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.

Contrary to what Donald Trump says, Nigel Farage would not be a suitable or popular choice as US Ambassador. 


Just under two weeks ago, Nigel Farage and his gang (Arron Banks, Andy Wigmore etc.) received huge publicity for their visit to Trump Tower, New York City, where they met President-Elect Donald J. Trump. Following this visit it was suggested by several misguided individuals that given Farage’s apparent close relationship with Trump (although even this is up for debate) then it would be a good idea for Theresa May to appoint Farage as some sort of intermediary with the Trump administration. Eventually this developed into full-throttled discussion as to whether Nigel Farage should be appointed as the United Kingdom’s ambassador to the United States, serving in Washington D.C; with Trump himself entering into the debate with the following tweet:


although from looking at his Twitter account it seems as though he has since deleted the tweet, perhaps because he has finally realised what a terrible idea it would be, but who knows?

The main factor which surely disqualifies Farage from serving as ambassador is experience, namely Farage’s lack of any discernible experience of international affairs. Yes, he has been an MEP since 1999, however this won’t have really exposed him to international affairs to the extent that being an ambassador requires. In addition, the experience which he may have gained as an MEP will have little relevance to the role which the US Ambassador is required to carry out in Washington D.C., therefore suggesting again that Farage would not be at all suited to the position. It should also be recognised that Farage’s relationship with Trump could arguably compromise his ability to do the job, as he would be beholden to Trump for having in effect gained him the position, quite rightly former US Ambassdor Sir Christopher Meyer has described the prospect of Farage becoming ambassador as “barking mad”. Overall, Farage is completely unqualified for the role, and should in no way be considered for the position. 

However, some have suggested that Farage should not be allowed the position because his would be a political appointment, this is a somewhat erroneous appointment. Although most ambassadors are foreign service veterans, there have been instances in the past where political appointees have become ambassadors. Indeed the UK’s current ambassador to France is Edward Llewellyn who was previously Chief of Staff to Prime Minister David Cameron. Therefore, Farage shouldn’t be disqualified based on his being a political appointee. The difference between Llewellyn and Farage is that in this role as David Cameron’s Chief of Staff, Llewellyn will have been in the room for key international affairs decisions. Farage would have no such experience to draw upon and thus would be unsuited to a similar role. 

Secondly, Donald Trump’s claim that “Many people” would like to see Farage named as Ambassador needs scrutiny. There seems to be little evidence from recent UK history that contradicts the view that UK citizens want anything more than for Nigel Farage to retire from frontline politics. Seven times Farage has stood for Parliament, and seven times he has lost. Of those seven elections, only twice has he received a percentage vote share in double figures: in 2010 17.4 per cent of the vote in Buckingham as he challenged Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow (although it must be remebered that the main parties traditionally don’t challenge the Speaker and therefore Farage had minimal opposition: and he still didn’t get elected); and in 2015 he won 32.4 per cent of the vote in South Thanet, losing a race he was widely expected to win to Conservative Party candidate Craig Mackinlay by almost six percent. Although Farage has indeed been elected to the European Parliament on four occasions, this speaks more of the fact that European Elections have typically been used as a way for voters to express dissatisfaction with the main parties, rather than suggesting anything good about Farage’s national popularity. Indeed, a ComRes poll conducted in August gave Farage a net popularity rating of minus twenty-eight. 

Farage’s only real electoral success was being on the winning side in June’s EU Referendum. However, it is debatable how much he did to engineer this result. Although a good argument can be made for the theory that the referendum would not have been held if it hadn’t been for pressure from Farage, I’m not sure that much of an argument can be made for Farage being a reason for the Leave win. It said a lot that the official Vote Leave campaign were unwilling to touch Farage with a barge pole during the referendum campaign, with Farage instead having to be a part of the Leave.EU campaign put together by friend Arron Banks. The evidence at the time suggested that Farage was far too divisive to appeal to the undecided voters in Middle England which both campaigns needed in order to win. 

So no, contrary to what Donald Trump says, there is not some clamour for Nigel Farage to become the UK’s ambassador to the United States. 

Although, having said that, there are probably quite a lot of people who would be quite happy to see Farage shipped off to Washington D.C. and off our television screens for a while. 

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.