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)


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving

Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.

A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas

Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'

The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion

The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.

Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.

Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism

What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry