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.