One 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.