Apologists of Italian fascism use the Mussolini regime’s apparent successes in the years before the Second World War to attempt to portray the fascist era in a more positive light. Often examples such as the draining of the Pontine Marshes or the institution of pensions are pointed out as policy areas where the fascist regime achieved more than it republican successor. However Mussolini’s “destruction” of the Sicilian mafia or Cosa Nostra is the apologist’s example par excellence. The theory posited is that the regime, without the shackles of the rule of law, constitutional rights and due process, was able to effectively destroy Cosa Nostra in just five years between 1924 and 1929. Not only is this almost a totally erroneous theory, but the study of fascism’s attempts to root out the mafia in Sicily also gives us insights into best practice for fighting organised crime in general.
Mussolini’s campaign against the mafia started in 1924, when he appointed the magistrate Cesare Mori as Prefect of Trapani, later in 1925 moving Mori to the prefecture of Palermo. Mori had been the Prefect of Bologna during fascism’s rise to power, and had developed a reputation for having an almost obsessive desire to uphold state power, coming down equally as hard on socialist as on fascist political violence. He was therefore not regarded well by the new regime, but Mussolini saw in him the perfect weapon to reassert central state power in Sicily. “Your excellency” Mussolini wrote to Mori “has carte blanche, the authority of the state absolutely, I repeat, absolutely, must be restored in Sicily. If the laws currently in force hinder you, it will not be a problem, we will pass new laws”. Mori, now a “super-prefect”, with almost unlimited powers across the whole island (ordinary prefects in Italy have authority only over the territory of a single province), created an army of 800 Carabinieri, well armed and equipped with horses, loyal only to him. Mori launches a brutal campaign of repression in the Sicilian countryside, where Cosa Nostra had almost entirely usurped state sovereignty. ‘Freed’ from the need to observe due process, Mori used methods such as torture, hostage-taking and collective guilt. The courts, under his control, send thousands to prison or to internal exile, often with dubious proof. Even he himself admitted that his trials condemn many innocent people. His most brutal action occured in early 1926. Knowing that several members of Cosa Nostra are hiding in the town of Gangi in the province of Palermo, he surrounded the town with his men, besieging it for four days. He then sent his men in, arresting relatives of mafiosi, destroying their property and killing their livestock. Humiliated and fearing for the safety of their relatives (including women and children), several wanted men were forced to give themselves up. The “Iron Prefect”, as Mori became known, summed up his methods succinctly: “If the mafia terrifies, the state must terrify more”.
Mori’s campaign of terror did noticably reduce brigandage and criminality on the island. The regime proudly proclaimed that “No government since the Unification of Italy has ever accomplished what Mussolini has brought about in a few months”. Mori gained national and international fame. However in 1929 he was recalled to Rome and made a Senator. Despite Mussolini’s glowing words of admiration and praise, it was clear he no longer wanted Mori in Sicily.
We cannot be completely sure why Mori was recalled, but it is possible to infer Mussolini’s reasons. These reasons also reveal a fundamental weakness in fascism’s ability to fight the mafia. First of all, it is very likely that Mussolini felt in some way threatened by Mori in terms of popularity. Mori had become extremely popular in Sicily and Italy for his work in “destroying the mafia” and according to some accounts he had let this popularity go to his head. He had ordered his portrait to be hung next to those of Mussolini and the King in every Sicilian school. This was deeply problematic for Mussolini, as the fascist system could only allow Il Duce to be the most popular man in Italy, the only man capable of solving previously unsolvable problems. Secondly, Mori’s brutal methods may have worried even Mussolini, who recalled the Iron Prefect because he wanted some sort of normality to return to the island. Mussolini believed that Mori’s work was done, that Cosa Nostra had more or less been defeated and that state and more importantly, fascist power had been imposed on the island. Furthermore, if the mafia had been defeated, as the regime had claimed, why was Mori still in Sicily, using tactics reminiscent of an occupying army? The historian Giuseppe Tricoli wrote that Mussolini “believed, maybe mistakenly, that Mori’s work was complete, and wanted to avoid further militarisation of the island that could have been seen by the population as a perpetual state of war”. Therefore Mori had to go. Finally, although Mori had only dealt with the “small fish” of the mafia (mostly in the countryside), as historian Arrigo Petacco claims, he had started to worry the fascist hierarchy by going after the urban mafia: the businessmen, politicians, bureaucrats and even churchmen who really gave the orders in Cosa Nostra. His biggest catch was the head of the Fascist Party in Sicily and member of the Grand Council of Fascism, Alfredo Cucco, who was accused of being involved in the mafia and was stripped of his seat in the Chamber of Deputies. The accusation against Cucco worried many fascist leaders and local potentates in Sicily. Mori, who already had enemies within the fascist hierarchy because of his actions as Prefect of Bologna, became a very dangerous person for a certain element of the regime that had in a way vassaled Cosa Nostra and integrated it within the fascist system of power on the island.
Mussolini’s recall of Mori for the reasons explored above begs the question; why did the fascist state want to destroy, or at least be seen to destroy, the mafia? Unlike the Republic that followed it, the fascist regime was not interested in maintaining rule of law or protecting its citizens’ constitutional rights, both of which the mafia, and organised crime in general, fundamentally threatens. In fact fascism was and is completely opposed to these two principles that make up a large part of the foundation of modern, democratic society. Instead Mussolini’s regime felt that its monopoly of power and of violence, essential for a totalitarian state, was being threatened in Sicily by Cosa Nostra. Furthermore, the regime lived off propagandistic stunts, from the Battle for Grain to the costly, counter-productive pegging of the Lira to the Dollar. The campaign against the mafia was simply another attempt by the regime to show that it could do everything the previous liberal regime couldn’t. Therefore we can see the rule of Cesare Mori as a way of forcing local potentates within Sicily (i.e. Cosa Nostra) to recognise the fascist state’s superior power and a propaganda campaign for the population on the mainland.
In many ways it is not at all surprising that fascism and the mafia were able to come to some sort of tacit agreement whereby Cosa Nostra (or at least its urban, upper class top hierarchy) would be integrated into the fascist system of power on the island. Fascism and Cosa Nostra share many defining features: a hierarchical command structure, centralised, absolute decision making, a disregard for human lives, rights and welfare, an obsession with absolute loyalty, honour and tradition and an adherence to the rule of the strongest. These similarities allow the mafia to be brought into the fascist state, impossible in a (well-functioning) democracy. The Iron Prefect was therefore not a tool of destruction sent to absolutely annihilate the mafia, but rather a tool of subordination; showing to the potentates of the mafia just how powerful the fascist state was and therefore how bad an idea it would have been to try and go against it.
As the magistrate Giovanni Falcone pointed out, the mafia is strong when people’s faith in the state’s institutions is weak. This insight points out the flaws in Mori’s campaign. Even if Mori had not been recalled, it is unlikely he would have ever destroyed the mafia. His methods were that of an occupying army, and his repressive actions were not, as noted by the historian Christopher Duggan, accompanied by any social programmes for the local population or strengthening of state institutions. Furthermore Mori erroneously believed that Cosa Nostra was not a unitary organisation, but rather more a “way of life”. These two facts allowed the mafia to “submerge” (as it was later to do in the 1990s again under attack from the state) and return to prominence after the allied landings in 1943.
Therefore, the fascist attempt to root out the mafia from Sicily was doomed to fail from the start. Not just because the fascist state was unable to come up with any other solution other than brute force, but because its hierarchical structures proved too recipient to integrating the mafia. Moreover, lacking any sort of impulse from civil society (not allowed to exist after the fascist consolidation of power) which proved vital from the 1980s onwards in dealing blows to the mafia, the regime was more than happy to allow Cosa Nostra into the fascist vertical of power, providing they accept the ultimate power of Il Duce.
What would be the principle lessons to draw from this investigation? First of all, it is not at all a bad result if someone who everyone suspects of being part of Cosa Nostra is acquitted by an (independent) court. The adherence to due process and the protection of everyone’s constitutional rights does not weaken the democratic state, but rather strengthens it; building its legitimacy by squarely contrasting it with the bloodthirsty and arbitrary methods of the mafia. Second of all, it is not enough simply to concentrate on low-level common criminality to destroy the mafia. The so-called “bourgeois mafia” that corrupts administration, business (especially finance) and politics needs to be addressed as well. Maybe Mori would have gone after this element of Cosa Nostra if he had not been stopped in his tracks, but that would lead us to the unsavoury field of alternative history. Finally, and most importantly, Mori’s campaign, despite all its flaws, showed that if the state threw the resources available to it in a dedicated “war” against the mafia, it could deal organised crime a serious blow. This lesson was learnt in the second half of the 20th century, when the Italian state steadily improved its antimafia structures, dealing a huge blow to Cosa Nostra with the Maxi Trial of 1986-1992, where 360 members of the mafia were convicted, either being jailed for a great deal of time or being forced into hiding, including top bosses Salvatore Riina and Bernardo Provenzano. This was all done according to law and respecting the defendants civil and constitutional rights. Mori, despite all the resources available to him, despite there being no need for him to follow any sort of law enforcement or judicial process, never achieved anything remotely like this decapitation of Cosa Nostra. So therefore not only were his means brutal and inhumane, but they were also not all effective. If people fear the state more than the mafia, then why should people choose the state over the mafia?
On the 4th of December, Italians will go to the polls to vote on a constitutional reform that the government of Matteo Renzi has been strongly pushing. The British commentariat, never letting facts on the ground detract from a Hot Take, have been billing this referendum as the next Brexit or Donald Trump. Portraying this referendum as the latest populist revolt against elites is just sloppy journalism, and, as an Italian citizen myself, irritates me no end. The issue facing Italians at the polls is far more nuanced and subtle, and in the end far less significant than either Brexit or Donald Trump. Given the coverage of this vote has been atrocious in this country, and given the fact it raises some fairly interesting constitutional issues, I’ve decided to write this explanation for Perfidious Albion. In it, I’ll explain the reforms proposed, and give the reasons why I’m voting No (hence, #IoVotoNo).
To provide some context, Italy is unique in the world because the two chambers of its legislature, the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, have precisely the same powers. There is no ‘lower’ or ‘higher’ chamber, although they are elected using different electoral systems. The government must command the support of both chambers, and both have the right to legislative action in all areas and to hold ministers to account. This is called Perfect Bicameralism, and is one of the checks and balances that the 1948 Constituent Assembly decided was needed so that authoritarianism could never take hold in Italy again. Deputies and senators are elected directly by the people (apart from a handful, by which I mean less than 10, senators that are appointed by the President for merit). Renzi’s reforms aim to abolish perfect bicameralism, the directly elected senate and more.
The reform affects so many articles of the constitution that it’s really quite difficult to go through all of them (something I don’t believe was an accident). The main ones are: changing the Senate, abolishing the National Council for the Economy and Work (Consiglio Nazionale dell’Economia e del Lavoro, CNEL) and reworking the powers held by the central state and the regional governments. First off, the reform wants to turn the Senate into a regional chamber. It would stop being directly elected and having the same powers as the chamber of deputies. Instead, regional parliaments would send the President of the region, some regional councillors and mayors of towns to be senators in Rome. Instead of perfect bicameralism, the Senate would become an institution that would regulate the relationship between the central state, the regions and the EU. The government would only need the confidence of the Chamber of Deputies. Furthermore, the whole legislative process would be overhauled. Certain laws will require the approval of both houses, others only one chamber will need to approve but the other may make amendments and others will be the prerogative of only one of the houses. Secondly, the CNEL will be abolished. With its basis in the constitution, the CNEL is a consultative body that advises the state on labour and economic matters. It is a tripartite body, with representatives from industry, labour and economists appointed to it. Importantly, it has the right to draft and present legislation relating to its competences. It may seem minor, but I’ll explain why I’m not in favour in the next paragraph. Finally, the constitutional reform aims to change the relationship between the regions and the state by redefining the powers that a region exercises.
Sounds good right? You could very easily, at first glance, agree with Renzi when he says that this reform just tries to make Italy more governable, make the constitution more rationalised and make the legislative process better value for money. Yet this ignores so many flaws in this policy. To begin with, the reform of the Senate is a red herring. Firstly, it tramples on the rights of the citizen to elect their own legislators. This I can see is a point of contention. Some people don’t have a problem with unelected second chambers, but I still believe that it’s the right of a citizen of a democratic nation to choose the people that will legislate for them. Secondly, the idea of Senate of the regions is a non-starter. Regional presidents, councillors and mayors should be concentrating on the jobs they already have, rather than having to shuttle back and forth between their region and Rome. Forcing more work upon them will simply detract from either their local jobs or from their job as a senator. Furthermore, the new Senate would not have the requisite powers to express the will of regional authorities in Parliament. Instead of a truly ‘federal’ second chamber, Italy would be left with a weak, useless institution that contributed very little to the governing process. Thirdly, the abolition of perfect bicameralism and the institution of a new legislative process will not make governing Italy any easier. A whole milieu of new procedure will be created after this reform. Some laws will be the prerogative of one chamber, others of both, others of one chamber but with powers of amendment given to the other. Constitutionalists have expressed their concern at the poor wording of this particular section of the reform, and have suggested that this bad drafting would create “uncertainty and conflict” between the two chambers. Moreover, although perfect bicameralism has been portrayed as this huge barrier to Italy’s governability, it actually represents one of the greatest checks and balances of the Italian political system. Yes to some extent it slows down the legislative process, but it is the greatest barrier to authoritarianism Italy possesses. If Renzi spent less time worrying about perfect bicameralism, he could do more to end the real rot at the heart of Italian politics; namely the patronage and corruption that permeates through it all. Considering how deeply entrenched he is in this corruption, it’s unlikely he ever will.
Moving away from the Senate, I deeply disagree with both the abolition of the CNEL and the proposed changes to the power of the regions. Firstly, although it hasn’t worked very well in the past, the CNEL can be a vital part of Italian democracy. Tripartite bodies are hugely important in providing consultation to the government, and they can help create less charged industrial relations by mediating between interests groups. Whether the government chooses to follow their advice is another matter and the CNEL could certainly work better, but straight-up abolishing it is not the solution to this particular problem. Secondly, the proposed changes to the relationship between the regions and central government will eviscerate regional authorities, changing them from actual semi-federal local governments into just compliant tools of the central government. Not only will powers be taken away from the regions, but central government, with a vote in the Chamber of Deputies, will be able to override any regional law. A group of 50 constitutionalists have written in an open letter “The regional asset of the Republic will come out of this reform severely weakened by this redistribution of competences which would take from the regions almost all legislative power, turning them into organisations without any real autonomy and without adequately guaranteeing their powers and responsibilities on the fiscal and financial front.” Furthermore, much like the reform of prerogatives between the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, the wording of these amendments are not at all clear. Again, constitutionalists expect even more contention and confusion between central and regional government if this reform passes.
This whole ‘reform’ stinks of authoritarianism. Abolishing the CNEL, getting rid of directly elected senators, limiting the powers of the elected regional governments plus a whole raft of other measures I haven’t mentioned (such as the abolition of elected provinces and their replacement in big urban conglomerations of unelected Metropolitan Cities) are policies that heavily damage the democratic nature of Italian politics and adds another layer of bureaucracy between government and the citizen. Furthermore, even the way this reform has been pushed by the government is anti-democratic. Rather than it being drawn up, debated, amended and voted on by a sovereign parliament, these amendments were drawn up by an unelected Prime Minister and his cronies and forced through Parliament using the brute force of parliamentary numbers. The Constitution is common heritage to all Italians, and its amendment must be done in a way that takes into account all political leanings, rather than representing a triumph of one party over the other in terms of number of votes. The Constitution derives its legitimacy from the fact that, unlike ordinary legislation, it is supported by all mainstream political forces. It is supposed to represent a common view on the way social and political relations should be conducted. This reform threatens the very viability of the Constitution as a unifying document for the nation.
This will be the first vote I ever cast in my life, and it makes me happy that it will be for the protection of what I believe is the best constitution in the world. The Sì campaign have been claiming that, if you vote No, the whole political system will fall apart and Italy will remain ungovernable. They say that if you vote No, you’re getting in bed with Berlusconi, the Northern League and the Five Star Movement. Renzi has sent a ‘personal letter’ to every Italian expat, with pictures of him with Obama, Xi Jinping, Justin Trudeau and Theresa May (even though she wants to make life difficult for the half million or more Italians living in the UK). His attempts at playing the international statesman are laughable. His rhetoric is full of talk of reforms but his cronyism is nearly as bad as Berlusconi’s. Italy is in desperate need of reform, but Renzi’s amendments are a step backward towards authoritarianism.
This is the translation of an article that appeared in the liberal Russian newspaper, Novaya Gazeta on the 9th of August about the election campaign of the progressive Duma deputy, Dimitri Gudkov. This year’s Duma election results may be more interesting than 2011. Last time round, deputies were elected from a single national list with a high threshold that meant that only four, largely Kremlin-controlled parties where represented in the Duma, and there were very few truly independent deputies. This year, half the deputies will be elected from a national list, but half will be elected from single-member constituencies. This opens up many more possibilities for small and independent parties to achieve representation. One of the candidates running in one of the seats is one of those few independent Duma deputies, Dimitry Gudkov (there’s a very good Moscow Times profile of him here). Originally elected in 2011 for the nominally left leaning ‘A Just Russia’ party (nowadays no more than a Kremlin front), he was expelled in 2013. Now he is running on the ticket of the liberal Yabloko (the Apple) party.
There are few things to say before launching into the actual article. Firstly, my Russian isn’t terribly good, and there are bits of my translation that aren’t very clear or most likely just wrong. I’ve put a question mark surrounded by square brackets around those phrases I’m not sure I’ve translated right. If you do notice an error in my translation, please do tell me and I’ll amend it. Secondly, the article talks a lot about yards. In Russian tower blocks, where most urban Russians live, there is almost always a communal yard in front or within the building. Gudkov’s campaigning strategy is to talk to meetings of residents within these yards, circumventing the Kremlin controlled media and talking directly to his voters. Thirdly, some of the sentences I have translated are a bit clunky and don’t read very well. I think you’ll be able to understand what’s being said, but I apologise for the poor translating anyway.
I like to think that what’s being reported in this article is a new dawn for Russian opposition politics as it learns to develop community-based activism that is able to win victories against the Kremlin even in the oppressive atmosphere that exists in Russia today. Having anti-Putin deputies in the State Duma almost certainly won’t change government policy, but it will legitimise the opposition movement and hopefully help it build organisational capacity. On the other hand the Kremlin might (and most likely will) employ its usual tricks of electoral fraud and intimidation, meaning that Gudkov and people like him won’t be elected. We shall have to see. Whatever happens, I believe that campaigns like the one currently being run in the north west of Moscow (especially with help from people who were on the Sanders’ campaign) are Russia’s best chance for reform. What happens in the grassroots has mattered very rarely throughout Russian politics, but this may just be changing.
The Technology of Tushino
Novaya Gazeta’s correspondent spends one day with Dimitry Gudkov, candidate for the State Duma for ‘Yabloko’.
Gudkov’s single mandate constituency includes the Moscow districts of South Tushino, Shukino, Strogino, Pokrovskoe-Streshnevo and Mitino. As the elections loom here it’s heating up: from United Russia, the former head of the Sanitoriums of Russia, Gennady Onishenko is running, KPRF has put forward the heavyweight Sergei Baburin and Patriots of Russia is running the odious writer Eduard Barirov.
A small flock of primary school girls take their seats in the children’s square, sitting cross-legged and waiting for the candidate to the State Duma. White chairs have been placed for the adults on the edge of the square. There are banners with the candidates name on, Russian flags, music – Dimitry Gudkov’s campaign is repeating the format that emerged in Russian politics from the mayoral campaign of Alexei Navalny [one of Russia’s most famous anti-Putin and anti-corruption activists who ran for Moscow mayor in 2013]. Except instead of piped music, there is a flesh and blood guitar player attracting the residents of the block.
“Why live music? We’re on the side of truth. Therefore everything we have need to be natural and genuine.” says the smiling elderly Nadejda, local resident and volunteer for the campaign. These volunteers, “doorbell chiefs”, now numbering 2367 people, help organise meetings in their blocks and ask their neighbours to come (this is more effective than if the buildings were canvassed[?] by non-residents).
The candidate himself comes out – without formalities, in jeans. “In 2011 I was successful at the elections with one party”, he says referring to A Just Russia, “That party promised changes, to struggle against corruption but by the end of the legislative session they had started voting like United Russia. Here our paths diverged, because I continued to vote for what I believed.”
Now Gudkov is running on Yabloko’s ticket. He has also distanced himself slightly from this party: all his branding is his own, not the party’s. One of the residents is even confused “Why did your volunteer tell me that you’re running with Yabloko?”. The candidate explains that it is thanks to the rules[?] of the sixth convocation of the Duma, collecting signatures by himself is impossible and further reasures her that, if needed, he has already had experience of confrontationation with one party. And anyway, he is sure in the party he is running for: he lists of Lev Shlosberg, Vladimir Ryjkov and Evgenii Vitishko.
Meetings with the candidate number five per day: from 11 in the morning to 7 at night. At each he repeats that 30% of the country’s budget goes to the Siloviki [the Russian word for members of the security services, and used generally to mean the security appartus], but that education and healthcare get five times less. “Each day the war in Syria costs 150 million rubles. That’s the annual salary of three hundred teachers. We need to fund life here rather than death in someplace else”.
This is one of the points of Gudkov’s manifesto, in addition to this the candidate lists others. The president should be elected for only two terms, so that no one can alternate the post and they should not have the right to appoint federal judge so that the courts can become truly independent. For the fight against corruption he would adopt a law on parliamentary control and would ratify the 20 article UN convention against corruption, according to which civil servants who did not explain the origin of the their wealth would be tried.
“Your talking nonsense” an elderly lady suddenly interrupts. If a person interrupts and then doesn’t listen to the answer, then they are a provocateur, which the staff have become used to dealing with.
In the car as the candidate moves from meeting to meeting, his political consultant Vitaly instructs him: in general he shouldn’t react to provocation, his job is instead to put forward his ideas, and so he needs to look in a different direction, to ignore the provocateur and carry on.
“I have noise cancelling headphones, maybe they’ll help” Gudkov says smiling.
Vitaly Shklyarov is from Belarus, and has recently returned from the States, where he worked on Bernie Sanders’ campaign, another anti-establishment and longtime independent politician, who attempted to get elected President on the Democratic ticket. “When it became clear that he would not get the nomination, part of the team left for Hillary, but I was called here” Vitaly recounts “Being here is far more important for me”
For food, rest, talks with the staff and everything else the candidate only had one hour left. During that hour it was necessary to spend time calling the “doorbell chiefs” to personally thank and motivate them on the job. Staffers receive a salary and so more can be asked of them. Volunteers however need moral support. The car pulls up by a MacDonalds, there is very little time left until the meeting, and the experience of the candidate comes in handy here. In the same second that the phone is picked up on the other end, Gudkov is able to say clearly and amicably with his mouth stuffed with French fries “Hello, this is Dimitry Gudkov, deputy of the State Duma!”
The candidate looks out of the car on the stage where in a couple of minutes he will speak: standing in the shadows or in the sunshine. He smudges sun cream on his face so that he doesn’t burn. The driver, turning from the front seat, jokes “On the 18th September [the date of the election] they will ask you: where where you to get so tanned? Did you go on holiday?”
It’s already five pm and the queue in the yard is big, about fifty people. A woman in a silk tunic is trying to force the candidate to inspect the entrance, which has been needing repairs for a long time (the candidate immediately steers here to his assistant – in this case sending a deputy’s request[?]). A young man in an office suits asks why Russian democrats can in no way agree. “Putin never hit them… Do you they want a war or something?” grumbles a chubby old woman, moving from one of Gudkov’s white chairs to her home yard’s bench.
Here as well provocative questions are asked about gay marriages – not single day goes by without them. However, the provocateurs know little about the subject: a woman in a flowery suit asks about Alexei Navalny, calls Gudkov’s chief of staff Maksim Kats “your boss Kats”, and one elderly woman causes laughter as she brings forth complaints such as “You talk about the struggle against corruption, but your name is on the lists!” [presumably of corrupt officials] The listeners start to heckle the provocateurs so that Gudkov sometimes steps in “There’s freedom of speech here!”
“Provocateurs will make more noise than I do, but the noise lets everyone see what’s going on” Gudkov explains to me between meetings. For the daily questions about gay marriages he has an answer ready: “We shouldn’t discriminate against people, regardless of who they sleep with, what god they believe in, what stamp they have on their passport. The state should not heavily interfere in people’s lives. Up until 1979 women in Iran went about in short skirts, but then after that the government started to oppress one, then others. It ended up that women all wear burqas there. Do you want us to go down that route?”
It turned out the talk about gays was depleted, and the candidate was asked when changes would come to Russia.
“I was with the 25 of Valeri Zubov (one of the few deputies that voted against odious laws-Ed) and I asked him “Will we have to wait a long time for change”. He said “If we wait, it will be long”. I will wait for them for as long as you vote for these people that we’ve seen on the TV for 10 years. I offer you to fight instead. To try and change public opinion around you.”
A girl in lace and her friend ask to take a photo with the candidate. A man in a suit asks how to sign up to become a volunteer. A young father with his baby in his arms approaches to get a photograph while at the same time expressing doubt that the candidate had managed to convince some people there.
“No-one” motions the candidate “is excluded from this education. Our campaign is part campaign, part educational programme.”
When we leave, the yard continues to bubble away: people continue to discuss the same previous problems with each other.
After the meeting the candidate goes to his HQ. By a girl on a pink table there is a bouquet given for some reason to the candidate by a listener, flowers that Vitaly the consultant picked up to keep the spirits of his colleagues up. The chief of staff Maksim Kats has already organised one, even two or three polished election campaigns[?]. “When people are experienced, they all work calmly and without hitches” he says.
On the top floor of the HQ Dimitri Gudkov plays Nirvana on the guitar – this is how he relaxes. “I used to play in a band” the candidate says with pride “but more often than not I don’t know the notes.” Tomorrow five meetings await him. He finished today with his 64th meeting, but the grand total will be 220, the maximum there is time for before the elections.
Today is Italy’s Liberation Day, marking the day in 1945 when the Committee for National Liberation finally, after years of long hard resistance, overthrew the Italian Social Republic, Mussolini’s puppet state in the North of Italy, and brought and end to the decades long fascist rule in the peninsula, bringing to an end the war in Italy.
The youth wing of the Democratic Party, Labour’s sister party in Italy, has been tweeting extracts of the diaries and letters of an Italian partisan, Saro from Sicily, originally a journalist, who was shot by the fascists in 1944. At a time when the ideas that men like him died for are under threat, the ideas of political plurality, of society free from fear and coercion and, to a certain extent, of European unity and cooperation, I think it a good idea to share the poignant last words of this man to a wider audience.
Monday, 24th April 1944
Maria, my beloved,
I send you pages written in the moments in which I believed I would not survive. I write to you because now I am certain.
I have been arrested. They say I will be shot this evening or tomorrow morning.
Dear Maria, be strong and continue our work. Teach our son the principles of sacrifice and abnegation.
Teach him the values of equality and freedom.
Tell him to study, If ever we need people to rebuild this country, he must be ready.
The strongest youth is taken away by the war and those who remain usually has not been able to study enough to allow for a rebirth of all the nation.
I feel like I have done my duty. The only thing I regret is having made you come here without knowing what we would have done, guided only by hope.
In this moment I can’t say whether it was an error or an inevitable choice. You have been the best woman that I could’ve hoped to have by my side and if Salvatore has to stay with someone he is lucky it is you. Raise him like we have often discussed.
Take with you the memory of me and give it to him.
Remind him who I was. Remind him why I died but above all remind him that I chose this path.
Tell him that many of us died so that he, along with other young people, can one day lay the solid foundations of a society based on equality and based neither on assaults on liberty nor on fear, but rather on peace between men, not on war.
Resist and fight against anyone who causes damage to another person.
Universal happiness is not only possible, but necessary.
Forgive my jumbled words, but I am afraid and I fear every step that I hear passing by cell signals my final hour.
What sense is there in prolonging my agony?
I am calm. Be strong.
I hug you and kiss you, my Maria
Monday, 24 April 1944
I will not return home.
Take care of your mum and don’t giver her anymore displeasure.
You know why I have done all of this.
Remember your dad who made you suffer lots.
I regret loading you with this grief that you may never recover from.
Get your mother to recommend you books.
Read a lot and go to school.
Rebuild this country of ours that has fallen into disgrace.
May you all be happy.
Today I die for this.
Long live freedom!
Give your mum a flower.
PS. when that one [Mussolini] falls, come and tell my grave.
Wednesday, 25 April 1945
A year has passed since you died. We did not know this day would come, but with mum we decided that we would remember you today.
Dad, Italy is free.
The news was announced on the radio: the Germans have surrendered.
We received your letters along with the pages of your diary. In one of them you were asking yourself if your sacrifice would be worth it. It has been.
Maybe your name won’t be inscribed in history and maybe only a few will be remembered, but our struggle, the values for which we have fought, will be the foundation on which we will build the new Italy. I only hope my generation will be up to the task.
On my shoulders I feel the responsibility of the purpose of your life: you died so that men whose faces you had never seen could live, knowing that nothing is more true than freedom.
I don’t why I am writing this letter which you will never be able to read, but I like to the think that one day someone finding it will remember the simplicity of the that which has taken place.
That which some might call heroism has been the fruit of a popular movement who, seeing injustice, decided to move in the opposite direction. You, Dad, along with other men and women, along with young people and old, and sometimes even along with children, you have handed us freedom, not as a gift, but as a duty for the future.
Dear Dad, Mum and I, despite being wracked by loss are so proud of you and never once thought that your choices were not the right ones. The choices that certainly demanded sacrifices, but heroism is not something that comes to people like us.
We rebuild not only this country , but also this world martyred by war and injustice. The sun rises on a future that now is radiant. It won’t be easy, but I remain convinced that people are more or less good. The war has changed everyone in some way, but we will be able to take back our humanity and to rediscover those values that they have tried to take away from us.
Dad, understand with me that they haven’t succeeded. I will study lots and will strive to give full meaning to your sacrifice.
Italy is free, Dad. Italy is free thanks in part to you too.
Lots of love,
Cards on the table, I didn’t vote for Corbyn. Being the paranoid pessimist doomsayer that I am I’m caught in this strange place where I know that a Corbyn leadership has so much potential to change how we do politics in this country for the better, yet I can visualise so easily how it can all be squandered to poor media management, to gaffes and to in-fighting. Being caught in this strange place sandwiched between excitement and trepidation has completely scrambled my political compass, to the point that, as opposed to say, a year ago, I would not put money on any political predictions I may foolishly make.
If you had told me in early May that Jeremy Corbyn would have won the leadership election with 60% of the vote in the first round I would’ve laughed at you. I expect a lot of people would’ve as well. And so the question we need to ask ourselves is: “Is this a one-off from Jez, or can he continue to defy expectations?”. This then leads to “Does the mood within the Labour Party reflect the mood without?”. Because, although Corbyn did manage to win several hundred thousand votes, this is a tiny fraction of the total electorate. It’s easy to say that, because he packed halls across the country, he can win elections. Here lies the problem. Because it is objectively true that Corbyn has energised the Labour Party and re-given a sense of dignity to it and its members and, as much as this pleases me and I’m sure many of my comrades, there is no guarantee that it will do the same to the wider electorate. We risk disappearing into a dangerous cycle of self-satisfaction, a dynamic and positive party with nothing to offer the people we’re supposed to represent. On the one hand I’m happy that we now live in a time when the Shadow Chancellor is actively pro the destruction of capitalism, but I’m not too sure how voters in marginal seats will take it.
The problem is Corbyn has allowed himself to be completely trampled on during the first few weeks of his leadership. It happened when he first announced his cabinet, when the mock outrage regarding his non-singing of the national anthem was spewing from every self-contented Tory columnist and when John McDonnell had to apologise for his comments about the IRA. Where were the Labour MPs, peers, mayors, councillors and academics on the radio, on the TV, giving interviews defending Corbyn? Where was the unity of message essential to an operation that knows it will get the worse possible coverage in the press? Where was the wall of sound on every form of media reassuring the British public that the great people’s institution that is the Labour Party had not been taken over by a trotskyite relic, but rather by an honorable, sincere and fundamentally decent man who was here to bring a new type of politics. The only way Corbyn will make it to Downing Street (or even to 2020 for that matter) is by ensuring that any and all coverage he gets has at least one forceful soundbite of the Party line. If I were him, I’d be contacting every single left-leaning academic, economists in particular, and getting them ready to be called up to defend my leadership, my policies and my people.
If I were him I’d also make peace with the PLP, and they need to grow up and play their part. Corbyn won’t get anywhere without support from Labour MPs. Not only will he need to call on them to defend the Party in the media, but he also needs them for policy and to push for any grass-roots organisational reforms he may have in mind. This means all talk of deselections from senior Corbynites needs to stop. On a purely practical level, it means MPs are less likely to support the leadership and more likely to be happy to be quoted as ‘an anonymous Labour source’ for the Telegraph or the Times. But we also need to consider the effects that semi-leadership-endorsed deselections will have on the morale of the membership and local parties. If we cherish the aim that, as members, we should act in a comradely way to each other, deselections are clearly against our principles. Pitting one half of a CLP against another and destroying campaigning capacity is an easy way of losing even the safest of seats and destroying possibly decades of comradely work. Corbyn needs to stress that he does not want deselections to occur at any point during his term if he wants to start to win over the PLP. He needs to reign in some of his more unruly supporters and he needs to integrate into proper Party structures those people who are more loyal to him than the Party. There needs to be a clear policy that, if you want to be part of the Party that tries to make Jez PM, you should campaign for candidates locally and nationally that may be part of the dreaded ‘Blairite cult’. There must be no space for hangers-on from the Socialist Party, from the various splintered communist parties and especially from the Greens. We must not allow them to destroy with their extremism and dogma the (usually) friendly attitude that allows Labour to be such a broad church. Jez is simply one of the candidates that we will campaign for across the country to promote the cause of labour in all levels of government. Those who do not understand this cannot and should not be placated.
Having watched both Corbyn and McDonnell’s speeches, I’m glad they did what I was so hoping for them to do: namely avoiding dogma and cliche like the plague. One of Corbyn’s strengths is his refreshing difference to other mainstream politicians. The fact that he will challenge orthodoxies that the Party hasn’t talked about in years is a definite plus. I don’t lament the loss of the fetishisation of the market, the belief that the state is incapable of delivering any kind of large scale project or the refusal to challenge the failings of the financial system. But to maintain his image as a man out to challenge the failing political and economic he needs to continue to be new and unorthodox. This means not banging on about certain ideas overused by the Left and so abandoning (or at least seeming to abandon) the golden calves of our movement that we love but that make the public either uncomfortable or very bored. You can see examples of it all over Twitter: badly made memes that know neither proper fact-checking or good graphic design. Let’s be honest, Trident is not something that affects people’s daily lives, and fervent opposition to it simply helps the ‘Labour are a bunch of lefty hippies that want the USSR back’ narrative. Relegating the nuclear issue to a second-rate issue and spending more time on more tangible issues seems to me to be the most pragmatic to avoid a massive clash inside and outside the Party.
Corbyn in his speech did not, and he continue to not, present his economic platform as ‘anti-austerity’ but rather as common sense, the embodiment of the British sense of fairness and community. Rather than building his narrative around dry theory, statistics and philosophy, Corbyn has started to construct a narrative on a vision of an economy founded on high investment and high wages, and a society that is equitable and democratic. His task now is to convince the British people, in the face of newspaper smears, that he is not the dangerous radical, rather Cameron is. “Cameron is the despicable ideologue that refuses to change course no matter the evidence, while Corbyn is the guy just implementing the will of the British people” should be our message. If he can manage to expose the Tories’ hypocrisy: that of piously singing the national anthem or going to the rugger to support England while selling off as many of the nation’s assets to the Chinese on the sly or allowing big multinationals to walk all over our tax system, Corbyn can destroy the shaky foundations of Cameronist-Osbornism. But to get this message across he needs to sort out his operation and start pumping out his message 24/7 wherever he can. He needs the PLP to get over themselves and start acting like team players, or at least give him a chance. His task is massive (although not impossible), but, if he pulls off Labour victories in 2016 and 2020, the rewards will be huge, and Jez will be elevated to the same status as the last bearded man who led the Labour Party. The future is bright, bold and exciting, but tinged with a faint stain of trepidation. I really look forward to being part of this strange chapter of the great British political story.
For someone who is supposedly so good at winning elections, Liz Kendall is not doing a great job at winning the leadership contest. What looked like a dynamic campaign in the early stages of the election has devolved into a petty and aggressive name-calling machine. On the other hand, Jeremy Corbyn, whose late announcement to candidature seemed like an unwilling and half-arsed attempt to get a ‘left’ candidate on the ballot, has been propelled into winning electoral territory.
At this point in time I have to clarify a few points. Throughout this piece I will use labels such as ‘Blairite’, ‘Bennite’, ‘left’ and ‘right’. In no way do I mean any of these titles in a disrespectful way; merely that I’m describing the ideological differences in the Labour Party. I would much rather a Party where phrases such as ‘loony left’ or ‘red Tories’ were not defunct and where various factions would get a off their respective high horses and start cooperating for the good of the Party and the people we are supposed to represent.
Jeremy Corbyn’s success has obviously scared and unnerved a good deal of people, especially those of the Blairite right. At the risk of repeating a tired mantra, he does pose, and has always posed a big threat to the ‘Party Establishment’: an ill-defined term that is used to describe everyone from Peter Mandelson to ordinary Party staffers. If you’ve been spending your summer endlessly trawling through Twitter like I have, you may have noticed a rather large backlash against the member for Islington North and his supporters. Many of those decrying Corbyn’s candidacy seem to have a little red box with the word ‘Liz’ in the bottom right-hand corner of their avatar. Many of them are MPs or ex MPs, another good chunk of them are political journalists or other senior Labour figures. Almost all use the word ‘unelectable’, most talk about ‘tough decisions’ and a malicious few use the phrase ‘loony left’ or ‘mad trots’.
When Labour MPs start insulting the members that got them elected with stigmatising slurs purely because they differ in choice of leader, it’s clear something has gone very wrong. If an MP insulted one of their constituents like that so publicly, they would have to resign before the day was out. This backlash from the PLP and the Party ‘establishment’ betrays a deep and long felt distrust of the membership. When senior figures claim that Corbyn would ‘destroy the Party’, there is always the implicit message that people who vote for Corbyn hate being in government, and consequently hate poor/young/elderly/disabled/BAME people because they want to condemn us to endless opposition. The arrogance with which MPs tell us that we’re wrong, that we’re too cowardly to make ‘tough choices’ and vote for their preferred candidate, perfectly explains why the membership is not flocking to their anointed one. Of course people like Jonathan Reynolds and Tom Harris have all the answers. Of course they will deliver us from our childish and selfish ideas and lead us to where we deserve to be led. Only they know what being ‘electable’ is like.
This is my main point of contention. It seems to have been set in stone that Liz Kendall is the most ‘modernising’ and ‘electable’ of candidates. Considering she is wed to an ideology that had its heyday before I was born I would strongly contest the first attribute. On the second point, the Kendallite spin is clear: the only thing standing in the way of Kendall and her childhood dream of being Prime Minister are the ignorant and self-absorbed members. For some reason it’s natural that Kendall is ‘electable’, despite her not having had a senior role in any successful major national campaign. Why has Liz Kendall been assigned the trait ‘electable’ to her? What has she done to deserve it? Let us not forget that, in the early stages of the contest, polls showed that her name recognition was in single digits. I don’t want to spend the first few years of important opposition telling the public who the hell it is that we want as Prime Minister in 2020. No one unknown ever won an election, and Liz Kendall, despite profile after profile in various (less than Labour-friendly) papers, is a virtual unknown outside of politics. Even I, who have been a Labour member for as long as legally possible, did not know who she was and what she stood for until she announced she was running for leader.
And yet the political journalists continue the mantra that the ‘centre ground’ is the place to be to win elections and this is why Kendall is the best choice. But they fail to notice the massive shifts in opinion after the financial crash that inevitably shifted the centre ground. They talk about winning back Tory voters yet fail to realise we only lost 6 seats to the Tories and that most of their gains came from Lib-Dem seats and most of our loses came from Scottish seats. When Kendall talks of winning back the ‘centre ground’, meaning the centre ground of 1997. When her campaign talks of Corbyn being the Party’s ‘comfort zone’, they fail to realise that she is merely the other extreme of ideological and political laziness. Failing to modernise Blairism or New Labour to reflect the changes that have happened since 2008 has been a massive mistake for Kendall. She has done nothing to address her image as a ‘Tory’. Every time her campaign encounters grass roots hostility it further backs itself into a corner. The attacks on members being slowly less and less subtle, the rhetoric more and more patronising. Simply put, even if she isn’t as right wing as many people believe, she has lost all good will with members that they aren’t willing to listen to her arguments any more. She talks about avoiding being a ‘party of protest’ and ‘unnecessary opposition’ to the government. What she fails to see is that, if she wants to be Prime Minister, she’ll have to be a good Leader of the Opposition which, surprise, involves opposing the government.
Let’s be clear, none of the candidates will win an outright majority in 2020. None of them have the mix of charisma, leadership and vision that makes a good Leader of the Opposition and then a good Prime Minister. My only consolation, seeing the impending doom on the horizon, is that the 2020 leadership election is going to be a lot better and lot more interesting.
After our defeat in the polls Twitter was ringing with ideas being thrown about. “More aspiration” said some, “Return to our core values” said others. It’s clear that we need to have a positive discussion on the future of our Party and the way we run it. With this in mind I want to put my name forward to be the Youth Representative for London on the National Policy Forum.
Certainly, it’s not as exciting as the leadership election or mayoral selection, but I believe the National Policy Forum has great potential: it can be as effective and important as we want it to be. Over the course of the past few decades, policy making has been severely centralised in the Labour Party. This has meant that our manifestos have become increasingly short sighted and wonkish, disconnected from people’s lives. It’s too easy for senior shadow cabinet figures to decry our last manifesto when in fact they have been suppressing any sort of positive policy debate in our Party.
What’s clear is that policy can no longer be written solely at Party HQ: we need a Party that is open to new ideas and welcoming to debate. This means devolving local manifesto writing to every level of government and it means giving more powers to the National Policy Forum.
The NPF can either be a talking shop, where what little is decided is ignored by the leadership or it can be a powerful engine of representation and change. I want it to be the latter, and that’s why I’m standing. None of us joined the Labour Party purely to doorknock, leaflet and phonebank; I joined, and I’m sure many others did too, to make my views heard in the only vehicle of progressive change in this country. It’s time to start listening to the thousands of young members in this city and more broadly, this nation. We cannot be treated as campaigning fodder all the time and as NPF rep I will make sure that all members’ views are heard, by running regular policy events across the city. I will fight for the ideas and policies democratically decided by London Young Labour members whenever the NPF meets. I will remain totally accountable to London Young Labour and Labour CLPs by publishing regular reports of what I am doing as rep.
If you elect me, I will not go to the NPF to push my own agenda, but rather the programme decided by the young members of this city.
Every member of the Labour Party has something to contribute, and I want to make sure that our experiences, hopes, dreams and ideals are a central core of any future Labour manifesto, whether local or national.
I joined the Labour Party to do my bit to bring about positive progressive change in this country, and, if you nominate me for and elect me to the National Policy Forum, I hope to continue helping bringing about a brighter future.
If you agree with me I would be very grateful if you could nominate at your CLP’s General Meeting, along with Peray Ahmet, James Murray, Alon Or-Bach and Marsha de Cordova. Nominations for National Policy Forum close on June 10th.
If you have any questions feel free to email me at email@example.com
The Festa de L’Unità is an annual festival, started by the Italian Communist Party and continued by Labour’s sister party in Italy, the Democratic Party. A week long event, it involves debate, music, dance and speeches. Think the Durham Miners’ Gala, just with much better food and in every city in Italy. The Festa is different from the party’s annual congress, where party policy is discussed and officers elected. It is distinct in the fact that, although it is still a place for discussing politics, the aim of the festival is not to manage the direction of the party, or hold its leaders to account, but rather a way for members to socialise, unwind and for a ‘party culture’ to develop.
So what do I mean by ‘party culture’? Well, obviously not the Labour Party developing its own language or music genre. I am using ‘culture’ in a sociological sense: contrasting it to party ‘structure’. Simply, structure is the way a group or society is organised and culture is the ideas and values that this collection of people share. For example, the National Executive Committee, Party Conference and Constituency Labour Parties would all be classified as structure, while sharing a belief in equality, or the history we have behind us would be ‘culture’. So why is this important beyond me being able to show off my rudimentary understanding of sociology? And how does this relate to an Italian excuse to get really drunk and eat a lot?
Well consider this: the Democratic Party has around 800,000 members compared to Labour’s 200,000. Clearly our Italian comrades are doing something better than us, and from first hand experience, the Democratic Party is not an archetypal paragon of competence. I believe it is because Labour has concentrated far too much on structure, and ignored the culture. Not only has it turned a mass movement into a insulated party, but it has also disconnected the party from our core support. When I canvass, I talk to, without fail, voters who regards me as a door-to-door salesman for the Party. Can we honestly say that we, as individual activists, agree totally with the leadership and the Party’s policies? Are we supposed to agree with, or even know the Party’s stance on every single issue, local and national? I appreciate that for some people asking a doorknocker is the easiest way to find out policy, but when a voter at the door doesn’t even make eye contact, speaks in a tone of bored annoyance, yet continues to ask endless questions as if deciding which vacuum cleaner to buy I realise that there has been a serious break between the Party and the people it is supposed to represent. We have become an organisation focused on structures designed for winning elections, not a movement with a culture of building consensus. Consensus that works both ways: voters agreeing that the (Labour) government is legitimate and represents us, as well as the government knowing that, to retain this legitimacy, it must listen devoutly to popular opinion. Because we are, as activists, a bridge between voter and government, instead of door-to-door salesmen. A truly democratic Labour government is one where activists listen to the voters and the front bench listens to the activists. A vanguard party directed solely from Party HQ can only fade into meaninglessness in a time of voter dissatisfaction.
The structure of a Party, which is what most people see through press conferences, speeches and Party Conference, can seem very disconnected from real life and often comes across as something not entirely real, and therefore, something not worth getting involved in. By putting a human face to a sometimes inhuman organisation, we can show that the Labour Party is not just a few talking heads on TV. Voters that have been canvassed are far more likely to vote and vote for the party they were canvassed by, according to a study by Yale in 2000. Structure is needed, but it cannot be more important than culture. Building a better society is not a professional enterprise, and it can’t be done purely by a clique of full-time staffers (not to say the Labour Party doesn’t need staffers).
I realise I still haven’t answered my earlier question about the Festa de l’Unità. The point of a festival like that is to build culture. If Labour ran similar festivals in every city, people would swiftly realise that we aren’t just a Party of mad politicos. We could build culture, not only through more dialogue with non-members, but also through political education. In the old days of the Italian Communist Party, every Festa would have a library tent, stocked with all the books necessary for an awakening of class consciousness. We could make clear Labour’s beliefs and values, which are far more relatable than any policy announcement. I can get far more excited about building a fairer world than I can, let’s say, a British Investment Bank (good as that is). The people I meet and know in the Labour Party are committed, principled and fundamentally decent people who could convince a lot more people if they were given more time than just a few minutes on a Sunday morning. Isn’t it telling that the people we give the least time to on the doorstep are our most ardent supporters? When they say ‘I’ve voted Labour all my life’, our immediate reaction is to go break the conversation off as soon as possible, having already gotten quickly the vital two Ls to put on the canvassing sheet. Connecting more with these people, listening to their grievances and ideas properly and especially not taking them for granted just because ‘they’ve always voted for us and always will’ will ensure their continued support and most likely, a rise in membership.
But an emphasis on ‘party culture’ will also benefit existing members too. Nobody wants to bring about better society with people they don’t know or like. Personally I am much more likely to attend a meeting or campaign session if I know a good friend is attending too, and I don’t believe that this is a particularly strange attitude. Everyone knows the old quote ‘All campaigning and no socials makes Ed a dull boy’. And let’s vary these socials; not just the same pub nights and gala dinners, but film nights, sports days, barbecues and so on. Through these actual human interactions and relationships can start to develop. This is vital, especially for newer members, who maybe aren’t too sure about where to start and how much time to give to the Party. It also means that we can look beyond the cliques that we sometimes herd ourselves into. Not only does the Labour Party need to be a movement, but it also needs to become a family, where no matter which CLP or Labour Club you go, you will always feel welcome and among friends. We spend too much time in constituencies debating finances and approving minutes, and not enough talking about the kind of country we want, or how to bring it about. We do need to do the nitty-gritty stuff, but we risk losing ourselves in bureaucracy: in structure.