Listening to Italy
The last issue of Labour Affairs noted that Nigel Farage had visited the HQ of the Italian Five Star Movement (M5S) to research the way that the Movement is run in a non-traditional and digital way. Farage stated that there were organisational strategies that he could use in the setting up of his new Brexit Party.
M5S was founded in 2009 by web strategist Gianroberto Casaleggio and Beppe Grillo, a comedian and blogger. Their aim was to organise a political alternative to the mainstream, binary political parties which they saw as self-serving, corrupt and out-dated. They would use the web as their primary tool, describing it as a “transparent, unified, coherent entity”. Uniquely, M5S is owned by a private company, now headed by Gianroberto’s son Davide, after the death of his father. Following the first electoral successes in 2014, a directorate group was set up which also included 5 MPs. This was abolished within a year and Grillo proclaimed himself as the “political head”.
At first the autonomy of members and indeed elected M5S politicians was severely restricted and the directorate alone made statements. Transgressing members were expelled either by internet votes of all members or by dictat from Grillo. As just one of many examples a regional director, Giovanni Favia, was unilaterally expelled by Grillo for criticising the lack of internal party democracy. Councillors, MPs, Mayors and even selected candidates standing for election have been expelled from the Movement for giving their own point of view.
The five key issues for the Movement are referred to in their title: Movement of Five Stars. These are public water, sustainable transport, sustainable development, right to internet access and environmentalism. Over time specific issues have been added and some ambiguity has arisen in their “beliefs”.
Grillo refused to countenance any political alliances in the Italian Parliament with established political parties, all of whom were considered corrupt. Luigi Di Maio, the Leader following Grillo, accepted an alliance with Matteo Salvini’s Lega, recognising the reality that M5S had too small a majority to govern alone. Again, funding within the European Parliament follows the making of alliances and M5S joined a group with Farage’s UKIP.
M5S‘s digital framework was of particular interest to Farage. The IT system, is called Rousseau, after the French Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that good government must have the freedom of its citizens as its most fundamental objective. It aims to be a “democratic encounter outside of party and associative ties without the mediation of directive or representational organisms, recognising to all users of the Internet the role of government and direction that is normally attributed to a few.” The Brexit Party‘s website’s aim appears in an identical, but easy-read, tabloid format: “We’re out to challenge the self-serving two-party system, make the people sovereign…”. This is the “Democratic Earthquake” of post-Orwellian Farage’s populist party which has, to date, no policies at all. But, crucially, M5S is a private company influenced ultimately by the non-elected with absolute power, while The Brexit Party has unelected Nigel Farage and shadowy figures such as Aaron Banks in similar positions of absolute power. In this context is the meaning of making “the people sovereign” just a catch-phrase for the gullible?
Enrica Sabatini, who works closely with Davide Cassaleggio says that M5S’s goal in developing Rousseau “is to enhance people’s skills and create a network for those who want to change their country”. The digital platform has an “education” section, which asks members to vote on issues, from developing and approving policy, to ejecting members or giving expressions of confidence to elected politicians. Following the Euro elections, Salvini’s Lega received considerably more votes than M5S – predicted, but a crushing defeat nevertheless. Members gave Luigi di Maio an on-line 80% vote of confidence.
In this context it isn’t cynical to question the security of the Rousseau system. The Italian Data Protection Authority were sufficiently concerned to levy fines on M5S. The evidence they considered included that Rosseau had been a vulnerable victim to several hacker attacks. Then internally to M5S, there were the sharing of access credentials so that it was impossible to verify who was operating the system at any specified time. The votes given by members on any issue could also easily be traced and were therefore not secret.
The UK’s system should provide a safety net because the Electoral Commission gives clear stipulations to any group applying to be recognised as a party. There must be a Leader, Treasurer and a Nominating Officer. They must comply with “rules on spending, sources of funding and certain reporting requirements to ensure that political finances are transparent.” But there is currently no system like Rousseau in the UK with Electoral Commission guidelines. A similar system could provide Farage with a simple way of controlling and commanding his loyal and enthusiastic and largely uncritical followers.
Relevant to this, is that M5S‘s original members had a different socio-economic background to current Brexit Party members. From the description of author Fabio Bordignon they largely had a good level of education, interests in environmentalism and renewable energy; the problems of poverty, precarious employment and political corruption and were anti-big business and globalisation.
A swift look at The Brexit Party’s website is sufficient to show that their manifesto consists of nothing more than the issue of Brexit and a scattering of utopian statements. “It is about what sort of democratic country we live in….restore trust in our democracy” The 29 MEPs and the candidates currently being selected for UK seats are all operating in a policy vacuum. On what criteria are the selections being made? Don’t worry, our Nigel reassures, “We are now developing our policies on the big issues facing the UK – and you can play a part.”