Screen Shot 2013-02-26 at 18.38.29One election – in Italy – has just concluded. Another – the by election in Eastleigh – takes place on Thursday. Each in their own way shines a light on the deficiencies of modern representative politics, and there are some contrasts between the two votes that I would like to draw.

Italy first. The supposed shock was Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S) gaining 25.5% of the vote, making it the largest single party in the chamber of deputies. M5S was about 10% up on what pollsters had predicted.

His success has prompted the quip that half of Italians voted for jokers (as Berlusconi too did better than expected – some interesting thoughts on this here), but there are three things about Grillo’s rise that make it interesting. The first is that, like some other populist movements (such as Jobbik in Hungary), a masterful use of the internet was the primary tool to network activists. However, secondly, and unlike Jobbik, M5S’s message was not xenophobic – it filled an anti politics void as Alberto Nardelli elegantly explains. Thirdly, Grillo’s message is explicitly against the rest of the Italian political class that – in his view – has let the country down.

Faced with a lineup of a moribund traditional centre left, an outgoing technocratic Prime Minister who had imposed an austerity programme, and the return of Berlusconi, it is not hard to understand Grillo’s appeal. The Demos report (PDF here) about his success sums it up thus:

Grillo has tapped into major concerns about the way politics is being conducted in Italy. By standing on an anti-establishment platform, and using modern communications, he has combined medium and message to create a genuinely novel type of movement. Grillo’s remarkable success shows the effectiveness of communicating and organising through the internet – and the potential that has to speak directly to millions of people: especially those who are disenchanted with existing political structures.

In short, Grillo and M5S might not be responsible, but he at least gives the impression that he is honest, and that counts. To reject the result as somehow illegitimate misses the point (@kosmopolit’s tweet sums up the revisionism) – the reasons 1 in 4 Italians supported him must not be underestimated. The conclusions from the online networking success should not be overstated either – this is not a ready model that other (more mainstream) parties could just copy and paste – the M5S culture is genuinely participative in the way no traditional party in Europe has yet become.

And so then to Eastleigh, the by-election taking place due to the resignation of Chris Huhne, fought against the backdrop of the Lord Rennard allegations, and with a Conservative Party candidate who seems to have a questionable CV and refuses to attend hustings… The by-election is, understandably, one of the most fiercely fought ever – with the Tories having contacted 90% of voters, and the Lib Dems 92%, and strong counter-reactions from the people of Eastleigh (signs like this, and comments like this from people observing on the ground).

But I feel really sorry for the people of Eastleigh, for this focus on their town will disappear the moment the by-election is concluded – they are not going to get better politics or better services as a result of all of this momentary attention. Even if they vote UKIP this time (the nearest there is to a Grillo-style protest), then at the 2015 General Election they are just going to return to being one more constituency in a First Past The Post system, and the UK system is so heavily skewed towards the two major parties that there’s little chance for an insurgent to ever break through.

So where would I rather be? Give me Grillo over the Eastleigh predicament any day. Because the people that voted Grillo had an outlet for their frustration, and better politics could emerge in Italy as a result of the election. The people of Eastleigh have no choice than to try to keep the hoards of canvassers at bay, and try to cast their vote for the least-worst option on Thursday, before their town with return to ignored normality on Friday. British political commentators might poke fun at Grillo, but they would do well to examine the predicament in their own back yard a bit more closely.

[UPDATE – 27.2.2013, 09.00]
On Facebook I’ve been pointed towards Grillo’s comments about not granting the children of immigrants Italian citizenship. Seems my comment that he was not xenophobic was wide of the mark, although the reactions from the M5S members quoted in the piece are better than Grillo’s own views.


  1. Richard

    I think the problem with anti-parties is that change has to come from advocating something; it cannot come from opposition as an existential condition. I tend to agree with you that the Italian electoral system can respond to public opinion better than the UK system but if the credibility of the political centre ground has collapsed then it seems to me improbable that the direction of travel will be forward, whether in Eastleigh or Este.

  2. On Grillo’s success, it seems to me philosopher Gianni Vattimo has one of the best assessments:
    “[W]e should bear in mind that [Grillo] depends on this sort of neutralization of differences which has happened to the parties and to their political ‘offer’. The Monti government, so-called ‘technical,’ justified by the need to ‘save Italy’ from the Greek syndrome and the need to stop the [bond] spreads, has not only been a temporary suspension of politics – insofar as it had the support of all the parties except for the Lega Nord and Antonio Di Pietro’s Italy of Values. […] [T]he “antipolitical” spirit that one can criticize the Grillo movement for in Italy, but also the Indignados movement, is above all phenomenon linked to the politics of ‘technicians.'”

    TL/DR: The problem is “There Is Never an Alternative” in the eurozone. You can vote for left or right, at the end of the day, monetary policy will always serve price stability independent of elections and alternative budget policies (stimulus) is outlawed. In Japan and the U.S., voters can elect leaders like Abe and Obama who can and do undertake stimulus or devaluation. That isn’t to say this the right policy, but it is to say they have choice. In euroland politics is rendered meaningless (at least on most economic matters) because elections are secondary to the austerian budget rules and an unaccountable central bank as defined in the Treaties. If you want to stay in the euro, there is no alternative to the Merkel-Monti agenda of austerity and precarity.

  3. Nico Mercurion

    If British judges had as much political power has Italian judges seem to enjoy then the likes of Paul Evans would have to hide their rosy cheeks by the extent of political corruption that would be shown for all to see. Another point, can Evans please back up his claim about the extent of political corruption in Italy with empirical data? If not, then shut up and fuck off.

  4. Paul Evans

    “the reasons 1 in 4 Italians supported him must not be underestimated.”

    The reasons that 1 in 4 Italians supported Berlusconi shouldn’t be underestimated either by that logic. This is how Berlusconi arrived – the ‘anti corruption candidate’ – ‘clean hands’.”First as tragedy, then as farce”, as the saying goes.

    Give me Eastleigh any day. If every politician in Italy who had transgressed to the level that Chris Huhne had done were to resign, there’d barely be any of them left – and I can confidently predict that Grillo’s clusterfuck of opportunists will fall into the same camp – squared.

    It’s an infantilised democracy that never had the de-nazification it should have had. It spent nearly 50 years cobbling together any combination of clientelist groups in order to shut out the PCI and once that ended, it has been the plaything of Europe’s most successful demagogue. The idea that a comedian got a political party list together – made up of people who have *no-one* to vouch for their personal integrity – off the back of a bit of grandstanding and this indicates a healthy democracy – it’s not an argument I can recognise.

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