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12 April 2017

As ordinary Italians becomes more dissatisfied with the failing European project, the mad single currency that’s dragging down the national economy, and the corrupt and self-serving Italian elite that puts their own interests ahead of the people they are supposed to represent, the British political system can take notes on the innovative solution being offered by one of Europe’s most exciting anti-establishment parties: the Italian 5 Star Movement, a direct democratic movement committed to civic participation.

Direct democracy

Despite the party being closely associated with a charismatic figurehead – the political satirist and blogger Beppe Grillo – it is a deeply democratic organisation which has harnessed the power of the internet to great effect to bring popular participation to the people of Italy.

Since 2015 the party has used a comprehensive piece of software called Rousseau to involve members in the work of the party, giving them the ability to participate in the writing of national and regional laws, vote for local representatives, raise funds – in the near future – organise activism on the ground.

The system is secure with only subscribers to the party being given access, and only once the Movement has properly identified the subscriber in question. The level of security this provides guarantees that the Movement is a fair and democratic system, free from the influence of external saboteurs while giving grassroots activists an authentic and equal voice.

But even before the creation of dedicated software, the party was able to make big breakthroughs by organising on Grillo’s own blog – one of the most widely read in the country. If enough like-minded people care enough, they can do incredible things even without massive resources.

Electoral success

And despite the constant refrains of traditional political pundits who worry that direct democracy is a chaotic and impractical approach to public affairs, the party has had remarkable electoral success winning the mayoralties of Rome and Turin and becoming the second largest party in the Italian Chamber of Deputies – taking 109 seats in 2013. They’ve done so by riding an anti-establishment wave and responding to the concerns of ordinary people – Rome mayor Virginia Raggi, for example, ran on a credible pledge to crack down on fare dodging in crowded public transport.

They were also instrumental in blocking the passage of ex-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s constitutional reform package in December 2016 – a set of policies that would have usurped further powers against the interests of the Italian people. The defeat led to the resignation of the sitting Prime Minister, sending a clear message to governing elites.

And following the December referendum the Movement has only grown stronger, now consistently leading in the polls against the Democratic Party of governing Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni with the support of around 30% of the electorate in a fragmented field. They look like serious contenders to seize power whenever a general election is next called no later than May next year.

It isn’t only reaching out to one part of the electorate either, and its broad base of support means its momentum has scope to expand even further. The party has drawn support from across the political spectrum, with early academic analysis in 2012 showing that its initial surge in support came from the right-leaning Northern League and, more importantly, the left-wing Democratic Party. It consistently refuses to define itself on a traditional scale of values, instead referring to itself as a “party of ideas”.

With huge majorities in Britain finding common ground on a range of issues – including control of our borders and continued support for the National Health Service – isn’t it time we broke down the outdated left-right divide and united around a common cause of meaningful reform and democratic participation?