Who are Italy's Five Star Movement, and what can Corbyn's Labour learn from their anti-establishment success?

Founded by a comedian in 2009, Italy’s Five Star Movement (M5S) has today garnered over 30% of the vote in the Italian election. There might be lessons for Britain’s Labour in the way that M5S organises itself, particularly with its emphasis on e-democracy and direct democracy

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M5S is, as its founder Beppe Grillo has admitted, essentially a populist movement. Another push-back against corporate globalisation, out-of-touch politics and wealth inequality to join the volley of push-backs worldwide. 

The movement’s policies seem to reflect this. The Five Stars of its name symbolise its five priorities in policy: 

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  • Public water;
  • Sustainable transport;
  • Sustainable development;
  • Right to internet access; and 
  • Environmentalism. 

The party advocates a Universal Basic Income of €780.00 per month and the end of fossil fuels by 2050, as well as investment in education and the repeal of 400 “useless” laws to make employment protections more effective. 

At the same time, it seeks to cut business taxes and end the so-called “sea taxi service” to rescue migrants in the Mediterranean. 

The movement is not typically left wing, nor is it right wing; proudly so. It’s defining feature is that it is anti-establishment; a protest vote. Nonetheless, with a rise in the Italian polls that has been just short of meteoric, it is a hugely successful protest vote. 

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There are lessons in the way that M5S organises itself, and the way in which it communicates with its voters, that Labour can learn. 

M5S is proudly grassroots and “anti-representative democracy“. Much like the meme-train on which Labour’s youth following has been galvanised and which has provided the momentum for Momentum, M5S communicated its ideas through its founder’s blog. This serves as the official channel of communication for the party.

One factor of M5S’s organisation, which has been denigrated as dictatorial, is its habit of dismissing MPs who dissent from the ‘party line’. The reasoning behind it, though, is something that might be lauded.

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A core aspect of representative democracy is that representatives are representatives of the nation’s interests, not merely those who elect them. With this justification, representatives are able to ignore the wishes of their voters in favour of the ‘common good’ where the two are in conflict. That is the ideal. However, M5S perceive this justification merely as a cloak under which representatives can act in their own interests or in the interests of corporate backers, pretending as though they are the interests of the country. This view seems to give off the ring of familiarity. 

As such, M5S supports measures to allow citizens to call for the dismissal of representatives who do not act in line with their demands, since they are seen as betraying their mandate. Certainly, it is one means by which the influence of wealth on elected representatives can be diluted.

The party restricts the autonomy of its MPs in other ways. For example, prior to any Parliamentary vote, an online poll is taken of all M5S members on the issue to be voted upon. The result is taken to be binding on all M5S representatives. 

Furthermore, each of M5S’s MEPs is obliged to sign a contract that stipulates that they pay €250,000.00 in the event that they violate the movement’s code of conduct.

The risks of abuses are evident, and M5S’s principles are by no means a panacea. Though there are checks in the party’s structure on tyranny. Luigi Di Maio, the party’s current leader, is limited in power by the imposition of a mandatory two-term limit on party leadership. 

M5S’s principle communicative and organisational tool is the internet.

The party uses it as a modern re-invention of the Ancient Greek agora, the political and economic centre of the Ancient Greek city where citizens would meet to discuss policy and vote on ideas.

Grillo’s blog is an open platform where laws can be proposed and discussed and where decisions can be shared and taken together. It enables people to have responsibility over their destinies directly, without the need for parties or representatives. 

There are questions, though, over such a method’s usefulness in reality. We have, after all, a platform currently where people propose policy and discuss ideas, albeit that it doesn’t actually affect policy. That platform is, of course, Twitter. The extent to which conversations and debates are of any real intellectual use there is, however, also debatable in itself. 

Nonetheless, for all the chaos and the maelstrom of competing, often ill-informed, voices on Twitter, the website does offer a platform for experts, practitioners, writers and theorists to air their often very informative views on political matters. There is certainly merit in e-democracy. 

However, one criticism of M5S’s ‘weaponisation’ of e-democracy, is that when such a platform is used to actually inform policy in Parliament or to decide certain issues, it requires an arbiter. Who that arbiter is and what controls are on their power is questionable. 

Indeed, these ideas aren’t to be taken in isolation. It is not beyond the realms of imagination that with effective regulation of the media, as Corbyn recently proposed, a better-informed populace would be able to exercise their influence in direct, e-democracy in a much better way. 

If nothing else, M5S’s direct democracy and foundation of grassroots involvement is a stunning lesson in affecting the system from outside the system. Through their measures, they have created a means to exercise policy-making power in the hands of the citizens who vote for them. A subsidiary of direct democracy within a representative democracy. 

There are faults, but the point is that there are also lessons to be learnt and ideas to be taken. In seeking change, it is important to form the picture of what that change will look like. 

The lessons in direct democracy go beyond those just for the Labour party. Lessons in direct democracy are capable of being learnt for the country en-masse.

For example, Switzerland is a representative democracy with strong, direct strains. Citizens in Switzerland are able to put almost any law decided by representatives to a general vote. Any citizen wishing to do so has 100 days from the publication of a new law to gather 50,000 signatures, which will trigger a referendum on the new law.

Populist or mob-rule outcomes are usually diluted by the fact that only four out of 100 exercises are usually successful in triggering a referendum. This, in itself, is because Parliament is far more representative and dutiful in its role by dint of the fact that it knows it is subject to direct scrutiny and accountability. 

The tidal wave of populist revolt globally is giving rise to some unfortunate outcomes, but within the chaos, there are some healthy lessons. 

In a national and international political theatre beset by wealth inequality, unrepresentative politicians and institutional corruption, it is worth paying attention to the experiments in direct democracy taking place. 

It is, by and large, accepted wisdom among political theorists et al that direct democracy isn’t possible in countries with populations in the tens and hundreds of millions, and that degrees of separation in representation are necessary to get anything done. The experiments in politicising the internet, organising directly and implementing true representation as undertaken by M5S show that this isn’t necessarily the case. As does democracy in Switzerland. 

Is it time for this country to listen up, and for Labour to consider these lessons to create a truly member-orientated party fit for the future?

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