The ‘No’ vote in the Italian referendum wasn’t a populist revolt in the style of Trump.

Matteo Renzi, who lost his attempt to reform Italy's stagnant political system.
Matteo Renzi, who lost his attempt to reform Italy’s stagnant political system.

Yesterday Italian voters went to the polls to vote in a referendum concerning the Italian political system and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s attempts to end the gridlock which has plagued it for many years. Despite opinion polls prior to polling day suggesting that the result would be extremely close, the ‘No’ campaign won a decisive victory, with the reforms rejected by a margin of 59% to 41%, and Renzi subsequently set to tender his resignation later today. Following the result many were quick to place it in the same bracket as the result of UK’s EU Referendum, the election of Donald Trump as US President, and the rise of Marine Le Pen in France. In short, as another victory for anti-establishment populists, and part of a growing trend across the world.

However, this analysis is deeply flawed, and far too simplistic. Whilst anti-establishment feeling was certainly a factor in the result, it was by no means the most important factor, and it is very difficult to equate this result with the likes of the EU Referendum and the US Presidential Election.

Rather than a populist revolt, the referendum result was simply a vote against Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

During the referendum campaign, Renzi (who at that point figured that he had a pretty good chance of winning) announced that were he to lose the referendum then he would resign as Prime Minister. After this statement, Italy’s opposition parties united somewhat in an attempt to unseat Renzi.

This ‘rag bag’ group (as Renzi himself termed it) included the populist left-leaning Five Star Movement led by comedian Beppe Grillo, the far-right Northern League, and the centre-right Forza Italia, led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. In addition, some members of Renzi’s Democratic Party campaigned against the reforms, with the Democratic Party being such a ‘big tent’ party that there were many who weren’t particularly enamoured with Renzi’s leadership.

The most interesting case is that of Silvio Berlusconi. In 2006 Berlusconi himself, then serving as Prime Minister, attempted constitutional reform. Similarly to yesterday’s referendum, the 2006 referendum aimed to streamline the Italian political system by giving more power to the Prime Minister. Berlusconi’s reform was defeated at the ballot box by 61.3% — 38.7%, incidentally a larger defeat that Renzi’s was yesterday. But what this proves is that Berlusconi himself has himself been strongly in favour of reform in the past, but his reasons for campaigning against this reform rested more on a desire to remove Renzi as Prime Minister than anything else.

Realistically, although in this referendum voters have overwhelmingly backed the side supported by the populist parties the Five Star Movement and the Northern League, this is no guarantee that an actual election would go the same way. It was no surprise that following the referendum, the centre-right party, Forza Italia, said that they didn’t believe an election should be called, and that they though that the next Prime Minister should come from Renzi’s Democratic Party. The truth is that there is no way that the likes of the Five Star Movement, Northern League, and Forza Italia would be able to work together in Government, and therefore they would not have been able to combine to defeat Renzi in an actual election. However, when Renzi turned the referendum into a confidence vote on his leadership, he enabled an alliance between all opposition parties, and his fate was settled. At a time when Renzi’s popularity was hardly through the roof, in large part because of Italy’s economic woes, it was undeniably stupid for Renzi to stake his future on the referendum.

In addition, it is incorrect that the referendum was purely an expression of anti-establishment feeling. Yes, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement were one of the main opponents of the constitutional reform, and as a result anti-establishment feeling certainly played a part, however it was not as significant as many have claimed. For a start, look at how many members of the supposed ‘establishment’ supported the campaign against the proposed reforms. Silvio Berlusconi and his establishment centre-right party, Forza Italia, have already been mentioned, but there was also former Prime Minister Mario Monti as well as a fair few senior members of Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party. Although the establishment Five Star Movement were prominent during the campaign, it was not a campaign where it was simply establishment versus anti-establishment — as was the case during the US Presidential Campaign. The sheer number of establishment figures on the ‘No’ side suitably demonstrates this. In addition, it must be remembered that Renzi himself was never really considered a particularly establishment figure. He came to power as Prime Minister from the relatively obscure position of Mayor of Florence, and he has taken on a somewhat anti-establishment persona during his time as Prime Minister (with a vision of a government which could wipe out the corruption which had plagued Italian politics for decades), particularly during this referendum campaign. He alluded to Donald Trump’s ‘drain the swamp’ rhetoric during the campaign when he described the Italian political system as a ‘swamp’ where he would be unable to remain if he didn’t pass the proposed reforms. Given the dramatic change that Renzi wanted the Italian political system to undergo, it is perhaps more apt to describe him as anti-establishment than his opponents during the referendum.

No, rather than a vote against the establishment, this was a vote against Renzi himself. Although he came to power with promises of constitutional change, he also promised an end to the economic malaise that has afflicted Italy for many years. The referendum result is more to do with Italy’s continuing economic difficulties than anything else. Renzi perhaps overestimated Italy’s desire for constitutional change ahead of economic progress, and sorely paid the price. For most Italians, rather than constitutional change their priorities were seeing a return to a thriving economy and economic growth, and the end to the unpopular bailouts of big banks. Renzi’s failure to deliver in these areas made him considerably unpopular and so when he staked his future on the referendum result, the voters saw their chance.

Add to this the complex nature of the reform, very few people understood exactly what it was that was being asked, and there were even reports that start-ups were charging $150 an hour for classes explaining the referendum question. Contrary to what is often claimed, most who vote are not keen to vote in favour of something they don’t fully understand. With the complex nature of the constitutional reform, is was unsurprising that most were keener to keep the status quo, because at least then they know exactly where they stand.

Rather than a vote for anti-establishment politics, this was a vote against Renzi, pure and simple. Although Renzi has arguably done some good things, he doesn’t seem to have done enough to gain the continued confidence of the Italian people, although his statement yesterday suggests that he does not intend to retire from politics and could yet seek to return as Prime Minister in the near future. Although Renzi served as Prime Minister for under three years, he is still the fourth-longest serving PM in almost thirty years, which tells you basically all you need to know about Italy’s infamously volatile politics. Bearing this in mind, a political return for Renzi in the future is by no means out of the question, and in fact it would not be at all surprising.

Can Emmanuel Macron win the French Presidency?

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Emmanuel Macron announces his candidacy for President of France on Wednesday. 

In French politics much of the news over the last few days has been of the centre-right party Les Republicains holding the first round of their presidential primary with former Prime Minister Francois Fillon emerging as the unexpected victor.

However, last Wednesday, a less well known politician announced his candidacy for the Presidency: Emmanuel Macron.

Until August, Macron was the Economy Minister in the Manuel Valls government under the Presidency of Francois Hollande. Macron was a member of the Socialist Party between 2006 and 2009 but since then he has been an independent, and has recently established a political movement called ‘En Marche!’ (the initials of which conveniently match his own).

It is under the banner of ‘En Marche!’ that he will run for the Presidency, although he is effectively running as an independent, given that he lacks the party machine which the candidates from the major parties will enjoy. Given the dire record of independent and third-party candidates in French Presidential Elections, one would be forgiven for thinking that Macron doesn’t stand a chance of winning the Presidency. However, although it will undoubtedly be difficult for Macron, he certainly has a fairly decent chance in the upcoming election.

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Macron in his previous role as Minister of the Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs.

 

Currently leading in the polls is Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front, with polling overwhelmingly suggesting that she will finish top in the first round of voting scheduled to be held on 23 April 2017. However, commentators have typically predicted that Le Pen will be defeated in the second round of voting, due to be held on 7 May.

Traditionally, French voters have a strong record of coming together to defeat extremist candidates for the Presidency. In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen (father of Marine) was the candidate for the National Front and advanced to the second round along with Jacques Chirac, the candidate for the UMP (the precursor of Les Republicains). In the second round of voting, the anti-Le Pen vote came together to give Chirac 82.2 percent of the votes and with it a huge victory. Many observers expect a similar situation to arise this time, although opinion is almost unanimous that the margin of victory for the consensus candidate will be far lower than in 2002, and that given the worldwide trend toward right-wing populist political candidates that it would be extremely unwise to completely rule out the possibility of Marine Le Pen winning the Presidency. However, the high likelihood of Le Pen’s opponent in the second round winning the Presidency means that, in theory, all Macron needs to do is win enough votes in the first round to advance into the second round.

One thing that could potentially make this easier is the fact that Francois Fillon has emerged as the likely winner of the presidential nomination for the Republicans. Previously, the overwhelming favourite to win was current Mayor of Bordeaux Alain Juppe who is considered a centrist. Given that Macron is also marketing himself as a centrist candidate in the election, Juppe as the Republican candidate could have made it very difficult for Macron to make any headway. The polls reflect this. So far in the Presidential race, and including the polls conducted before he announced his candidacy, Macron has been polling between 12 and 25 percent. Typically, his lower numbers have come when the pollsters have listed Alain Juppe as the Republican nominee. However, in polling which has listed Nicolas Sarkozy or Francois Fillon as the Republican nominee, Macron has tended to score considerably higher. Therefore, the emergence of Fillon as the likely Republican nominee could be of huge benefit to Macron. If Macron is able to hoover up some of the voters who would have backed Juppe in the first round of voting, then he would stand a pretty strong chance of getting enough support to advance to the second round. As I explained previously, this would give him a very good chance of winning the Presidency.

The other variable to consider is whether incumbent President Francois Hollande will run for a second term. It has been reported that many of the President’s confidantes have advised him against seeking a second term given that his exceedingly high unpopularity would likely render the result a foregone conclusion — Hollande’s approval rating recently dropped to an historic low of just four percent. Macron was a key advisor on the Hollande Presidential campaign in 2012, and although he has been accused by Alain Juppe, among others, of ‘stabbing Hollande in the back’, he remains somewhat associated with the Hollande Presidency. This relationship is reflected in the polling with Macron scoring higher ratings when current Prime Minister Manuel Valls is listed as the Socialist Party nominee rather than Hollande — suggesting that Macron would be able to bring Hollande backers into his camp as well as Juppe backers. This coalition of centre-left, centrist, and centre-right supporters would stand him in good stead, and it is currently looking as though Macron’s insistence that his movement ‘En Marche!’ should not outwardly subscribe to any particular political ideology is looking like a rather shrewd decision. Macron’s own experience allows him to successfully straddle these ideologies. His previous membership of the Socialist Party has won him the backing of some centre-left voters plus the endorsement of Socialist Party members such as the Mayor of Lyon, Gerard Collomb. In addition, his experience as a banker with Rothschild, and as Economy Minister means that he also has strong connections in various highly influential business networks, although this has led to him being dismissed by Marine Le Pen as ‘the candidate of the bankers’.

What it does mean is that he has the ability to court voters who would usually go with the establishment candidate, whilst his independence from any political party and the fact that he has never before held elected office before means that he can also attempt to gain some of the voters who are keen for an anti-establishment candidate, which his speech announcing his run for the Presidency reflected.

During his speech announcing his candidacy Macron described France as being ‘blocked by corporatism of all kinds’ and unequivocally stated, ‘I reject this system!’ Although Macron is an avowedly centrist candidate, this imagery of a political system which faces gridlock as a result of corporate interests is also one which was readily used by the Leave side during the EU Referendum, and by Donald Trump’s campaign for the Presidency, and although Macron is clearly not a populist in the mould of these campaign’s, he has certainly seen what works around the world and is attempting to use it to his advantage. Macron was also keen to stress that rather than advocating positions on the right or left, his En Marche! movement advocated ‘new ideas’, and therefore he has immediately looked to mark himself out as the ‘change’ candidate, something which has also proved extremely successful in recent elections worldwide. Indeed, exit polling following the US Presidential Election suggested that although many of Donald Trump’s actual policies didn’t find favour with the electorate, many voters backed him because they felt that he could bring about change in Washington D.C. that no other candidate, principally Hillary Clinton, could. By casting himself as the ‘change’ candidate, Macron clearly hopes to tap into the desire of voters to shake up the political system, and whilst similar to the Trump campaign for change, there are also uncanny similarities to Tony Blair’s campaign in 1997 when he was Leader of the Opposition and then became Prime Minister. It is no surprise that some have described Macron as being ‘more Blair than Blair’, with the likeness perhaps coming more from a seeming willingness to do whatever it takes to win as opposed to his centrism.

Although there is evidence that Macron is winning voters who backed Hollande in 2012, there has also been anger in the Socialist Party at his candidacy, with some senior members suggesting that all he would do would be to split the left and allow the far-right to take hold. Jean-Christophe Cambedelis, who as First Secretary of the Socialist Party is effectively the party leader, described Macron’s decision to run as “very annoying”, before lamenting that his candidacy would split the Socialist Party’s vote and make it almost impossible for a centre-left candidate to reach the run-off. However, with the Socialist Party so unpopular on the back of Francois Hollande’s stint as President, surely the likelihood of a Socialist Party candidate reaching the final two was slim at best even before Macron announced his decision to run? Indeed, it seems fair to say that Macron’s candidacy makes it more likely that we will see a centre-left candidate in the final two, given that he has the ability to draw the support of centrists and some on the centre-right. Back in August Macron was polled as being the second most popular politician in all of France, after only Alain Juppe. With Juppe unlikely to play much more of a part in this Presidential Race, out of the remaining candidates it will likely be Macron who is the most popular in the eyes of the voting public. Surely, on these grounds, he is a far better person to be carrying the standard for the centre and centre-left than someone like Hollande or Valls? The fact that Le Pen and Juppe went on the attack almost immediately after Macron’s announcement suggests that they too recognise his eminent electability.

Whilst it is undeniable that Macron’s road to the Presidency will be an extremely difficult one, it is a journey which is by no means impossible. All Macron needs to do is finish second in the first round of the voting and with it progress to the run-off vote where he would have a good chance of defeating Le Pen. Although it is hard to dispute that Francois Fillon remains the favourite for now, with more than six months still to go it would be foolish to rule Macron out just yet. Stranger things have certainly happened.

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Macron’s road to the Presidency will be a tough one, but one which is far from impossible. 

Can Nicolas Sarkozy complete his political comeback by winning his party’s presidential nomination?

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Former President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy. 

When Nicolas Sarkozy’s was defeated by Francois Hollande in his 2012 bid for re-election as President of France, most thought that his career in politics was over. Sarkozy had entered the 2012 campaign with record-breaking unpopularity, with seventy percent of French voters reporting an unfavourable opinion. Unsurprisingly Hollande, who was the overwhelming favourite throughout the campaign, defeated Sarkozy in both rounds of voting, and Sarkozy subsequently retired from politics as soon as his term in office was over.

However, in September 2014 re-entered politics with the announcement that he would run for the Chairmanship of his political party, which was then called the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement), but is now called The Republicans. Sarkozy was elected to the post and under his leadership the party won a sweeping victory in local elections in March 2015, and was also victorious in the regional elections in December 2015 (despite finishing second in the popular vote to the Front National).

On the back of this success, in August 2016, Sarkozy announced that he would be running for his party’s nomination for the Presidency of France. On Sunday the Republicans will hold their Presidential Primary to determine who will represent the party in the general election due to be held in April and May next year.

With the incumbent President Francois Hollande deeply unpopular (he has somehow managed to eclipse Sarkozy’s unpopularity as President) most observers expect that the winner of the Republicans primary will be the next President. So, if Sarkozy can win here then his comeback will be fully complete.

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The current President, Francois Hollande, is deeply unpopular. 

However, Sarkozy doesn’t have the nomination sewn up by any means. The current leader in opinion polls is Alain Juppe. Juppe is the current Mayor of Bordeaux and he served as Prime Minister between 1995 and 1997 under the Presidency of Jacques Chirac.

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The current Mayor of Bordeux, Alain Juppe, is the favourite for the Republican nomination. 

In addition, Francois Fillon, who served as Prime Minister under Sarkozy, is making a late charge for the nomination.

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Francois Fillon, who was Prime Minister under Sarkozy, is making a late charge for the Republican nomination. 

 

The latest opinion polls put Sarkozy seven points adrift on 29 percent to Juppe’s 36 percent. So as it stands, Sarkozy doesn’t look like he will win the nomination on Sunday but, given the record of political polling this year I wouldn’t rule it out just yet.

Although Sarkozy had always been considered relatively right wing, he generally governed in a centre-right fashion when he served as President between 2007 and 2012. However, for this campaign he reinvented himself as a populist, perhaps in anticipation of a general election showdown with Marine Le Pen of the National Front, leading to current Prime Minister Manuel Valls complaining that parts of the opposition Republicans Party had fallen into a “Trumpisation of the mind.” Throughout the campaign Sarkozy has depicted French national identity as being on the verge of collapse, and has touched upon many of the same themes as the dystopian speech given by Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention which effectively depicted America as on the edge of an abyss. Clearly Sarkozy has seen that this worked in the United States, and so he is trying to replicate it in France.

In this attempts to court voters from the far-right, Sarkozy has pledged to ban Muslim headscarves in universities and public companies, hugely restrict the citizenship rights of children born in France to foreign-born parents, and ban pork-free options in school canteens (currently, Muslim and Jewish children are offered an alternative meal, whilst he has also suggested that France detain everyone on the thousands of people on the intelligence watch list who have never been charged.

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With Marine Le Pen of the National Front leading in the polls, Sarkozy has shifted right in an attempt to court her base. 

Sarkozy’s approach differs markedly from the approach of Juppe, his main rival for the nomination. Juppe suggests that France adopt a “happy identity” which is based upon respect for both religious and ethnic diversity, whilst attacking Sarkozy’s proposals as unworkable, whilst suggesting that Sarkozy does not have “a humane attitude”.

Although some of Sarkozy’s policies are clearly popular in France (see the fact that Marine Le Pen leads the opinion polls in the race for the Presidency for evidence of this), it is Sarkozy himself that they dislike, and that it what is helping Juppe hold onto the lead as we approach the primary on Sunday. Polling undertaken before the election found that although over seventy percent of French voters didn’t want Francois Hollande to continue as President, over sixty percent of voters didn’t want Sarkozy to win another term. Although Sarkozy remains the most recognisable political personality in France, many voters still dislike his apparent interest in celebrity ahead of governance, which led to him being caricatured as ‘Le King of Bling Bling’ during his time as President; whilst his dislike of wine and cheese gives him a reputation as a man of poor taste. In addition, throughout his time as the public eye he has been beset with controversies, with many claiming he is corrupt. For example, the time when he posted a picture on his Facebook page showing him chipping at the Berlin Wall on the occasion of its fall, a picture which was later proved to be a fake. In addition, there is the ongoing claim that his first Presidential campaign was financed by former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to the tune of €50 million, whilst his former law partner being named in the Panama Papers did nothing to dispel the notion amongst the French public that Sarkozy is somewhat corrupt.

However, given the French electoral system, there is a pretty good chance that if Sarkozy can win the nomination then he will be the next President. In French Presidential Elections there are two rounds of voting. In the first round, a large group of candidates stand and the two with the highest number of votes progress to the second round (unless a candidate reaches the fifty percent threshold in the first round). In the second round, the candidate with the most votes wins the Presidency. Leading in current opinion polls is Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front, which leaves her in with a chance of winning the Presidency, a thought which terrifies much of the left in France. As a result, it is likely that the left and centre-left will coalesce around the candidate facing Le Pen in the second round of voting, which looks highly likely to be the Republican nominee.

As the Republicans are holding an open primary, anyone is able to vote, and there have been reports that many who will likely vote for Le Pen in April have signed up to vote in order to back Sarkozy. However, equally, many who would ordinarily back the Socialist Party have signed up to back Juppe which has led to Sarkozy talking of left-wingers attempting to “steal” the nomination from him, saying at a recent rally, “Where is the sense of loyalty when you are calling on left-wing voters to sign and perjure themselves on a piece of paper in which they say they share the values of the Right?”

Really, given the open nature of the primary, the race has come down to which candidate is best placed to defeat Marine Le Pen at the general election. Given the huge unpopularity of Francois Hollande, if he chooses to run for a second term (he has yet to confirm what his decision is) then it would be very unlikely that he would make the second round of voting. Even if he didn’t run, or didn’t win the Socialist Party primary, then his unpopularity would probably do enough damage to the Socialist nominee (who could be centrist Prime Minister Manuel Valls, or left-winger Arnaud Montebourg) that they would struggle to be successful.

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If Francois Hollande chose not to run for a second term then Prime Minister Manuel Valls (left), or left-wing firebrand Arnaud Montebourg (right), would be the most likely candidates for the Socialist Party. 

There is also the presence of independent centrist candidate, former Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron, but it remains to be seen whether he has the name recognition to compete.

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Independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron (who used to be a member of the Socialist Party) is also challenging for the Presidency. 

All in all, the Republican candidate is the most likely to reach the second round with Le Pen, so the question is which of Sarkozy, Juppe, or Fillon is best placed to beat Le Pen? Polling suggests that the best candidate would be Juppe who is projected to beat Le Pen by 68–32, compared to Sarkozy who would be predicted to win by 58–42.

However, the danger of Juppe is that he is unashamedly part of the establishment and he hasn’t tried to hide this during the campaign in the way that Sarkozy has by adopting a populist persona. What this means though, is that Juppe versus Le Pen would set up an establishment versus anti-establishment contest in the same mould as Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton in the United States Presidential Election — and we all know how that worked out.

Overall though, I think Juppe will almost certainly win the Republican nomination, meaning Sarkozy’s political career will surely finally be over. However, given the political results we’ve had this year, nothing is ever certain, and only time will tell.

Is Matteo Renzi set to be the next casualty of the right-wing populist insurgency?

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Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

 

First David Cameron was forced to resign as Prime Minister after losing the EU Referendum, then Hillary Clinton was beaten to the Presidency by Donald Trump, now it looks as though Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi could be the next centrist political leader to be felled by the populist insurgency which has infiltrated world politics.

On 4 December, Italy will hold a constitutional referendum concerning the powers of the Parliament and the Prime Minister. Renzi believes that the Italian political system is not fit for purpose and he has grown increasingly frustrated by the slow pace at which legislation is made. Therefore, he has come up with a plan to streamline the system which he is putting to the people in next months referendum.

Italy currently has a bicameral legislature which is comprised of a lower house called the Chamber of Deputies which has 630 seats, and an upper house called the Senate of the Republic which has 315 elected members. The Italian system if often described as being perfectly symmetrical because both houses are elected at the same time and both are elected for a five year term. For legislation to pass into law the final version of every bill must pass through both houses, which is a key reason for the slow passage of legislation.

Renzi plans to reduce the Senate to 100 members (plus the ex-Presidents who are ‘Senators for life’), whilst the Senate would also cease to be directly elected. Instead, 95 Senators would be indirectly elected by the different regions in Italy, whilst the other five would be appointed by the Prime Minister. The changes proposed in the referendum also mean that some bills can be adopted unicamerally having only been approved by the Chamber of Deputies. Overall, the new constitutional provisions suggested in the referendum would curb the powers of the Senate (the source of much of the legislative gridlock) and increase the power of the Prime Minister, which is why it was no surprise that many of Renzi’s opponents described him as being ‘undemocratic’ or ‘authoritarian’ for trying to make these changes.

However, the content of the proposed constitutional changes is not really the issue here (in reality, the new constitutional provisions are pretty dry).

Renzi has been Italian Prime Minister for two years now and is already relatively unpopular amongst the electorate. Following recent events like the UK voting to leave the European Union and the United States electing Donald Trump to the Presidency, Italy’s populists are now sufficiently emboldened to believe that this referendum gives them the opportunity to unseat Renzi.

Indeed, Renzi himself has stated that if he is to lose the referendum then he will resign as Prime Minister. This was a big mistake. What it means is that the constitutional referendum has instead been turned into a referendum on Renzi’s leadership, which his opponents believe they can comfortably win.

The key opponents of the reform proposed by Renzi are the syncretic populist Five Star Movement, which is headed by former comedian Beppe Grillo; the far-right Northern League (or Lega Nord); and Forza Italia, the party of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. These groups have seen that the referendum is an opportunity to unseat the centrist Renzi, and have been travelling around the country whipping up support for their cause.

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Former comedian Beppe Grillo, the founder of the Italian Five Star Movement. 

By calling the referendum, Renzi believed that he had tapped into the desire of Italians to see the political system changed and made more streamlined. However, although he was correct that this was an idea that was popular amongst Italians, he didn’t realise that it wasn’t their top priority. For most Italians their priority was seeing a return to economic growth and a thriving economy, and the end to the unpopular bailouts of Italy’s weak banks which have usually been supported by Renzi. Many Italians blame Renzi for their dire economic situations and as a result feel that unseating him is more important than enacting constitutional change.

Currently, opinion polls suggest that Renzi is on course for a loss in the upcoming referendum with the ‘No’ campaign’s advantage estimated at between five and seven points. This does though exclude undecided voters which could be as much as 26 percent of the electorate.

As it stands though, it looks as though Renzi is set to lose the referendum, and as a result will be forced to resign as Prime Minister. This could lead to Beppe Grillo’s populist Five Star Movement sweeping into power. Given the Five Star Movement’s Euroscepticism, if they were to ascend to power then we could well see another referendum but this time one which concerned Italy’s membership of the European Union.

There is of course the chance that Renzi wins. In recent days Renzi has taken a leaf out of Donald Trump’s book by describing Italian politics as a ‘swamp’ (perhaps a reference to Trump’s popular pledge to ‘drain the swamp’ of Washington D.C.), with Renzi saying that the only way to improve this would be to vote ‘Yes’ in the referendum.

However, it remains to be seen whether Renzi has done enough to survive. Given the way world politics seems to be moving toward a populist and anti-establishment viewpoint, don’t be surprised if Renzi is defeated and is subsequently forced out of power.

Although most people have been looking at next year’s Presidential Election in France, and Federal Elections in Germany as the next chance of populist politicians to have success, this referendum in Italy gives them a chance sooner than many expected. Currently, it looks as though the populists will succeed in forcing out another centrist administration, and that the populist takeover of world politics will continue.

The resurgence of the Lib Dems should have the Conservatives worried.

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Tim Farron’s party surged into second place in the Witney by-election. 

Yesterday, the residents of Witney cast their votes in a by-election to decide who would succeed former Prime Minister David Cameron as the constituency’s Member of Parliament. As a safe Conservative seat, Witney was rated the tenth safest Conservative seat following the 2015 General Election, the result of this by-election was never really in doubt. However, what everyone was watching for was how Theresa May’s new Conservative Party would do in David Cameron’s old constituency; and in the first electoral test following the EU Referendum, how would the opposition parties fare.

As expected, the Conservative Party retained the seat, with Councillor Robert Courts winning 17,313 votes for a majority of 5,702. However, although this seems like a comfortable win, when compared to the result in this constituency in the 2015 General Election, it is anything but.

In the 2015 General Election, David Cameron won a huge 35,201 votes, which led to a very safe majority of 25,155. Admittedly given that this was only a by-election, and that the country at large is suffering from electoral fatigue, the turnout was quite low (just 46.8% compared to 73.3% in 2015). However, it is the percentage of the vote which is significant. In 2015, David Cameron won 60.2% of the votes in Witney. Yesterday, Robert Courts won just 45%, a huge fall from 2015.

The main cause of this has been attributed to a surge in support for the Liberal Democrats who won just 6.8% of the vote in 2015, but managed to increase this to 30.2% yesterday. This resurgence tallies with the Liberal Democrats’ surge in party membership following the EU Referendum, where they were the only party to come out in favour of a second referendum. Party figures suggested that in the days after the referendum, the Liberal Democrats gained 15,000 new members, and their membership has continued to grow since. This is perhaps due to a combination of reasons, but chief among these is the Lib Dems pro-European stance, as well as the centrists who supported the Conservatives in 2015, flocking to a different party due to dissatisfaction with the more right-wing new Government.

Given that Witney is a constituency which voted 53.7% in favour of remaining in the European Union, and the Conservative candidate Robert Courts supported Vote Leave, the Liberal Democrats made a big thing about their pro-European stance in this referendum, and it appeared to pay dividends as they surged past Labour into second place.

This huge swing of 19.3% to the Lib Dems could statistically wipe out the current Conservative majority in the House of Commons were to it be replicated across the country. Statistically speaking there are twenty-six seats where the Conservative advantage over the Liberal Democrats is less than this, and where they could therefore prosper in a general election. Of course, we must consider the fact that the Liberal Democrats absolutely threw the kitchen sink at this by-election in a way that would be impossible in a full on general election. Party Leader Tim Farron made five visits to Witney over the course of the by-election campaign. In a full general election campaign there is no chance that he would have the time to do this, and in addition the Liberal Democrats would not be able to commit as many party staff to a single constituency.

However, the result of this by-election is telling in several ways. Given how the Conservative have underperformed relative to their polling numbers, it shows that the Government isn’t nearly as popular as polling has suggested, and that the Government’s current haphazard handling of Brexit has lost them some support. In addition, it further shows the malaise affecting the Labour Party, which has the potential to lose them their place as the main parliamentary opposition. Labour suffered a significant reduction in their share of the vote, falling back into third place. It is realistic to suggest that many centrist or left of centre voters who may typically have voted Labour in this by-election, were put off my the way Jeremy Corbyn has dragged the party to the left, and so instead cast their vote in favour of the Lib Dems.

Overall, this result suggests the Theresa May is not as close to the political centre as she seems to think. Whether voters are put off my the government’s handling of Brexit, or whether it is policies like the expansion of grammar schools which is causing the problem, we don’t know. But what is certain is that Theresa May has to do a lot more to appeal to the centre if she wants to be Prime Minister in the long term. This is something David Cameron did particularly well, moving the Conservatives away from the divisive policies which resonated with their base, and instead moving them toward the political centre. By bringing back policies like grammar schools, Theresa May has done the opposite, and this could cost her dearly in the polls.

Senior Conservatives have suggested that the result is not so bad, because it was pretty much the same as what David Cameron was getting in his early days as an MP. This is true, David Cameron did also receive 45% of the vote in Witney in the 2001 General Election. However, they should consider the overall result of this election, which resulted in a huge Labour majority. Given that the share of the vote in safe seats often indicates the level of nationwide support for a party, the Conservatives should be very worried about this result. If they are only getting the same share of the vote that they got at a general election in which they suffered a devastating defeat, then what will the result be nationwide when a general election is next held?

Conservatives can perhaps take comfort from the unelectability and unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, but they should by no means think that this guarantees them an increased majority at the next general election. With a current working majority of just sixteen, the government can’t afford to lose many seats, and so they should not be ignoring the significance of this result. The Liberal Democrats definitely have the potential to cause them serious harm in a general election.

In this by-election, the Liberal Democrats made a great play out of the fact that Witney voted Remain, yet the Conservative candidate had supported Leave. There are many other constituencies where the same is true, and the Lib Dems can use this to gain an advantage at a general election. Perhaps a better test than Witney of whether this surge will be replicated is the by-election which is probably forthcoming in Richmond Park, where Leave backing MP Zac Goldsmith is expected to resign and stand as an independent due to opposition to expansion of Heathrow Airport. This is a seat which the Liberal Democrats held from the seat’s inception in 1997 until 2010, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that they could win it back in a by-election.

In any case, yesterday’s by election should give Theresa May food for thought. Although she has been keen to say that she doesn’t want to hold an early election, it is looking increasingly like she is going to have to. If this week’s House of Commons vote for chairof the Brexit Select Committee is any indication, MPs may not vote in favour of the government’s EU repeal bill. In this select committee vote, MPs overwhelmingly voted for Remain backing Hilary Benn to chair to committee as opposed to Leave supporter Kate Hoey. Were the government to lose this vote, it would effectively be a tacit vote of no-confidence in the government. This would allow Theresa May to call and early election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. It is only then that we will see just how much the political landscape has been altered as a result of the EU Referendum. One thing’s for sure, as the Liberal Democrats’ candidate for Witney, Liz Leffman, said last night: “The Liberal Democrats are definitely back in business”.

What next for moderate Labour MPs?

With the reelection of Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Labour Party we have reached a crucial juncture in the future of UK politics. One way or another, it is hard not to foresee a significant restructuring of the political landscape in the UK.

Corbyn and others of a similar ideological ilk have spent the duration of this leadership campaign tightening their grip upon the Labour Party, and look set to move the party’s policy platform even further leftwards. Given that Corbyn & Co were already on a different planet ideologically to much of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), it is hard to see how normal service can possibly be resumed following the conclusion of the leadership campaign.

There has always been the potential, bubbling under the surface, for serious conflict between the different factions of the Labour Party. But the fissures which have opened up during the first year of Corbyn’s leadership now look as though they cannot be fixed. Anyone who witnessed the back and forth between John McDonnell and Alastair Campbell on Question Time last week (which allegedly almost ended with a punch-up!) can testify to this. These two individuals illustrate just how diametrically opposed the different parts of the Labour Party are, and it is difficult to see how this will be salvageable as Corbyn continues to lead the party.

So where do the moderates go from here?

There will be many who argue that they should simply stay on and serve their party, whether that means accepting a role in Corbyn’s new Shadow Cabinet or remaining on the back benches. However, it is hard to see how this can be sustainable. Rumour has it that Corbyn and his team are preparing to deselect any MPs who don’t pledge allegiance to Corbyn. Given that many of these moderates differ so greatly from Corbyn in terms of ideology, it is hard to see how they would be able to bring themselves to do this. Contrary to popular opinion, not all politicians have the Andy Burnham-esque quality of being able to completely disregard their principles for the purposes of retaining a high-flying career.

Given that these MPs won’t pledge allegiance to Corbyn, by remaining part of the Labour Party they would effectively be putting themselves out to pasture until being deselected and replaced with a fervent Corbynite prior to the next general election. This could be as soon as next May, or as far away as 2020, but there is little doubt that it is coming. Therefore, if moderate Labour MPs want to stay and fight for what they believe in, then they have little choice but to leave their party.

To many of them, this may seem like a huge jump, which carries huge inherent risks. Most MPs (of any party) feel intrinsically connected to the parties which they represent, and so leaving can feel somewhat like voluntarily cutting off a limb. But, in this case, there is little choice but to take the risk. Corbyn’s ideology has permeated the party to such an extent that there is little or no chance of it returning to its previous state in the next twenty to thirty years. For many of the current crop of moderate Labour MPs, their careers will be over by then. So if they want to have a chance to actively influence political debate in this country, then they have no choice but to leave.

The bigger question, even bigger than ‘should they leave?’, is where would they go?

Realistically, there are three options here.

One, Labour MPs could leave their party but continue to serve their constituents as independent MPs. However, independents often struggle to exert influence in the House of Commons, and rarely win elections. Therefore, it seems unlikely that Labour moderates would be able to find success in this way.

Secondly, Labour MPs could split and form a brand new party. Depending on how many MPs choose to leave, their is a chance that the Speaker of the House of Commons would declare this new party to be the official opposition. There have also been indications that several key Labour Party donors such as Lord Sainsbury and Assem Allam would be willing to fund a new party comprised of moderate Labour MPs. However, even with this funding, any new party would lack the infrastructure and name recognition enjoyed by the existing Labour Party. As a result, they would likely struggle to make any sort of electoral inroads in Labour heartlands. Therefore, this idea could also be a non-starter, although having said this, in our currently fractured political climate there is definitely an opening for a new party.

Thirdly, Labour MPs could leave their party and join the Liberal Democrats. Leader Tim Farron has invited moderates from both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party to join the Lib Dems. Given that the Lib Dems have just eight MPs, this would also effectively be the formation of a new party. In order to make a success of such a plan, it may be the case that a name change is required, in order to move away from a Liberal Democrat brand which was rendered rather toxic by their time spent in government. Overall, this option would likely be the most successful. It would provide the benefits of starting afresh with a new party, whilst also being able to benefit from the existing infrastructure provided by the Lib Dem party machine.

However, it may prove unpalatable to both Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs to share a party. Years of bloody by-election battles between the two parties promoted a general feeling of antipathy, which may be hard to overcome. In addition, with their current roster of just eight MPs, there are many Liberal Democrats who feel that defections from Labour could represent a take-over rather than a merger, which isn’t something they would be overly keen on. But, both groups recognise the need to be electable, and so surely some sort of accommodation could be reached.

Ultimately, it is difficult to see how the Labour Party will be able to reunite after Jeremy Corbyn’s reelection as party leader. The political viewpoints of the so-called Blairites are so diametrically opposed to the views of Corbyn and the wider party membership, that continuing in the same party seems unlikely. These moderates aren’t going to be able to bring themselves to sign up for some of Corbyn’s more outlandish policies (nuclear submarines without the warheads anyone?), and so it hard to see how the conflict will be resolved without a split.

Tim Farron potentially offers the best hope for centrist politics in the UK… if only anyone knew who he was…

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(Getty Images)

Since the result of the EU Referendum was revealed, David Cameron has resigned to be replaced by the more right-wing Theresa May, whilst Jeremy Corbyn has tightened his grip on the Labour Party and dragged it further to the left of the political spectrum. This has left a noticeable gap in the centre of UK politics, which has, in recent years at least, been the area political parties are forced to pitch from if they are to win elections.

Despite his party having been reduced to just eight MPs at the 2015 General Election, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron has been outspoken about how he believes that his party can fill the vacuum that has opened up in the political centre. On the opening day of the Liberal Democrat conference on Saturday, Farron invited moderates from the Conservative Party and the Labour Party to defect to the Liberal Democrats and aid them in occupying the centre ground.

“Across the range of British politics we now see populists of the far left and the far right getting hold their parties. There are people who are liberals in the Labour party and people in the Conservative party who will be feeling increasingly uncomfortable about the direction of their party. My simple offer to those liberals in other parties is, do you know what, maybe it’s time to join a liberal party.” Tim Farron speaking on Saturday. 

Ultimately, Farron seems to believe that the vacuum opening up in the supposed centre of British politics is one which can easily be filled by the Liberal Democrats. His argument is that moderates from the Conservatives and Labour must both be displeased enough with the direction of their party that they would be interested in the opportunity to defect to a party of the centre.

But, after the Brexit vote, does the political centre remain the same? The result of the EU Referendum would suggest that perhaps it doesn’t, making Farron’s job rather difficult. Brexit was a vote totally against the political establishment (i.e. those who ordinarily make up the political centre), suggesting that the centre which Farron talks about is no more. But, it must be remembered that the referendum was fought in a totally different way to a normal general election, with debate being based more around emotive arguments on patriotism, sovereignty, and immigration than economic and fact-based arguments. One would expect that come the next general election, there will be at least some shift back to debate on an economic level, although at this early stage it is hard to say how much.

A recent report by the think tank the Social Market Foundation (SMF), analysed where UK voters see themselves falling on the political spectrum, and where they see certain high-profile politicians on the political spectrum.

SMF began by asking respondents whether they identified as centrist, right, or left. The good news for Farron and the Liberal Democrats is that 45% of respondents placed themselves on the centre, compared to 25% on the left and 30% on the right. This suggests that their is a broad group of people with centrist views who Farron can pitch to.

What’s more, when asked where on the political spectrum they would place Farron, a majority of respondents answered that they would place him on the centre as well. This suggests that he is indeed in the perfect place to hoover up the voters who consider themselves centrist and have nowhere else to go.

However, these figures are complicated by several factors.

Firstly, although respondent’s identify as right, left, or centrist, many of them hold a much more convoluted set of political views. For example, over 60% of respondents said that they supported a ban on zero hour contracts, which would typically be said to be a left-wing policy, given that it was a centrepiece of Ed Miliband’s manifesto during the 2015 general election. However, there is also support of more than 60% for reducing immigration to a level below 100,000; which would typically be seen as a right-wing policy. Therefore, the measure of how the respondents identify politically isn’t a particularly useful one. Instead, SMF divided the respondents into eight different groups depending on their support for various policies. The two largest groups comprise around half the electorate, and are clearly on the right of the political spectrum. These are people who mostly voted for Brexit and support a significant reduction in immigration. As a result, there is no chance of them voting for Farron or the Liberal Democrats. Therefore, despite the vacuum in the political centre, it does not look as though there would be space for the Liberal Democrats to win a majority at a general election. Suggesting that Farron is wrong to suggest that the Lib Dems are capable of becoming the new party of the centre.

However, there are four groups in the centre of the political spectrum — both centre-right and centre-left. These are people who generally voted to Remain in the EU, and support Britain’s continued membership of the single market. Many of this group might ordinarily vote Conservative, yet they are slightly anxious about the direction their party is travelling. This centrist group also comprises a relatively large group of voters who would ordinarily vote Labour, however they feel that Jeremy Corbyn is too left-wing. These are the voters who are now up for grabs, and who Farron should be doing his utmost to court.

Given that most consider him the most centrist of the party leaders, he would seem to be in the ideal position to make inroads into this group. However, almost half of respondents said that they didn’t know enough about Farron to attempt to place him on the political spectrum. This has to change if he is to be successful.

Finally, as long as Britain retains a First-Past-The-Post electoral system, Farron and the Lib Dems will be severely hampered. To put it frankly, why vote for a party that has little chance of winning?

 Many of those in the political centre who would ordinarily vote Conservative or Labour are looking for a reason to split from their party, for a variety of reasons. However, this won’t happen without electoral reform. Therefore, the time is right for Farron to launch a new argument for reform of Britain’s electoral system.

Overall, Farron seemingly has the ability to occupy the centre-ground of British politics. However, his problem is that voters know so little about him. With the Lib Dems only having eight MPs, Farron doesn’t even get a weekly question in Prime Minister’s Questions, so it is hard to see how this lack of recognition is going to change any time soon.

If Farron is serious about occupy the centre then he must act soon to rapidly build his profile around the country, particularly in areas where there was strong support for Remain, and areas where support for Corbyn’s Labour and May’s Conservatives is ebbing.

Farron occupying the centre is certainly possible, but it is undoubtedly going to take a long, long time.