Italy’s left and the Blairites

Submitted by Anon on 27 April, 2006 - 12:33

By Cath Fletcher

The centre-left has scraped into power in Italy. Romano Prodi’s coalition, L’Unione, won April’s election by the barest of margins, beating Silvio Berlusconi’s governing coalition by 25,000 votes to win a majority in the Camera dei Deputati (lower house). Its Senate majority of one came only thanks to a quirk of the electoral system: there it got a smaller share of the popular vote than the centre-right.

This was no 1997 in Britain, with a wave of public enthusiasm for kicking out the right wing. At times on election night, as the projections swung against the left, it felt more like 1992. Indeed, had it not been for Berlusconi’s own goal — he changed the electoral rules, and then they worked against him — it might well have been.

Observers from abroad, who’ve spent five years watching news reports of one Berlusconi gaffe after another, might well wonder why on earth the result was so close. The truth is that the centre-left coalition ran a miserably lacklustre campaign. Prodi’s slogan was “Seriousness in government”, which was about as attractive as promising “Privatisation: without the laughs”. Meanwhile, Berlusconi promised to abolish the property tax paid by owner-occupiers. He played the “tax scare” card effectively, saying that the left would increase taxes on savings. He played the “red scare” card against the more “anti-capitalist” elements of L’Unione. The liberal centre of L’Unione gave grist to his mill by attacking the left.

The only part of L’Unione to increase its percentage of the vote significantly from 2001 was the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista (Party of Communist Refoundation), led by Fausto Bertinotti. It now has 27 out of 317 senate seats (up from 4) and 41 out of 618 in the camera (lower house), up from 11. That rise partly reflects the new voting system, which is more proportional; however, its share of the vote increased too, up from 5% to 7.4% for the Senate and from 5% to 5.8% for the Camera. In two regions, Tuscany and Umbria, Rifondazione’s Senate vote topped 10%.

However, Rifondazione has a problem. It has strapped itself into L’Unione, a lash-up of everyone who’s against Berlusconi, from the ex-Christian Democrats in the Margherita (Daisy) Party, to the Greens, the Consumers’ List, the “Italy of Values” anti-corruption party and the Rosa nel Pugno (Rose in the Fist) secularists (not to mention a few others). The flowery names are pretty: the coalition’s politics are not.

L’Unione’s programme was profoundly unradical. Even those aspects described as “advanced” in Rifondazione’s official election literature were hardly adventurous: more nursery schools and a levelling up of teachers’ pay to equal that of other major EU countries; a re-introduction of inheritance tax (but only for millionaires); stopping the increase in the pension age and increasing the lowest pensions (implying means-testing); withdrawal of troops from Iraq (but as security conditions allow). Almost nowhere were there any figures, any concrete promises.

Rifondazione, having agreed to this programme, was left with presenting itself as the guarantee that Prodi’s new government would not be too right-wing. Its main slogan was “Do you really want to see that Italy changes?” With little positive on which to campaign the party’s main posters, postcards and leaflets featured a series of abstract concepts: “Rights”, “Justice”, “Freedom of Information”, “Houses for All” with which almost no-one could possibly disagree.

The irony is that Rifondazione activists were simultaneously promoting a campaign for a new law to re-introduce the scala mobile (escalator) of wages and prices, which existed in Italy from the post-war years right up until 1992. Given that the massive collapse in purchasing power post-euro is by far the most pressing issue for Italian workers, this would have been the obvious centrepiece for an independent election campaign. Yet tied into L’Unione and its joint programme, Rifondazione had no way of promoting it officially, or even promising that its new MPs would fight for it. So the campaign’s promoters were instead various rank-and-file trade unions, and the party’s name was nowhere on the literature.

Furthermore, Rifondazione’s leadership demonstrated in the run-up to the election their willingness to kow-tow to the “moderates” in L’Unione — even when it came to deciding their own candidates. For example, two months before the elections they removed Marco Ferrando as a candidate for the Senate. Ferrando was in Progetto Comunista, the biggest would-be Trotskyist minority in the PRC. His “crime” was to have given an interview to the Corriere della Sera newspaper in which he implied that the suicide bombing against Italian troops at Nassiriya was justified, and made various criticisms of Israel, in particular describing it as an “artificial state”.

Now, Ferrando, supposedly being a Trotskyist, should not have been standing for the Senate in the first place given Rifondazione’s decision to join L’Unione. And indeed half his own tendency thought he was wrong to do so and on that basis Progetto Comunista split in two. However, that does not mean the Rifondazione leadership was right to kick Ferrando out for expressing views (albeit very wrong views) which he had held for years and were well-known.

A second “left” candidate, the no-global activist Francesco Caruso (criticised by the right as a “criminal” for being involved in occupations and other direct action), was warned by the leadership to stay in line but narrowly escaped removal as a candidate.

At the time, Francesco Rutelli, leader of the Margherita party, said in a newspaper interview: “It’s up to Bertinotti to show that — whoever is the candidate — he/she will be faithful and loyal and will support the programme of l’Unione for the five years of the parliament.” Bertinotti has seemed entirely happy to toe Rutelli’s line.

RIFONDAZIONE has got to this point after a bizarre series of political twists and turns. In 1996 it agreed to participate in the centre-left coalition led by Romano Prodi. But after Prodi embarked on a programme of economic liberalisation and privatisation, Rifondazione decided to vote against his budget in October 1998, and subsequently voted in favour of the no-confidence motion which brought down the Prodi government. (A part of Rifondazione split over the decision, voted with the government, and became the Comunisti Italiani, PdCI, now also part of L’Unione.)

Rifondazione turned “to the movements” with an enthusiasm for the new anti-capitalism and in particular the social forum movement. The party was heavily involved in the huge demonstration against the G8 in Genoa, in 2001, and central to the organisation of the European Social Forum in Florence in 2002. Yet their strategy of “contamination”, that through their engagement the party and social movements could learn from each other, was always politically vague. Without a clear direction, Italy’s once-lively social forums have dwindled.

Rifondazione followed up with a spectacular about-turn — back into coalition with Prodi to fight the 2006 general election. On the basis of the need to kick out Berlusconi, and the assurances of leader Fausto Bertinotti that Prodi had moved to the left since 1998, the party congress agreed to the move, albeit not without opposition. In the L’Unione primary elections of 2005, purportedly organised to choose a leader for the coalition, but really just a means of giving legitimacy to Prodi, formally an independent, Bertinotti took 15% of the vote.

So, how do things look for the future? The two biggest parties in L’Unione, the Left Democrats and Margherita, are planning to set up a new Democratic Party. Given that united they got more votes than they did divided, it makes sense for them electorally to do so. However, this is no mere electoral manoeuvre. It is an attempt to create, in Italian politics, the same phenomenon that Tony Blair has tried to create with New Labour, a bourgeois, neo-liberal party albeit formally of the left. It is openly said that the new party will be on the model of the fully-bourgeois US Democrats.

To get an idea of how the L’Unione majority is likely to operate in government, you need look no further than the Left Democrats’ heartland. In Bologna, their mayor, Sergio Cofferati, a former leader of the CGIL union federation, has copied his programme from New Labour’s book. Like Jack Straw, he’s denounced “squeegee merchants”, he’s evicted immigrants from temporary camps, he’s privatised public services. All of which have created tensions between the council leadership and its Rifondazione coalition partners, though not to the point of a split.

It is hard to imagine that the same will not now happen on a national scale. Italy has a huge budget deficit. It has just been fined by the EU for breaking the euro rules. Prodi will be under a lot of international pressure to balance the books. The neo-liberal recipe is clear: cuts and privatisations seem almost certain to follow. A recent article in The Economist, critically backing Prodi, said in effect that what Italy needed was Thatcherite-style reform: privatisations, less regulation, the effective closing-down of “uncompetitive” industries (uncompetitive only because they pay decent wages, unlike the sweatshops in China and elsewhere which undercut them). The Economist’s only worry was that Prodi would have to rely on the likes of Rifondazione.

Given all this, it is hard indeed to see how Rifondazione will be able to stay very long in government. If it does hang in with Prodi, then at best it risks disillusioning its own activists and supporters, to whom it has promised to ensure that Italy “really changes”. At worst, it will finish by demobilising class struggle to save Prodi’s skin. The early indications are not good: Fausto Bertinotti’s first priority following the elections has been to try and get himself appointed President of the Camera — a position similar to the US Speaker of the House of Representatives — for which he is scrapping with the Left Democrats’ Massimo D’Alema.

The decisive factor in the next five years will be the extent to which the Italian working class can be mobilised against Prodi’s government. There have been some impressive shows of action during Berlusconi’s tenure — most notably against the attacks on workers’ rights in 2002, when protection against dismissal was vastly reduced. However, like elsewhere in Europe, the unions’ traditional base — the industrial working class — is shrinking. Twenty-five per cent of Italian workers are now in “insecure” jobs, and although there have been some positive attempts to organise them, these are still the exception rather than the rule.

Among the most lively of the new initiatives is the collective set up by activists involved in a dispute at the call centre Atesia. Their experience is one of betrayal by the major union leaderships: they criticise the biggest union federation, CGIL, for agreeing to “flexible” contracts, allowing this to become the norm. Valerio, one of the Atesia campaigners, points out that L’Unione has no intention of repealing the controversial Law 30 which introduced numerous new types of flexible contract.

In terms of more traditional trade unionism there have been positive signs of militancy over the past year, particularly on the part of the engineering workers. After five one-day strikes and numerous demonstrations — and more than a year after their old contract expired — they won a pay rise of 100 euros a month (having forced up the employers’ offer from 60 euros). There is still national pay bargaining between unions and employers’ federations in Italy, though there are repeated threats to replace it with regional negotiations.

That has not, however, prevented union leaderships coming up with “compromises”: in the case of the engineering workers, the downside to the deal was that the unions made big concessions on conditions, agreeing to the piloting of a “multi-week” system for working hours.

The strike action, though, was impressively organised, and shows the potential strength of the labour movement here. These one-day strikes were not just a matter of organising a picket line and stopping production. They involved demonstrations, occupying roads and railway stations (and not only on strike days), creating huge disruption way beyond their own industry, which in turn raised the pressure on the employers to settle. As the final negotiations took place, workers in Naples blocked a railway and a major road; in Trento, Turin and Molise roads were also blocked, creating in some cases kilometres of tailbacks.

It’s clear, however, that one of the things helping the unions in that situation was the unwillingness of the government to pick a fight with them in the months running up to a close general election — and equally the seeming unwillingness to send in the police to stop the protests. It will be very interesting to see whether such action is repeated under the new administration, and how not only the union leaderships (close to the biggest government parties), but also Rifondazione, respond.

The priorities for the Italian left should be obvious: to organise around demands like the sliding scale of wages and prices, for taxing the rich, for a massive job-creation programme. They need to ensure that Rifondazione’s MPs and senators are held accountable, and that Bertinotti cannot simply claim that the one congress vote agreeing to join L’Unione is the party’s last word on the subject. The campaign for a new sliding scale could — if properly organised — provide a focus for national action. The challenge will be to resist those who say “give Prodi a chance”: given half a chance he will happily be Blair Mark II.

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