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Italy • Democratic Party • Coalitions

Real time political engagement

Umberto Marengo - 23 May 2013

The lessons from Italy's fractured political landscape are that rigid and ageing parties need to build new coalitions and start to speak and interact directly with citizens and members in real time

According to a recent IPSOS study, half of the voters for the Italian Democratic Party (PD) at the last general election were over 55 (a demographic group that makes up only 38% of the electorate), while over a third were over 65 (compared to 24% of the electorate). The PD polled worst amongst young people, unemployed, and self-employed professionals – the same demographic groups where Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement boast the best results. The PD polled first (37%) only amongst pensioners.

These figures should set alarm bells ringing. On current trends, in a few years the Democratic Party will be relegated to the margins of the political spectrum and the centre-left will lose any chance of victory. The new “interim leader” of the Democratic Party, Guglielmo Epifani, comes from a leftist trade union (CGIL) which is set on the same declining path. Out of five and a half million CGIL members, over three million are pensioners.

If the Democratic Party does not want to become irrelevant it must set a new strategy to target disillusioned voters, young unemployed people and middle-aged professionals. This failure is sometimes misunderstood as a mere “communication problem” – it is not. The issue is rather to set a new style of politics. We can start by pointing to three priorities: (1) heeding the needs of unorganised civil society and outsiders; (2) opening up the party’s structures; and (3) creating new forms of political campaigning by engaging with voters in between elections.

1. Targeting outsiders
For too long the left has heeded only organised civil society (e.g. professional associations, the trade unions, and the Church). Progressive parties have defended collective bargaining and provided ample resources for ad hoc employment insurance schemes for large companies in hardship (“cassa integrazione”). This focus has left out youngsters and workers who are not covered by collective bargaining. The PD needs to build a new coalition with young unemployed and underpaid professionals. A truly national welfare policy should prioritise resources for a minimal universal employment insurance scheme. It should also impose a minimum wage for all, including professionals on short-term contracts who are not covered by collective bargaining. The Belgian model provides a good compromise between sectorial collective bargaining and a universal minimum wage. 

2. Reforming party apparatus
After Pier Luigi Bersani’s resignation, the Democratic Party needs to radically rethink the party’s power structure and mentality. Political parties – and representative democracies – can survive this legitimacy crisis only by embracing change and not looking back at a mythical past. The structural inability of mainstream political parties to understand shifts in society and to renew themselves is at the root of the crisis. For the PD, changing its party structure is a precondition for changing its political style, broadening its power base, and winning the next election.

The PD spends far too much time and resources in self-centred debates. The party of the future should have a smaller apparatus, and professional policy and outreach units. For example, the abolition of a layer of local government (province) will make it unnecessary to retain elected party bodies at that same level. A smaller apparatus, smaller local and national bodies will liberate resources for professional research and outreach units that could draw people from the liberal professions, academia, and the public services. The party also needs to be more democratic in its internal decision-making processes and to improve the quality of inner party debate. For example, local party congresses should be held before – and not after – the national congress.

The party’s future also depends on how new generations are encouraged to participate and to take on responsibilities. The youth wing of the Democratic Party should offer scholarships to its most active members under 26, rather than stipends, and should be more integrated into the main body of the party (like British Young Labour).

Finally, open primaries for the election of the party leadership and parliamentary candidates should be embraced without reservations. However, the declining number of primary voters (from four and a half million in 2005, to three and a half million in 2012), and the latest electoral results show that primaries alone are no magic solutions. It is equally important to renew the party apparatus and to learn how to run more effective political campaigns. The objective is to reach out to an electorate who no longer have fixed political affiliations.

3. Fight more engaging electoral campaigns
The Democratic Party has collected data from millions of voters during all primary elections since 2005 but it has never used them. Bersani’s electoral campaign focused too much on reassuring traditional progressive voters that the decade-long dominance of Berlusconi’s party was at an end. It lacked a clear message and targeted policy proposals that could attract independent voters.
The Obama campaign has proved that datasets are essential to mobilise target voters during electoral campaigns and in between elections. Data driven strategies are at the heart of their success. Targeted messages strengthen the relationship between the party and likely voters. When voters feel engaged and are encouraged to contribute to the decision-making process, they are much more likely to become active campaigners.

Electoral campaigns are an exceptional opportunity to reach out to non-party members and to empower them. This is especially the case where the traditional “leftist civil society” (e.g. trade unions, cooperatives, and small professional associations) is weaker. The campaign management ought to provide open and flexible resources and give responsibility to the volunteers to carry out their own initiatives. The objective is to turn likely voters into active campaigners. Following this method, centre-left candidate Deborah Seracchiani managed an astonishing victory in a traditionally conservative region (Friuli Venezia Giulia) only a few weeks after the defeat in the general elections.

Whether on the internet or on Main Street, political campaigns should be run bottom-up and for the long-term. The opposition between old and new forms of political campaigning is misleading. Social networking, door knocking and street canvassing are all forms of direct interaction with voters and they are equally important.

Social networks and twitter have recently been criticised for being prone to abuse by small but loud minorities. The Five Star Movement’s contention that major political decisions can be taken with online polls is naïve at best. However, modern politics needs to learn to speak and interact directly with citizens in real time.

In the year preceding the French presidential election, 80,000 socialist volunteers knocked on over five million doors in France to discuss Sarkozy’s pension reforms and to expose their counter arguments. This long-term engagement campaign paved the way to François Hollande’s victory and showed that the Socialist Party was committed to concrete policies rather than just playing politics.

The Italian centre-left is now squeezed between Beppe Grillo’s populist movement and the grand coalition government with Berlusconi’s party. The Democratic Party needs a new strategy to re-engage with disillusioned centre-left supporters and to build new coalitions with independent voters. The priority should be to broaden the party’s demographic power base, addressing in particular young unemployed people and middle-age service workers.  Reforming the party apparatus, championing targeted policies, and focusing on long term engagement campaigns in between elections, are the key elements for success.

Umberto Marengo is a political scientist at the Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS), University of Cambridge. He is also co-founder of Quorum, an Italian start-up specialising in opinion polls and political research

This is a contribution to the joint Policy Network / Center for American Progress - Global Progress essay series on The Party of the Future: Coalition‐building and a new style of politics.

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Party Politics, Government and Elections .

Tags: Italy , Democratic Party , Coalitions , Beppe Grillo , Umberto Marengo , Obama model , Francois Hollande , Primary elections , Campaigning , Party of the Future , Elections , Enrico Letta , Populism , Internet , Minimum wage , Coalition politics


Dr Giacomo Benedetto
30 May 2013 15:22

The collapse of youth support for Berlusconi and the Italian left: http://cep.rhul.ac.uk/storage/Youth%20vote%20in%20Italy3.pdf

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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