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.

Labour rebels shouldn’t fear the fate of the SDP.

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Could Corbyn’s re-election prompt a split?

On Saturday, Jeremy Corbyn will be announced as having retained the leadership of the Labour Party. I strongly expect that he will have achieved a higher percentage of the vote than in 2015. This is little to do with Owen Smith, rather a reflection of the extent to which the membership of the party has changed since Corbyn’s election as leader.

Once Corbyn is announced as having retained the leadership, talk will invariably return to whether the party will reunite or whether it will split.

For many months, there have been suggestions that the moderates (or Blairites) in the Parliamentary Labour Party are planning to split off if Corbyn continues as leader. Many moderate Labour MPs have been vocal in their concerns about Labour’s electability under Corbyn, and it is clear that they want things to change.

However, up to now one thing that they have all been unequivocal about, is that they don’t wish to see the party split. Generally, when asked the standard question regarding the prospect of a split, Labour MPs have responded by citing the example of the Labour MPs who split from the party in 1981 and formed the Social Democratic Party (SDP).

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The ‘Gang of Four’ who formed the SDP. 

The SDP was founded by four senior Labour Party members known collectively as the ‘Gang of Four’: David Owen, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, and Bill Rodgers. They were joined by twenty-eight other defecting MPs from the Labour Party, and one MP who defected from the Conservatives. However, despite their early success in attracting MPs, the SDP would struggle to retain them in general elections. In the 1983 General Election, the First-Past-The-Post system meant that just six SDP MPs were elected. It is clear today that this failure still haunts Labour MPs who might otherwise consider a split.

Writing in the i on Wednesday, Labour MP and former Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna, suggested that in the event of a split, any new party would simply suffer the same fate as the SDP.

Twenty-eight MPs defected from Labour to the SDP back then but just 6 SDP MPs were elected in the 1983 election that followed. That split of the Left was a gift to the Right, which saw 18 years of Tory rule as the consequence. This is why I know of no Labour MP now who wants to repeat the same mistake and doom our country to the same fate.

From this, it would seem abundantly clear that Umunna believes that any split would be unsuccessful, and that this view is backed up by the evidence from 1981, as well as evidence that the First-Past-The-Post electoral system tends to discriminate against third-parties.

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Labour MP Chuka Umunna has suggested that a split would be unsuccessful. 

However, the political landscape is much changed since then. Nowadays, it would definitely be possible to make a success of a similar sort of split.

One of the main reasons for this is the advent of the internet, in particular social media, and its use in political campaigning.

The 24-hour news cycle which exists primarily as a result of the internet, means that any new political movement can gain instant traction all around the country, and indeed all around the world. Recently, we have seen abundant examples of how internet savvy campaigning has brought success to campaigns which experts dismissed as having little chance. Take the example of Donald Trump’s campaign for the Republican nomination for President. Trump recognised the power of social media and the internet in order to build his own political movement, and managed to build something which differed hugely from the campaigns being run by his opponents, most of whom were firmly part of the political establishment.

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Donald Trump’s success has been built around the savvy use of social media, and the ability to differentiate himself from the political establishment. 

Similarly, Labour rebels can take inspiration from inside their own party. Jeremy Corbyn’s unlikely rise to the leadership of the Labour Party was characterised by his use of social media to draw young people to his rallies and build a movement in support of his candidacy.

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Corbyn used social media to draw huge crowds to his rallies, and build a social movement from nothing. 

Overall, although it is still desirable to able to call upon a party machine of volunteers to roam the streets and knock on doors when campaigning, it is no longer the only way to gain support. Online advertising and fundraising can reach out to potential voters like never before.

Trump and Corbyn show the way to go. Both attracted the votes of people who wouldn’t normally be voting in their respective elections. Now Corbyn has as good as populated the membership of the Labour Party with these supporters gained during the first leadership campaign. Rebel MPs need to do a similar thing. There will be millions of available voters who want a credible alternative to the main parties, and it is these people who can be targeted when creating a new party. This targeting can be done in a way that wasn’t possible in 1981, and means that a split today could be significantly more successful than the SDP debacle.

Potential rebel MPs also tend to cite our First-Past-The-Post electoral system as cause for concern, by stating that it discriminates against third-parties, and that as such any new party would be doomed to failure. However, although FPTP has historically been difficult for third-parties, it doesn’t have to be. In the 2015 Canadian Federal Election, Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party showed that it is possible for a third-party to win an election under FPTP. The Liberal Party began the campaign in third place in the polls with only 26% support, but when the campaign concluded, they had won 39.5% of the popular vote, which equated to a parliamentary majority. In Canada, The Liberal Party proved that it was possible for a third-party to win under FPTP if they were able to appeal beyond their usual base of support, whilst also campaigning on a platform distinctively different from other parties in the election. If a new party formed of rebel Labour MPs were able to follow the blueprint set by the successful Canadian Liberal Party, then they could be successful regardless of our electoral system.

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The success of Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party provides a blueprint for success for a new third party. 
With the Conservative Party having shifted to the right under Theresa May and Labour having lurched to the left under Jeremy Corbyn, their is a large enough space in the political centre for a new party. With such a large gap in the centre, it would easy for a new party to campaign on a platform reasonably distinctive from the offering of the two main parties, and as such they could be successful regardless of FPTP.

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Theresa May has shifted the Conservative Party to the right, leaving a space in the centre. 

In any case, Labour MPs would have absolutely nothing to lose by splitting off and forming a new party. Although they may feel a great degree of loyalty to their current party, they certainly won’t feel the same degree of loyalty to Corbyn. As such, it is hard to see many of the moderate, centrist Labour MPs will be willing to pledge allegiance to a Labour Party run by Corbyn and John McDonnell. It increasingly sounds as though any Labour MPs who chooses not to support the leadership will be deselected at the next election, whilst many more could lose seats through a combination of the boundary review and Corbyn’s unpopular policies.

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It’s difficult to see moderate Labour MPs pledging allegiance to a party run by Corbyn and McDonnell, meaning many will be deselected. 
As a result, many of these Labour MPs could lose their seats anyway. Therefore, why not split off and try and save themselves, and their ideals, from extinction. With the political landscape in such a state of flux, there should be little to fear from splitting off. Rebel MPs should take the plunge and give it a go, because the way their party is heading it could be just about the last chance they get to ensure their values continue to be represented in the House of Commons.

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.