Monday 5 December 2016

Why Renzi Lost the Referendum

As someone who wasn't born into political radicalism (quite the opposite), relics of attitudes and ideas long abandoned sometimes clutter up the synapses. And one of these is a notion I used to hold about politicians. At the risk of making myself red faced, until quite late in the day I believed that climbing the greasy poll, to be a councillor, a Member of Parliament, and a minister you had to have something about you. Some level of intellect, a dash of charisma, the capacity to connect with people and, most helpful of all, nous. And a part of me is disappointed every time an elected representative falls short of these not-so-lofty expectations.

The gentleman who's had my head a-shaking at the start of this week is Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and the referendum he lost on bringing "stability" to government. As readers are aware, Italy's had almost as many different governments as there have been years since the Second World War. Renzi's ruling Democratic Party is the country's primary centre left formation, recently formed from a mishmash of the safely de-communised, social democratised former communist party, the Christian left, the greens and liberals, and a few others. These currents retain their distinct identities for the most part, with the several times diluted ex-PCI as the party's organisational backbone. Renzi for his part is described as half-way technocrat, half-way populist. He hails from a Christian democratic background and made a name for himself butting his head against the PD's leadership. He was also keen to portray himself as a moderniser in much the same vein as a certain someone, and for want of a better phrase has occupied the ground of liberal populism. Frequent targets of his rhetoric were the bankers and, in equal measure, the "privileges" secured by the trade unions (among which was protection from unjustified dismissals). How boringly petit bourgeois and, from the viewpoint of maintaining a healthy centre left, dumb.

After the 2008 crash, Italy's long-term weakness was exposed. GDP growth is anemic, and the country remains a long way off recovery. And you thought Britain's GDP recovery was tardy. Unemployment is falling again, but is dangerously high, contributing its part to the erosion of the established parties and providing the relevant combustibles to our friends in the Liga Nord and Five Star Movement.

As part of a package of measures he believed would pull Italy out of the doldrums, Renzi sought to inject stability into the notoriously fractious political system. Understandably thanks to 20 years under the fascist cosh and the unhappy experience of the Nazi occupation, the post-war constitution fashioned in 1947 balanced the powers of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. Presently a vote of no confidence in the upper house can dismiss a government, and herein lies the Italian party system's instability. With the lack of so-called strong government, opponents of the Senate's constitutional rights argue that parties have a very hard time thinking and acting in the long-term, as well as taking on challenging and controversial political projects. Renzi's referendum was about curbing these powers as well as introducing a new electoral system. This would retain PR but give a bonus number of seats to any party crossing the 40% threshold. After much wrangling and horse trading, including a pact with Silvio Berlusconi of all people, the measures cleared both houses but not by the margin deemed necessary by the constitution. Therefore the proposals had to be put to a referendum.

Asking people to vote for a package of reform amounting to less democracy was never going to be an easy sell. Though, constitutionally speaking, Renzi didn't have much of a choice. But then he made the fatal error, and not one you'd expect from a politician proven to have nous enough to thrive in the rough and tumble of Italian politics. He committed a catastrophic mistake that not even Dave, the most politically inept PM of recent times was daft enough to make: by threatening to resign if the vote was lost, Renzi made the referendum all about him.

There is a tendency in politics to simplify things. Policies can be complex and beyond the ken of legislators, let alone a public who cast politics the odd sideways glance outside of election time. Perhaps this was part of Renzi's reasoning. I can't imagine, for instance, that many people were fussed whether the Senate was elected on a region-by-region basis or not. But most people would certainly have had an opinion on the Prime Minister's record, which calls into question Renzi's reasoning. While not polarising or as dismal as the hapless Francois Hollande, yet, those attacks on the centre left's bedrock will have not done him any favours. While the Catholic-rooted Italian Confederation of Workers' Trade Unions backed Renzi, the Italian General Confederation of Labour (CGIL) - the main target of the earlier labour market reform package - did not and agitated for a no vote. It might not have attracted the publicity of Beppe Grillo's oh-so funny antics, but this is a union that had pulled a million people out onto the streets of Rome to protest the attacks on workers. They were an important factor, a five million strong factor and one typically overlooked by a politician unable to comprehend the political character of the parties they lead. Compounding the foolishness was allowing the populists to, well, consolidate their populism. Personalising the referendum explicitly framed the proposals as an establishment stitch-up designed to give the elites a smoother ride, and granted the awful anti-politics of Five Star permission to gain extra ground. Renzi's best bet at winning was to turn it into a snoozefest rather than a shitfest, and he completely blew it.

Rightly, Italy said no to the changes. But in so doing, another Prime Minister says ciao - though no one should rule out repeat Berlusconi-style come backs for Renzi. And Grillo's movement has grown in strength and legitimacy. A good outcome with a pretty grizzly consequence, and yet another reminder why the centre left are on the retreat.


Speedy said...

Good analysis. However, you're wrong about "no" being the right decision - in a perfect world, yes, but the reality is that poor reform was better than no reform, and now that will not happen. What this means is that Italy's economic decline will continue, and we're talking about 130 per cent debt to GDP, 40-50 per cent youth unemployment, and 20 per cent less competitive industry (than, say, Germany). It has lost a quarter of its industrial production since 2008. The cure should not kill, but in this case no treatment is likely to be fatal.

David Timoney said...

I think there was a clear parallel between Cameron and Renzi. Project Fear was an explicit threat: vote no and the economy gets it. While "It's the economy, stupid" might have worked in the 90s, by 2016 this had become an empty threat. Many voters figured it couldn't get any worse, so what the hell.

Similarly, many Italians appear to have calculated that not only would a victory for Renzi achieve little, but the same would apply in the event of his defeat. He offered them a free hit, and they took it.

Renzi's mistake was to assume that voters would share his neoliberal irritation with restraints on technocracy. Cameron's mistake was to assume that voters were as economically comfortable, and thus cautious, as him and his chums.

Lidl_Janus said...

Renzi may yet have a minor stroke of fortune after his departure; I'm sure Italian Zac Goldsmith is readying his triple fuckup with pike as we speak.

BCFG said...

Well this might have been an opportune time for you to finally deal with the startling level of anti Muslim prejudice and Islamoohobia spreading like foot and mouth disease across the western world, leading to election results not seen since, erm the 1930's. Haven't Liga Nord spoken of defending the 'Judea-Christian values'!

But while the centre left forever spouts off about the non existent threat of anti Semitism they remain deaf and dumb on the pressing issue of the day.

I can only conclude they do this because they agree with the far right on these matters.

Remember folks the centre left are THE ENEMY!!

Phil said...

Renzi's project was about centralising the state so he and successive governments could unleash the kinds of class war policies that have worked so well elsewhere with impunity. Of course the markets aren't going to be happy that this has collapsed.

Speedy said...

That's a fair comment, Phil, and I was also concerned about the implications of his reforms - however, the problem is - what is the alternative? The economy is straightjacketed by the Euro so there is little room for manoeuvre, however ditching the Euro would also be a catastrophe. I don't think the result is the choice between a centre left and more left wing alternative, the way things are going I think Italy is shaping up for a Le Pen-style totalitarian government after the inevitable displeasure with the next technical gov, followed by the feckless 5 star movement. You don't believe me, check out the poll I saw today...