an electoral information banner at a polling station in Rome. Photograph: Getty Images

Andrea Mammone is a historian of modern and contemporary Europe at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

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

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide