Is the Five Star Movement the blueprint for political parties going forward?

The leader of Italy's Five Star Movement, former comedian Beppe Grillo.
The leader of Italy’s Five Star Movement, former comedian Beppe Grillo.

The Five Star Movement is an Italian political party which was established in October 2009 by former comedian Beppe Grillo and web strategist Gianroberto Casaleggio. Despite having only been around for seven years, the Five Star Movement is now considered to be the second most popular party in Italy, behind only Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party. In the 2013 General Election, the Five Star Movement managed to gain 25.5 percent of the vote, amounting to just under nine million votes in total, an astonishing result for such a young party. Following this result, party candidtae Luigi Di Maio was elected as the Vice-President of the Chamber of Deputies. The following year, the Five Star Movement gained seventeen MEPs in the 2014 European Parliament Elections; whilst in June of this year, the party managed to win key mayoral races in Rome and Turin, and on Sunday they were able to defeat Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s attempts at constitutional reform.

Like many of the rises forces in politics around the world (think Trump, Farage and UKIP, and Le Pen), the Five Star Movement prides itself on being populist and anti-establishment, a stance which is clearly proving to be successful in politics all around the world.

However, although the Five Star Movement are Eurosceptic and have advocated closer ties with Russia (bread and butter issues for populists), they haven’t been especially ideologically close to existing populists. The populist, anti-establishment politicians you hear most about are the people like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, and Geert Wilders. The likes of Le Pen, Wilders, and Norbert Hofer (who was just defeated in the Austrian Presidential Election) can comfortably be described as being ideologically far-right, whilst Trump and Farage are also very right-wing. This is not the case with the Five Star Movement, with the Northern League (or Lega Nord) the only large far-right political party in Italy. Instead, the Five Star Movement hold a syncretic political position, and operate outside the traditional left-right paradigm.

For example, whilst the Five Star Movement has taken a Eurosceptic position (one of the party’s key positions is withdrawing Italy from the Euro), it has avoided the xenophobia of the Northern League, and the overt nationalism of UKIP and the National Front (although having said this, party leader Beppe Grillo has expressed his support for Nigel Farage and Donald Trump). By doing this and instead focusing its attacks on the political elite and the privileges that they enjoy, the party has been able to gain the support of voters on both the left and right of the political spectrum. In the UK, perhaps the closest that we currently have to a syncretic party is UKIP, who despite being predominantly a right-wing party, have attempted to take some more left-wing positions in a attempt to court traditional Labour voters in the North of England, with this likely to continue in earnest following the election of Paul Nuttall as the new party leader. However, overall UKIP remain a right-wing party, and so are not easily comparable to the syncretic nature of the Five Star Movement, whose key issues include public water and environmentalism, nonviolence, and Euroscepticism, whilst party leader Beppe Grillo has also supported the payment of a universal wage in Italy — positions which don’t ordinarily go together. Although, like many populist parties, the Five Star Movements policies are rather vague and it’s difficult to predict exactly what they would do were they to win power. However, ideology is not at all relevant to why the Five Star Movement could provide the model for political parties in the future. What is relevant is the way that the party is organised.

The Five Star Movement are committed to direct democracy and E-democracy, and have advocated asking party supporters to pick both policies and electoral candidates online. After demanding that snap elections be held following Matteo Renzi’s resignation as Prime Minister, party leader Beppe Grillo wrote on his blog, “From next week we will start to vote for the government programme online, followed by the government team.” The party used a similar system of online voting when selecting Virginia Raggi as their candidate for Mayor of Rome, an election which Raggi subsequently won. The Five Star Movement touts this online process as being more transparent than they ways in which the traditional parties choose their election candidates, and idea which is proving popular given the anti-establishment mood in Italy and the anger at the perceived cronyism and corruption prevalent in Italian politics. However, although the Five Star Movement claim that the process is transparent and democratic, party founder Grillo still maintains strong control over the party’s direction and the party hasn’t used a third-party monitor during any of its primary elections, leaving them open to tampering. However, given the Five Star Movement’s electoral success, this kind of party organisation has clearly worked well. Perhaps the closest we have to this in the UK is Momentum, the organisation set up to support Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Labour Party. However, given recent reports of infighting and power struggles over Momentum founder Jon Lansman’s plans to open Momentum up to direct democracy, it is up in the air as to whether Momentum will be able to replicate the Five Star Movement’s success. Given Jeremy Corbyn’s unelectability (in terms of Prime Minister at least) I would guess that Momentum will struggle to replicate the Five Star Movement’s success. Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have also suggested organising UKIP like the Five Star Movement, in part to achieve Banks’ professed goal of ‘draining the swamp’ of Westminster, but there has been no sign of this happening just yet. But, what it is clear is that parties at both ends to the ideological spectrum are noting the successes of organisations such as the Five Star Movement, and are acting upon them in order to improve the effectiveness of their own political parties.

Where the Five Star Movement has been particularly successful is in campaigning, with this being demonstrated with the significant part they played in causing Matteo Renzi’s constitutional reform (which was much needed in Italian politics) to be rejected. Beppe Grillo is undeniably an engaging and entertaining speaker, particularly at his rallies, and campaigning in this style was shown to be very effective by the election of Donald Trump as US President. In addition, the Five Star Movement have pioneered new methods of online campaigning, with a lot of support having been gained from Beppe Grillo’s blog, which is published daily in Italian, English, and Japanese, and has been ranked as one of the top ten most visited blogs in the world. Although despite the Five Star Movement clearly being strong when it comes to social media and internet campaigning, not all of this has been above board, with an investigation by Buzzfeed finding that sites connected to the Five Star Movement are among Europe’s leading proprietors of fake or misleading news coverage, much of which has likely helped the Five Star Movement electorally.

Now, obviously the recipe for political success around the world is not for parties to copy the Five Star Movement. But, the Five Star Movement clearly show how in today’s world a political party can be built from the ground up very quickly. The Five Star Movement was only established towards the end of 2009 and already, just seven years later, it is the second largest party in Italy. The focus on internet campaigning has clearly been very significant to this success. Even since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the Leader of the Labour Party there has been talk of a Labour split, with moderates going off and forming their own party. In recent months there has even been talk of a split from pro-European members of the Conservative Party. What is said to have stopped all these people is their belief that a new party cannot be built from the ground up and be electorally successful. The Five Star Movement clearly disproves this hypothesis, by showing that if you’re campaigning on issues that enough people care about, and you have the ability to reach those people through the internet and social media, then you can be successful. British politicians who feel marginalised by their own parties would do well to remember this.

Arron Banks attempts to become the UK’s Donald Trump.

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Arron Banks (left) with Nigel Farage. 

At the weekend Nigel Farage and his group of hangers-on travelled to New York to visit President-elect Donald Trump. Among the group was millionaire UKIP and Leave.EU donor Arron Banks. Clearly the visit had some effect upon him because he has since announced his plans to launch a new political party solely dedicated to ‘draining the swamp’ of Westminster.

Banks has suggested that he will be funding a new movement which will look to stand candidates against 200 MPs deemed to be the “worst, most corrupt MPs”. His aim is to harness the ‘anti-establishment sentiment’ which he believes is sweeping through world politics, and which has led to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.

The idea is modelled somewhat upon the candidacy of Martin Bell, a BBC journalist who stood against disgraced Conservative MP Neil Hamilton in the 1997 General Election, ultimately winning his seat of Tatton. Incidentally Hamilton is now, like Banks, a member of UKIP.

Banks has suggested that the targets will be chosen by some form of direct democracy, however he does seem to have some ideas about who he would like to get rid of. He has said that he would rate MPs by undesirability with “Keith Vaz at number one”, whilst a picture released on the Leave.EU twitter page also suggests prominent Remain campaigners Nick Clegg, Anna Soubry, and David Lammy as targets. One would assume that UKIP’s only MP, Douglas Carswell, for whom Banks doesn’t conceal his contempt, would also be a target for the new party.

Banks’ new party won’t take party positions in the traditional sense, however he has suggested some causes that they would likely support, including: “forcing through a change of the rules so that MPs can only hold office for two terms, abolition of the House of Lords and pushing for an elected senate, and insisting on a lower age limit of 40 for MPs to stop career politicians.”

Now I get that Banks wants to harness some of the hateful rhetoric that came from the Trump campaign for the Presidency, and bring it into UK politics. However, I have some questions about how he thinks he can achieve this.

Firstly, Banks’ attempt to unseat MPs is modelled somewhat on the one-term independent candidacy of Martin Bell, and its success in unseating Neil Hamilton in 1997. Whilst Bell was successful in unseating Hamilton and won the seat with a majority of 11,077, this was in part because of a plan masterminded by Alastair Campbell where he arranged for both Labour and the Liberal Democrats to withdraw their candidates for Tatton so as not to split the anti-Hamilton vote. Banks wouldn’t have this advantage. In most seats he’d face the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Green Party, and UKIP; whilst in some he may also face the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru — therefore splitting the vote even further. Therefore, the likelihood of one of his candidates being successful in gaining election is very, very low.

Secondly, Banks suggests he wants to field, “a great candidate, a military guy, doctor, someone who has done something with their life.” However, the chances of him finding 200 candidates that fit this description, and who are also willing to stand on a platform created by someone like Banks (who was a key part of the racist Leave.EU campaign), seem very slim to me. What’s more, Bank’s suggests an upper age limit of forty for MPs. Therefore, quite how he expects to find 200 candidates with amazing life experience, who are also under forty, and are also willing to stand on a platform created by him, is beyond me. Overall, the likelihood of him finding the personnel to complete this ridiculous pet project seems to be very slim indeed.

Thirdly, this project by Banks is an attempt to ride the populist wave from Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. However, Theresa May still insists that the next general election won’t be until 2020, by which time Brexit will be four years in the past and Donald Trump will be struggling to be re-elected. Populism in politics seems to be something which moves extremely quickly, and who knows what its status will be in four years time. My guess is that voters will have long grown tired of the non-solutions offered by populist politicians.

Finally, some of the suggestions which Banks has put forward as issues which his new party might support just don’t seem workable to me. In the previous paragraph I mentioned the proposal of an upper age limit of forty for MPs, but there is also the insistence that each MP should be limited to just two terms in the House of Commons. Although this might sound good when he says it too himself, it just wouldn’t work. With Parliamentary terms being a maximum of five years long, we would never have a Prime Minister with more than ten years experience as an MP — this would not be good for governance in this country. Our last Prime Minister, David Cameron, took office as PM after serving as an MP for nine years. Most of his predecessors had served for much longer: Gordon Brown for twenty-four years, Tony Blair for fourteen years, John Major for twenty-one years, and Margaret Thatcher for twenty years; and the list goes on. I am confident that none of these people could have done the job of Prime Minister after less than two terms as an MP, and I don’t think that the British public would have let them do the job of Prime Minister without this experience. What’s more, I think that it is extremely unlikely that someone could come in with no experience of the workings of Parliament and simply become Prime Minister. For all the talk of Donald Trump’s lack of political experience being a virtue, there have been reports that President Obama is having to spend extra sessions with Trump before the inauguration because his knowledge of government is so lacking. Realistically, to ask someone with no knowledge to do the job of Prime Minister straightaway seems a non-starter to me.

Ultimately, this is pretty typical from Banks, a ridiculous idea attempting to get some publicity and massage his ego — all whilst bringing the likes of Nigel Farage and himself further into the limelight than anyone wants them to be. In an entertaining article from earlier today, Iain Martin describes Banks’ new party as, “The Stupid Party”. That seems like a pretty good name to me.