No laughing matter

Comedian Beppe Grillo's Five-Star Movement is a serious disruption to the usual way of doing politics.

Imagine this as a new political movement’s strategy guide: Rule no. 1: don’t give interviews to the national press, radio and television; Rule no. 2: our leader, who - unlike the rest of us - is very famous, will not stand as a candidate in any elections; Rule no. 3: when we qualify for lavish state funding, we will refuse it.

I could go on, but it would read like a long list of ‘how not to win elections and influence people’. Yet these are just some of the rules of Italy’s Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S – Five-Star Movement), which in the past year has gone from under 5 per cent in polls to almost 20. In the most recent pre-election surveys, it is running third at around 17 per cent. This is despite none of its members having been interviewed in the Italian media during the campaign – and in a country where the use of television in particular has played a major role in political success, most notably that of Silvio Berlusconi.

Founded in October 2009, the M5S is like no other political movement in Europe. Yes, similar to the Pirate Parties, it places great importance in the Internet. But the M5S is much more than that and the ‘Internet-party’ label is reductive. Rather, the M5S communicates and organizes on two levels: the web and locally. According to the Movement’s ‘non-statute’, its headquarters is the website of one of Italy’s most famous comedians, Beppe Grillo (for almost a decade, his site has also been the country’s most-read blog). Online and offline activities complement one another. Grillo has constantly encouraged his supporters to discuss – both on the internet and in physical locations – the issues he raises on the blog as they relate to local questions in their cities and towns. This has been done through the creation of Beppe Grillo meet-up groups which have formed the nucleus of the movement’s presence all over the country. Both online and offline, activists and supporters discuss the key themes of the M5S: sustainable development, anti-corruption, transparency, direct democracy, the creation of a genuinely free – and fairer – market, a radical overhaul of Italy’s political class and democracy, opposition to austerity and interference in domestic politics by European elites.

While much has been written about Grillo and the M5S in both the Italian and international media, we know very little about those who sympathize with the Movement and what their grievances are. This is particularly true of the Movement’s online followers. To provide a first answer to this, we conducted a survey with Demos of almost 2000 Facebook fans of Grillo and the M5S. As regards who they are, we found that they tend to be male (63 per cent), over the age of 30 (64 per cent) and better educated than the average Italian. 19 per cent, however, were unemployed, as opposed to a national average of circa 11 per cent.

Socio-economic issues worry M5S supporters far more than socio-cultural ones. When asked to list their top two concerns, 62 per cent cited the economic situation and 61 per cent unemployment, with taxation in third place (43 per cent). Despite their fears about Italy’s economy and their own prospects, immigration was seen an opportunity for the country by 56 per cent of those surveyed (well above the Italian average in national surveys of 28 per cent). Rather, what M5S supporters are angry about is the state of democracy in Italy and Europe. 83 per cent stated that they were ‘not at all satisfied’ with Italian democracy and only 8 per cent said they trusted Mario Monti’s technocratic government – abysmally low, but still higher than the 3 per cent who trusted the main political parties and the 2 per cent who trusted parliament. The European Union fared better, but only by comparison, with just 20 per cent of respondents saying they trusted it. Strikingly, the only times when M5S supporters responded positively were when asked if they trusted the Internet (76 per cent) and small-medium enterprises (61 per cent). Combined with just 11 per cent saying they trusted the press and 4 per cent the television, these findings seemed to tally with the communication and mobilization strategies of the M5S. As mentioned above, these focus on the internet and the locality, while ignoring the media which is cast as being at the service of the parties and other elites.

So what now for the M5S? It seems clear from our findings that the Movement is pushing the right buttons for its followers, although – as with all new movements – there is a sizable risk that the discontented supporting it now will also become dissatisfied with the M5S after it enters parliament. On that last point, it is inevitable that the presence of a large number of novice deputies will create organizational and communication problems for the M5S. The Movement will have to prove that it is not another personal party, in a country well used to personal parties. And it will have to balance the expectations and grievances of its followers with the realities of what it can actually achieve. Whichever way the Five-Star Movement story finishes, however, it has proved that you can mobilize discontent in crisis-hit Europe quickly, using innovative combinations of strategies most of Italy’s mainstream politicians would have laughed at a few years ago. They’re not laughing now.

Duncan McDonnell is a Marie Curie Fellow at the Department of Political and Social Sciences in European University Institute in Florence.

The Demos Report ‘New Political Actors in Europe: Beppe Grillo and the M5S’ is available for download, free of charge, here.

Beppe Grillo. Source: Getty

Duncan McDonnell is a Marie Curie Fellow at the Department of Political and Social Sciences in European University Institute in Florence. He tweets at @duncanmcdonnell.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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