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The Italian left should appeal to the urban middle class

Italy is a right-wing country, where the Vatican retains a strong influence and a majority of the population belong to the urban middle class. The left needs a new appeal to these sectors if it is to challenge Berlusconi, argues Paul Ginsborg

April 13, 2008
4 min read

Last night (29 February) I was at Montespertoli, a small town 30 minutes from Florence, for an election campaign launch. There were six men on the platform aged between forty and sixty-five. The coordinator of this left grouping was younger, a local government administrator who’d got his degree in history with me. About 65 people were present, a few young people, a few women, but mostly they were the same age and gender as the platform speakers. What struck me about all the interventi was how they appealed to one class only – the themes were safety at work, trade union rights, very low wages ( now amongst the lowest in Europe), etc. All this was sacrosanct but not enough. When it was my turn I tried to talk about the fact that there are now more than 55 per cent of the Italian working population who belong to the urban middle classes. This is a very composite section of Italian society – there is a very large sector of self-employed people (running small, often dynamic family businesses), and the great majority of these are Berlusconi fans. But there is also a significant sector of white- collar work in the public sector – technicians, impiegati in local and regional administration, teachers, graduates working in a variety of roles in the public sector. Many of these people were mobilised by the anti-Berlusconi protests of 2001-2002- girotondi and other similar initiatives. They are very angry about things like the conflict of interests, Berlusconi’s near monopoly of commercial television, his attacks on the judicial system, etc. The Sinistra Arcobaleno does not talk to them. By and large campaign initiatives on Berlusconi are considered ‘counter-productive’, both by Veltroni and by Bertinotti.

So I find myself in this strange situation. Foreign correspondents in Italy ask me to talk about Berlusconi and convey a sense of how appalling it is that the country is very likely to return to his dominion. European public opinion is deeply worried about the prospect, and not just Left opinion. But in Italy nobody in the parties wants to talk about Berlusconi any more. It’s all ‘old hat’. And behind this lies a great analytical weakness – the failure to take on the question of cultural instruments, especially television, and the necessary guard dog role of public authorities, totally lacking in Italy.

To summarise, then, I think there is a very significant section of the middle classes who could be won to an intellectually renewed and culturally vigorous Sinsitra Arcobaleno. That’s not what we’ve got at the moment. The new party, if it is born, will be born old. The only way to combat this is by what we are trying to do in Florence, and what Paolo Cacciari and friends in the Veneto are doing: build up strong local and regional associations, which push constantly for reform – generational change, gender change, etc., analytical renewal, etc. – and who have the mass membership to back up their demands.

As for Berlusconi and company, all Italy’s history shows that it is basically a right-wing country, heavily influenced by the Vatican. The composition of the Italian middle classes goes very much in his favour, and dependent workers in small family firms tend to vote the way their bosses vote. But there is also a very strong, though minoritarian, tradition of left-wing action and mobilisation. That is far from dead. It now has to be put in an organisational and intellectual context which is radically new. The Sinistra Arcobaleno is absolutely not that at the moment. But it could approximate to it if we move the right way during and after the elections.

Paul Ginsborg is Professor of Contemporary European History at University of Florence and a frequent public commentator on politics and life in Italy. He is the author ofSilvio Berlusconi: Television, Power and Patrimony. (January 2007)

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