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.

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.

Will Richmond Park ‘Sack Zac’?

Zac Goldsmith.

On 25 October the Government announced that they would be supporting a third runway for Heathrow Airport. Following this announcement, Zac Goldsmith the MP for Richmond Park announced his resignation, triggering a by-election which will come to an conclusion on Thursday. Goldsmith was honouring a promise made during his first election campaign (when he defeated Liberal Democrat incumbent Susan Kramer in 2010) that he would resign his House of Commons seat were the Conservative Government to ever support a third runway, “no ifs, no buts”. Originally it seemed unlikely that Goldsmith would have to act upon this promise given that then Conservative leader David Cameron had said in 2009 that his future Government would not be supporting a third runway. However, when Cameron left his post in July the issue was back on the table, and Theresa May’s government approved the proposal for a new runway and terminal in October. 

Goldsmith is standing again but this time as an Independent, and hoped to make the by-election solely about his opposition to the expansion of Heathrow — a stance supported by most of the constituency’s residents. His expectation was that he would be able to make a point about the expansion, and then get easily elected to Parliament once again without compromising his principles. Goldsmith has said that he would remain an independent for a “full term in Parliament”, but beyond that he has not ruled out rejoining the Conservatives. 

However, in actual fact, the by-election has not been quite so simple for Goldsmith. Once the candidates were announced, it became apparent that all of the main candidates were against the expansion of Heathrow. In addition to Goldsmith himself, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney is against expansion, as is the candidate for the Labour Party, Christian Wolmar. In addition, the Conservative Party ultimately declined to field a candidate against Goldsmith which has made his stance of standing against Government policy lose quite a lot of steam. With Goldsmith’s main rivals all agreeing with him on the issue of Heathrow, commentators (and voters) naturally looked for the issues which divided the candidates, with the most prominent of these being Brexit. 

Goldsmith has long been an outspoken supporter of leaving the European Union, following on from the father James Goldsmith who founded and financed the Referendum Party in 1994. His opponents on the other hand were staunchly in favour of a Remain vote in June’s EU Referendum. As well as his opponents, his constitutents were also strongly in favour of remaining the the EU. London as a whole voted by 60–40 to remain in the EU, in Richmond Park the vote for remain was 69.3%. There is evidence that many of the voters in Richmond Park were concerned and angry about the Brexit stance of their otherwise popular local MP, and recent polling has reflected this. In late October, BMG research released polling where 25 percent of respondents identified Brexit as the most important issue in the upcoming by-election, compared t0 just 21 percent who identified Heathrow expansion as the most important issue. This suggests that Goldsmith has been outflanked somewhat, and the by-election has turned into a referendum on his stance on Brexit, as opposed to a ratification of his views on Heathrow. 

As the holders of the Richmond Park parliamentary seat until 2010, it is reasonable to suggest the Liberal Democrat to be the closest challengers for this seat. Although, the Lib Dems were reduced to just eight House of Commons seat at the 2015 General Election, there have been recent signs of a resurgence in support with the Lib Dems attempting to court the votes of those who voted to remain in the EU by promising a second referendum, and pledging to vote against the triggering of Article 50 in Parliament. Nationwide I am not convinced that this is a good strategy for winning House of Commons seats, however in an area with such a high vote for Remain like Richmond Park there is a fairly decent chance that it will help the Lib Dems gain support. Similarly, in the by-election earlier this year for David Cameron’s old seat in Witney (another constituency which voted heavily in favour of remain) the Lib Dems experienced a surge in support (into second place), in part because the Conservative Party fielded a candidate who had campaigned in favour of a Leave vote. The Lib Dems are hoping that a similar strategy will help them here. 

In their attempts to pigeonhole Goldsmith as a supporter of a ‘hard Brexit’ and defeat him this way, the Lib Dems have been inadvertently helped by UKIP. On 27 October, UKIP announced that they wouldn’t be fielding candidate in the by-election and instead chose to endorse Goldsmith — praising him for the stance on Brexit, among other things. As well reminding voters of Goldsmith’s support for Brexit, this perhaps also served to remind them of the divisive campaign that he waged against Sadiq Khan in the London Mayoral Election in May. The Lib Dems have used this endorsement to their advantage by printing imitation newspapers with Nigel Farage on the front page, and suggesting that he has personally endorsed Goldsmith. In an area where Farage is clearly not going to be the most popular guy around, this kind of thing will almost certainly have an affect. Clearly Goldsmith has recognised that his stance on Brexit is having an adverse affect on his campaign as he used a recent interview with The Independent to register his opposition to Theresa May challenging the Article 50 vote decision in the Supreme Court, and to make it clear that he supported a House of Commons vote on the triggering of Article 50. 

Early signs suggest that making the campaign about Brexit has had an extremely negative affect on Goldsmith’s attempts to retain his seat, although having said this it seems that with just under a week to go he still has just enough support to be confident of retaining the seat on Thursday. Polling leaked from the Liberal Democrat campaign suggests 46.7 percent, less than the 58.2 percent he won in the 2015 General Election. Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat support has jumped to 43.3 percent, well up from the 19.3 percent they won in 2015 and within touching distance of Goldsmith. 

Ironically, were Goldsmith to win and retain his seat, it is the Conservative Party’s decision not to stand a candidate that will have saved him. Although this decision was perhaps understandable given the expectation that Goldsmith would rejoin the Conservatives at some point, as well as the high likelihood that a Conservative candidate would have split the vote, it still means that Goldsmith’s decision to call a by-election in order to stand against his own party was basically pointless. Equally, however, you could argue that the decision of the Labour Party to stand a candidate will have cost the Liberal Democrats the seat. Leading Labour MPs Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy, and Jonathan Reynolds had urged Labour to refrain from fielding a candidate in order to have the best chance of unseating Goldsmith, however the party disagreed and fielded Wolmar, a candidate with no chance of winning but who will likely cost the Lib Dems a fair few votes. 

What seems clear is that this by-election is set to go down to the wire. More so than the Witney by-election earlier in the year, the result in this vote will be of real significance to the ongoing debate over Brexit. Were Goldsmith to retain his seat, Theresa May could use the result as tacit consent amongst those who voted remain for the pursuit of a ‘hard Brexit”, but were Olney to defeat him, then this would serve to increase the growing divides that have been evident within the electorate since the referendum. 

Whoever wins, it is going to be close.

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.

In praise of Ben Sasse the Uber driver.

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Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse. 

Ben Sasse is the junior United States Senator for Nebraska, having been elected to the Senate in 2014. As a staunchly conservative member of the Republican Party, he is not someone with whom I would ordinarily share very much common ground, however he has always struck me as a hardworking and principled politician.

A news story from earlier this week highlighted this as it emerged that Sasse had been working part time in his home State as an Uber driver in an attempt to connect with his constituents and understand the work that they do on a day to day basis. When asked about it, his spokesman said that he does lots of similar work events, “from changing tires on semi trucks to feeding cattle at 5am”.

Naturally because of the limits on Senator’s outside earnings, Sasse doesn’t make money from the program. Instead, he donates the money to charity with the sole purpose being to better understand the lives of constituents and therefore have the ability to represent them better in Washington D.C.

Although I don’t have much ideological similarity with Sasse, I have to say that this is an excellent idea and one that politicians around the world should consider adopting. One of the abiding themes in politics in recent years has been the dissatisfaction that many voters have with their elected representatives. Often, this is because voters regard their representatives as ‘career politicians’ who don’t understand their daily lives and who are fully insulated from their struggles. This has been one of the key reasons for the move towards support for more anti-establishment political candidates which has culminated this year with the vote for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, and the election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States, and which may yet lead to the election of Marine Le Pen as President of France. Perhaps if politicians were to spend more time with their constituents in this way, then events like this may have been averted.

Overall, I’m sure that there are a great many politicians around the world who care a great deal about the lives of their constituents and who partake in similar schemes to Sasse, but after reading the story on Sasse I thought that it was a particularly nice one and worthy of being shared.

Perhaps if the work of those politicians who do so much to help the lives of their constituents was publicised more, and more politicians were encouraged to participate in the same type of projects as Sasse, then maybe the move toward anti-establishment populist politicians who don’t really have the answers to the problems of real people could be averted.

Could Bernie Sanders have beaten Trump?

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Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Since Donald J. Trump beat Hillary Clinton to the Presidency on Tuesday night, various hypotheses have been put forward as to why the Democrats lost an election that so many thought they would win comfortably, against a Presidential Candidate in Donald Trump whom at first glance looked about as unelectable as it was possible to be. With President Obama’s approval rating relatively strong and on the rise, most thought that the election of Hillary Clinton to the Presidency was a foregone conclusion. Alas this was proved to be wrong, and in the days which have followed the inquest has begun into why Clinton and the Democrats failed to win, and why the Republicans managed to win the Presidency and retain control of both Houses of Congress for the first time since 2006.

One of the most popular hypotheses put forward has been that Clinton’s main rival in the Democratic Presidential Primary, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, would have defeated Donald Trump by a comfortable margin. There are many who feel that Sanders, with his own brand of left-wing populism, would have been a better candidate to take on the right-wing populism of Trump.

Indeed, this was a view espoused by Sanders and his supporters throughout the primary campaign. During an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, Sanders said:

“Right now in every major poll, national poll and statewide poll done in the last month, six weeks, we are defeating Trump often by big numbers, and always at a larger margin than Secretary Clinton is.”

Sanders and his supporters put this view forward many times throughout the campaign but ultimately they were unsuccessful, with the wider Democratic Party rallying around Clinton and helping her to the nomination despite Sanders running her extremely close in the Iowa Caucus, and winning the New Hampshire Primary by a very wide margin.

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Sanders defeated Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire Primary by a large margin. 

 

Sanders supporters point to various reasons as to why he could have defeated Trump in the Presidential Election, if only the Democrats had selected him.

One key thing that supporters point to is the popularity of Sanders, who has been named the most popular United States Senator for the past two years. In an election where the two main candidates were uniquely unpopular, they suggest that this could have been a huge asset which would have propelled him to victory. Sanders supporters also point to his popularity amongst millennials, many of whom didn’t warm to Hillary Clinton, and as a result cast their votes for the likes of Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, or simply stayed at home. Mostly though, Sanders supporters point to his primary successes in the very States in which Clinton struggled most on Tuesday. During the Democratic Primary, Sanders won victories in Wisconsin and Michigan, both of which were considered Democratic strongholds prior to the election but which were ultimately won by Trump. It has been suggested that Sanders was propelled to success in these primaries by the same forces that propelled Trump to victory in these States on Tuesday, namely the forgotten men and women of the white working class. This means that, in theory, Sanders could have competed with Trump better than Clinton for the votes that ultimately decided the outcome of this presidential election.

However, would Sanders really have done better than Clinton against Donald Trump?

In the Presidential Election, although Clinton had issues gaining the support of the white working class, arguably her biggest problem was failing to energise African-American voters to turn out and vote for her in the same way that Barack Obama did four years previously. In winning the Presidency, Donald Trump actually received less votes than the 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, however the Democratic vote fell so significantly that Trump won the Presidency. In large part, this was because the African-American vote fell significantly. Around 88 percent of black voters supported Clinton, compared to around 8 percent for Trump, however turnout wasn’t high enough for this margin to make a difference, with black voters making up 12 percent of the electorate as opposed to 13 percent four years ago. Had Clinton been able to garner the same turnout among black voters as Barack Obama, she probably would have won States like Michigan, North Carolina, and Florida, and with them the Presidency.

But would Sanders really have done any better?

During the Democratic Primary, Sanders’ main difficulty was his low support with African-American voters, and in many of the primary contests he lost black voters to Clinton by around fifty points. Clinton struggled with the young and the white working class during the primary campaign, and then struggled with these groups again during the general election. Given that Sanders struggled with African-American voters during the primary, it would be expected that he would also struggle with African-American voters in a general election. Therefore, whilst Sanders may have been able to turn more white working class voters over to the Democratic cause, this would likely be counteracted with a fall in African-American support — meaning that Sanders would have probably suffered the same fate as Clinton when coming up against Donald Trump.

As well as this, although it seems a fair argument that Sanders’ left-wing populism could have matched the right-wing populism of Trump, the results around the United States seem to provide little evidence for this. In Colorado, one of the key battleground States which Clinton won, on the ballot alongside the Presidential Election was a referendum on a single-payer healthcare system. The introduction of a single-payer healthcare system was one of the key planks of Sanders’ candidacy, yet in Colorado it was defeated comfortably. In Wisconsin, former Senator Russ Feingold, who is an ally of Sanders, was attempting to win back his old Senate seat. He lost to Republican Tea Party incumbent Ron Johnson — by a bigger margin than Clinton lost Wisconsin by. Therefore, there seems little concrete evidence that Sanders’ policies would have played better with the electorate than Clinton’s policies.

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Russ Feingold (left) lost his Senate race in Wisconsin to Ron Johnson (right) by a larger margin than Hillary Clinton. 

 

As well as this, Sanders was a regular surrogate on the campaign trail for the Clinton campaign, consistently telling voters that they had to vote for Clinton lest they get a Donald Trump Presidency. However, this didn’t turn the tide, with Trump still emerging victorious. So perhaps Sanders’ popularity with the white working class is indeed being overstated, and he wouldn’t have gained much more support for the Democrats in a contest between him and Donald Trump.

Also, Bernie Sanders’ policies were scrutinised during the Democratic Primary but not in the same way as they would be during the general election. During the primaries, Donald Trump dismissively referred to Sanders as “Crazy Bernie”. Facing him in the general election would have allowed Trump the opportunity to paint Sanders as a radical socialist, which in all likelihood would have torpedoed his candidacy.

In addition, the presence of two populist candidates on the ticket, could well have precipitated a major third-party candidacy. In January, there was a lot of speculation that former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg would enter the Presidential Race as an independent candidate.

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If Bernie Sanders had won the Democratic nomination then he would have probably faced a well-funded independent candidate in the shape of former Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg.

 

Bloomberg’s candidacy would be unlike most third-party or independent candidacies in that it would have been extremely well funded and able to compete around the country, much like the candidacy of Ross Perot in 1992 and, if you think about it, the candidacy of Donald Trump this time around.

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Bloomberg’s campaign would have been able to appeal in many of the same ways that Trump’s did. Namely the likely self-funded nature, and Bloomberg not being a part of the Washington D.C. establishment. 

 

Indeed, Bloomberg had already set up campaign offices and conducted polling all around the country. It was only when Hillary Clinton took a commanding lead in the Democratic Primary that he announced that he would not be running. Following this, it was reported that his advisers had said that if Sanders and Trump were at the top of each of the tickets, Bloomberg would have run. The candidacy of Bloomberg would have meant that even if Sanders’ candidacy had won back the voters who Clinton lost to Jill Stein and Gary Johnson, and those who stayed at home, he would have lost voters on the right of Clinton’s coalition, meaning that the result could well have been the same for the Democrats.

Ultimately, it is hard to see where Sanders could have done better than Clinton. Although he may have lessened Trump’s support amongst the white working class, his candidacy would likely have further reduced turnout amongst the African-American community. And although Sanders is able to pitch himself as a more anti-establishment politician than Clinton, he is still a career politician who has been a Senator working in Washington D.C. for almost ten years. Trump would have been able to tap into exactly the same level of anti-politics feeling against Sanders as he could against Clinton. More than anything, this result was a vote for change and a vote against the Washington establishment. Although Sanders is arguably not an establishment politician, I think that Trump would probably have still been able to paint him that way, and what’s more he would also have been able to deride him as a radical socialist.

Overall, although it makes for a nice and easy conclusion, the reason that the Democrats lost was not because they didn’t choose Sanders as their candidate, he would in fact have probably have suffered the same fate as Clinton. If the Democrats come to this conclusion, and choose to shift to the left as a result, then they would be hugely mistaken. Just look at what has happened to the Labour Party in the UK, where after losing in the 2015 General Election running on Ed Miliband’s centre-left platform, they then chose to elect as leader the arch left-winger Jeremy Corbyn after concluding that the reason for their loss to David Cameron’s Conservative Party was that they were not left-wing enough. However, unsurprisingly, Corbyn is languishing in the polls and shows no sign of being able to compete for power in the UK.

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Jeremy Corbyn should provide ample warning to the Democrats of the electoral dangers of turning to populist left-wing policies. 

 

Although Bernie Sanders is clearly a very gifted politician and it would be remiss of me not to praise his excellent primary campaign, it would be a huge mistake for Democrats to conclude that their failure to nominate him for the Presidency caused their loss. To do so could confine them to the electoral wilderness for an extended period of time. Instead, they should concentrate on re-building the party (and although he is not suited as a Presidential candidate, Sanders should certainly have a role in this rebuilding job) and finding another centrist candidate who can challenge Trump in 2020. Because in the 2020 Presidential Election, the Democrats will have a very real chance to regain presidential power, and they will need to be prepared for this.

 

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Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.