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“What are we supposed to say to comrades in town?”: why Italy's centre left is breaking apart

An uneasy truce between the Christian Democrats and post-communists is reaching an end. For Cavriago, it could spell disaster.

At the end of a Saturday-morning town hall meeting in the northern Italian municipality of Cavriago, residents linger by the central piazza gesturing, clamouring and soothing their pain with cigarettes and wine. The topic is politics, and their affliction is the implosion of the ruling centre-left Democratic Party. “It’s hard to understand what happened,” Vincenzo Delmonte says, with a bewildered stare. “One day everything is going fine, and the following morning the left’s big guys walk out of the party, calling for a split. Why? This is madness.”

The Democratic Party is a 2007 experiment that merged Christian Democrats and post-communists under one leadership. It worked locally but the two factions grew increasingly wary of each other on the national stage. Distrust brought compromise; compromise led to quarrels. Then Matteo Renzi, the former party secretary and Italian prime minister until December 2016, exacerbated the tensions by triggering a leadership election.

The post-communist faction, under its former leaders Massimo D’Alema and Pier Luigi Bersani, had announced the break-up at the beginning of February after a year of veiled criticism of Renzi.

Cavriago, the most communist of Italy’s cities, is now split and supporters here are confused. The town has had communist mayors since 1948, and in one of the central squares is Europe’s only bust of Lenin. Here “Christian Democrat” is considered to be a slur, and until recently the city had no patron saint – unheard of in Catholic Italy.

Yet few residents would now follow D’Alema and Bersani in taking down the party from within. “Mainly because we don’t understand what they’re doing,” the Democratic Party constituency secretary, Francesca Bedogni, told me. Although she is from a nearby town, Bedogni knows most Cavriago residents by name. She routinely stops to greet supporters, teenagers approach her to ask if she can drop by their art exhibition, and mums call her to check next week’s school pick-up rota.

“You see, this is real life, this is what happens to people,” Bedogni says. “We worry about our jobs. We help the community to grow stronger and more educated. We solve problems, or at least we try to, and then – boom – you have these people in Rome who wake up and decide it’s a fine morning for secession. Now, how do I explain it to my people over here?”

As she walks around the square in the spring sunshine, she is soon surrounded by residents asking for clues to what is happening inside the party. They gather in a circle, like a support therapy group. Most of them look gloomy and discouraged.

“We learned everything from the newspapers. No MP had the guts to show up to explain what has happened in Rome. Probably because they didn’t know it either,” Matteo Franzoni says. He is 25 years old and he grew up in the party, “but in the past few days, like other supporters, I thought of cancelling my membership”. Bedogni gives him a death stare and he tries to reassure her. “I won’t do it, but I understand people who will.”

The reason for this frustration is easily explained. “First off, you have Trump and Putin, who enjoy watching the world burning down,” the deputy mayor, Stefano Corradi, says as we walk past the Piazza Lenin. “Then you have Brexit, and scary people like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France. Add the xenophobic Northern League and the anti-Euro Five Star Movement in Italy.

“It’s hard to sleep at night. The only positive thing was that the party was strong: we have a prime minister, we govern 15 out of 20 Italian regions. We had a vision for once. But we forgot that the centre left tends to indulge in a self-sabotaging behaviour.”

In the days before February’s schism, the Democrats were ahead in the polls despite Renzi’s defeat in December’s constitutional referendum. The constant scandals around Rome’s mayor, Virginia Raggi, have diminished the popularity of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement; and without Silvio Berlusconi, centre-right parties were polling in single digits. Yet it all changed in two days.

Even over a glass of wine, the deputy mayor looks disheartened. “There’s no clash of ideals, no alternative view of the party or back-up plan for the country,” Corradi says. “There’s only political opportunism: with a proportional system, defectors now have more possibilities to get re-elected in parliament. But what about us? What about the party? What are we supposed to say to comrades in town?”

Bedogni has only one suggestion: “We have to brace [ourselves] for impact and hope for the best.” Yet the chances of the Democratic Party surviving the split are small, especially after the recent announcement of a corruption investigation into Matteo Renzi’s father, Tiziano, and Italy’s sports minister, Luca Lotti. Whether Renzi can overcome the allegations to make a comeback in the forthcoming leadership election remains to be seen.

For now, the government is limping on with a weakened cabinet and a reduced majority, but will probably be forced to call an early election by the end of the year. Italy’s proportional representation system and a highly fragmented political environment will indeed be an obstacle to the next prime minister forming a stable coalition. And the chances are that the instability will push the country deeper into a spiral of economic stagnation and political instability.

When Silvio Berlusconi governed Italy, prime-time TV shows often portrayed the centre-left opposition as the sketch comedy character “Mr Tafazzi”, a confused mime artist who would beat his own privates with a wooden club. The parody outraged the post-communist intelligentsia, who dismissed the idea that they were self-referential and masochistic, but voters and viewers laughed at the farce and Silvio Berlusconi’s ratings soared.

Twenty years on, the Italian political landscape has changed “but [for] one tiny detail”, the deputy mayor confesses. “We are probably Mr Tafazzi after all.”

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain

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Prostate cancer research has had a £75m welcome boost. Now let’s treat another killer of men

Each week in the UK, 84 men kill themselves – three times the number of women.

The opening months of 2018 have seen a flurry of activity in men’s health. In February, figures were published showing that the number of male patients dying annually from prostate cancer – around 12,000 – has overtaken female deaths from breast cancer for the first time. Whether coincidence or not, this news was followed shortly by two celebrities going public with their personal diagnoses of prostate cancer – Stephen Fry, and former BBC Breakfast presenter Bill Turnbull.

Fry and Turnbull used their profiles to urge other men to visit their doctors to get their PSA levels checked (a blood test that can be elevated in prostate cancer). Extrapolating from the numbers who subsequently came to ask me about getting screened, I would estimate that 300,000 GP consultations were generated nationwide on the back of the publicity.

Well-meaning as Fry’s and Turnbull’s interventions undoubtedly were, they won’t have made a jot of positive difference. In March, a large UK study confirmed findings from two previous trials: screening men by measuring PSA doesn’t actually result in any lives being saved, and exposes patients to harm by detecting many prostate cancers – which are often then treated aggressively – that would never have gone on to cause any symptoms.

This, then, is the backdrop for the recent declaration of “war on prostate cancer” by Theresa May. She announced £75m to fund research into developing an effective screening test and refining treatments. Leaving aside the headline-grabbing opportunism, the prospect of additional resources being dedicated to prostate cancer research is welcome.

One of the reasons breast cancer has dropped below prostate cancer in the mortality rankings is a huge investment in breast cancer research that has led to dramatic improvements in survival rates. This is an effect both of earlier detection through screening, and improved treatment outcomes. A similar effort directed towards prostate cancer will undoubtedly achieve similar results.

The reason breast cancer research has been far better resourced to date must be in part because the disease all too often affects women at a relatively young age – frequently when they have dependent children, and ought to have many decades of life to look forward to. So many family tragedies have been caused by breast malignancy. Prostate cancer, by contrast, while it does affect some men in midlife, is predominantly a disease of older age. We are more sanguine about a condition that typically comes at the end of a good innings. As such, prostate cancer research has struggled to achieve anything like the funding momentum that breast cancer research has enjoyed. May’s £75m will go some way to redressing the balance.

In March, another important men’s health campaign was launched: Project 84, commissioned by the charity Calm. Featuring 84 haunting life-size human sculptures by American artist Mark Jenkins, displayed on the rooftops of ITV’s London studios, the project aims to raise awareness of male suicide. Each week in the UK, 84 men kill themselves – three times the number of women. Suicide is the leading cause of male death under 45 – men who frequently have dependent children, and should have many decades of life to look forward to. So many family tragedies.

I well remember the stigma around cancer when I was growing up in the 1970s: people hardly dared breathe the word lest they became in some way tainted. Now we go on fun runs and wear pink ribbons to help beat the disease. We need a similar shift in attitudes to mental health, so that it becomes something people are comfortable talking about. This is gradually happening, particularly among women. But we could do with May declaring war on male suicide, and funding research into the reasons why so many men kill themselves, and why they don’t seem to access help that might just save their lives. 

Phil Whitaker’s sixth novel, “You”, is published by Salt

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge