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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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