What the UK left can learn from Italy’s new Sardines movement

The progressive group provided something that had been missing from the left political scene: vibrancy, belonging, and an emotional narrative. 

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“It's not a regional election – it's a lifestyle choice.” That was how Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s far-right Lega party, trailed his party’s bid to oust the left from its traditional stronghold of Emilia-Romagna.

Following Lega’s advance at the 2018 Italian general election, Salvini was so confident of victory that he taunted the Democratic Party’s (PD) local leadership: revered and legendary old communists, he declared, “would today cross the street” to avoid meeting the present-day leadership. Today, said Salvini, the old communists would vote for Lega.

But on 26 January, Salvini lost and the left won. A centre-left alliance led by regional president Stefano Bonaccini achieved 48 per cent of the vote, while the right-wing bloc trailed with 45 per cent, and the populist Five Star Movement fell below 5 per cent. 

That was because the often fractious and demoralised left made its own lifestyle choice: to get serious about winning by actually listening to the voters it has lost. Though it’s only one region, and Salvini still intends to topple the centre-left coalition in Rome, the left’s victory in Emilia-Romagna is being studied closely by social democrats across Europe.

Arun Chaudhary, a political consultant who worked with the Italian left during the campaign, attributes the victory to two main factors. First came the emergence of “the Sardines” – a protest movement against Salvini, in which people packed a medieval square in the region’s capital Bologna, in opposition to the racism and xenophobia of the right. This was followed by a decision among the left parties to run a united campaign, which included the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), the left-wing Emilia-Romagna Coraggiosa (ERC) party, the Greens and two liberal centrist parties.

“When people talk about the decline of the Italian left, they’re really talking about the decline of community,” says Chaudhary. “The Communist Party was people’s life, but now they just get their information from the news. Lega preys on people’s isolation: it provides a political culture in a way that the PD does not. The Sardines movement was an invitation to be part of a community; it filled a vacuum.”

Though the Sardines’ activism was not initiated by the PD, it provided something that’s been missing from the left political scene: vibrancy, belonging and an emotional narrative. Elly Schlein, a leading figure in the ERC party, which was part of the left alliance, shot into the limelight when she confronted Salvini on the street five days before the regional election. 

Given his obsession with stopping immigration, she asked him, why did his government fail to attend crucial EU negotiations over the Dublin Convention? The video shows Salvini typing into his phone in silence for 80 seconds, before dismissing Schlein and being swept away by his security guards.

Their face-off went viral on Twitter and Schlein, a former PD MEP, won the highest personal vote of any councillor in the region. But she says the left’s achievement is down to a wider change of campaigning style.

“We did a listening tour of the region and people came up with concrete proposals,” Schlein recalls. Activists from ERC, which was only formed two months ago, toured workplaces, even sitting down with groups of Lega voters to hear their concerns. “We came, met the fishermen for example, took notes, tried to listen even when people were angry. We showed that there's another way of doing politics.”

The listening exercise resulted in two main proposals: a pact for the climate and a pact for jobs. The left imposed these demands on Bonaccini as conditions of their support. As a result, the new regional government has pledged to plant five million trees, provide free public transport for young people under 25 years old, decarbonise the public infrastructure and build new flood defences. Meanwhile, 132,000 young people who are not in work or education will be prioritised for the vacancies created. 

Campaigners are well aware from doorstep encounters that the PD itself is a damaged brand. Led for years by Matteo Renzi, the self-styled Italian Blair, its bureaucracy became so technocratic and incapable of engaging voters that, with the rise of the far right, some senior figures told me, two years ago, that social democracy was “finished”.

But Bonaccini's personal authority as a competent administrator, and the emergence of new, charismatic figures on the left such as Schlein, allowed activists from both the party’s left and its right, from pro-EU liberal and green parties, to be part of a project that was untainted by the PD’s damaged brand.

There are lessons for the left across Europe, including in the UK, though the fractured nature of the Italian centre-left is spectacularly unique. First, that if the social-democratic brand is damaged, it might be more effective to fold it into something bigger – an electoral pact that can stretch from the anti-capitalist left through to greens and liberal centrists.

Second, that it is possible to reconnect with working-class voters who’ve swung to the authoritarian right, so long as you make a point of listening to what they say, and stop telling them their concerns don't matter.

Third, and this is possibly unpalatable to many involved in Labour’s current post-mortem, even a radical economic programme has to be focused. You don't have to be able to read Italian to understand the difference between Coraggiosa’s manifesto and, say, one of the Labour regional manifestoes from last December: the Italian version runs to just 646 words.

Fourth, mass movements matter. The Sardines movement, which was set up by young activists, moved beyond the traditional format of the counter-demonstration against the right. It was an expression of progressive identity; it used alternative symbolism – the cut-out sardines, blue balloons, umbrellas on a rainy day, the physical packing of the squares themselves – to create a narrative that the right couldn't handle.

“The Sardines alone,” says Chaudhary, “were probably worth three percentage points”. Which is exactly the winning margin between the left and right. I don't think there is a direct read-off from the Emilia-Romagna experience for Britain’s Labour Party: its problem is not (yet) fragmentation; it has certainly left behind its Blairite legacy and it is no longer denuded of active members. 

But the listening exercise conducted by Schlein and her colleagues, and the creation of a non-party movement to do the cultural heavy lifting against the right bear further study. So does the use of a broad electoral pact to defeat the alliance of mainstream conservatism with the far right.

Though Clive Lewis, the only Labour leadership contender to advocate this, was unceremoniously ignored by most on the party’s left, the scale of the mountain Labour has to climb makes every example where it works worthy of attention.

Chaudhary, who worked in the White House under Barack Obama, and runs a political consultancy named Committee, thinks there are general lessons to be drawn for social democracy all over the world.

“You've got to reach out to reluctant voters, or non-voters, who like what you're offering but don’t like the bullshit – just as we found in Britain with Labour leavers in December. I think there’s a consensus about what the centre-left can be, it’s just that the various political establishments scattered around the world just aren't up for it.”

Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News, he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His latest book is Clear Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being.

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