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.

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Voted Remain? How you can use the general election to kick out hard Brexiteers

Open Britain, the European Movement and Britain for Europe will be sending volunteers to assist MPs who oppose hard Brexit. 

There’s no escaping the fact that Britain’s impending departure from the European Union hangs over this general election and all of the other issues it will throw up. Those who believe in an open, tolerant Britain, with strong links in our interests to our European neighbours, have a duty to stand up and fight against a destructive hard Brexit.

The Prime Minister made it very clear when she fired the starting gun on this general election that she felt this election would be about one thing and one thing only – Brexit. On the steps of 10 Downing Street, she called out all those who have raised valid questions about her approach to Brexit for “political game-playing”, and was unapologetically explicit in her aim to “make it harder for opposition politicians who want to stop me from getting the job done”, and to “make me stronger.”

This government has decided to pull the UK out of the single market and the customs union – and all the proven benefits they bring – before we have even got to the negotiating table. Ministers have discarded the best economic option from the get go, and persist in the belief that the nightmare scenario – Brexit with no deal, defaulting onto World Trade Organisation rules – would be “OK”, as Boris Johnson has said. They have failed to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the UK. The government appears intent on a destructive hard Brexit that will put jobs at risk, cause investment to decrease and prices to rise. Pro-Europeans, of all parties and none, have a duty to stand up and fight against that hard Brexit path.

That is why Open Britain has come together with the European Movement and Britain for Europe to take the fight to hard Brexiteers on the ground in this election campaign. As the three biggest pro-European groups in Britain, with more than 600,000 supporters between us, we have volunteer groups the length and breadth of Britain.

We will be directing our activists to key seats during the election. In half of these, we will be challenging supporters of hard Brexit, like Iain Duncan Smith, Steve Baker, and Kate Hoey. Open Britain volunteers will get involved in the campaign for the candidate who is challenging them.

The other half are seats held by an MP who has been vocal in opposing a hard Brexit. These stretch from Lewes and St Ives to Belfast East and Edinburgh South. We are urging our activists to get involved in any way they want to and in whatever way will help the specific campaigns on the ground in those key seats, with the aim of securing the greatest possible representation of MPs who will fight against hard Brexit and for an open Britain in the next Parliament.

If we succeed in doing so, we can build a brighter future for Britain. We can stop this government cashing a blank cheque for hard Brexit, which would undermine our trading, security and diplomatic relationships with our European partners. We can secure a meaningful final vote on the Brexit deal for MPs, so they can hold the government to account for the divide between their rhetoric and reality. And we can put forward an alternative vision for Britain – one where jobs and businesses are protected, our workers’ rights and consumer protections are maintained, and Britain stays open and internationalist. If you would like to join us in this campaign, you can find out more details of how to get involved on our website.

James McGrory is the co-executive director of Open Britain.

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