M5S takes ex-communist stronghold

Despite the views of some who ought to know better, there is nothing progressive about Beppe Grillo, argues Toby Abse

Beppe Grillo’s right-populist Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement - M5S) has captured Livorno, the Tuscan port city where the Italian Communist Party1 was founded in 1921. M5S’s Filippo Nogarin got 53.7%, ahead of the 46.3% won by the Partito Democratico’s Marco Ruggeri, in the second-round mayoral run-off on Sunday June 8.

Livorno is a city that has been continuously ruled by the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI) and its successor parties - Partito Democratico della Sinistra (PDS), Democratici di Sinistra (DS) and today’s Partito Democratico (PD) - for 68 years, ever since 1946, when the first free municipal elections after the fall of the fascist regime took place.2 This is a city where the PCI got 56.19% in the European elections of 1984 and where even as recently as 2009 the PD candidate, Alessandro Cosimi, was elected mayor on the first round with 51.5% - indeed on no previous occasion since the introduction of directly elected mayors two decades ago had there been any need for a second round in Livorno.

Although, as I indicated in a previous article,3 there is a certain amount of debate about how far the triumph of the PD under Matteo Renzi in the May 25 European elections relied on winning over electors who had previously voted for the centre or centre-right rather than the left, it is nonetheless worth pointing out that the PD got 53% in Livorno at the European elections. This suggests that the PD’s current weakness in the city owes more to feelings about its local administration than to a reaction against the party’s national record.

In some respects the outcome has to be ascribed to rage and despair on the part of at least a section of the traditional working class electorate of the PCI/PDS/DS/PD. The unemployment rate in Livorno is now 16%, roughly double the average for the relatively prosperous Tuscan region, of which it is the second city. Recent years have seen factory closures as well as the decline of shipbuilding - once the largest single employer - and containerisation has reduced the amount of manual labour associated with the port, which once employed thousands of dockers.

Over the last few years the council has given its support to a number of building projects in the city centre that either ran way over schedule or still remain uncompleted, disrupting traffic and spreading an air of decay, which has been reinforced by the closure of city-centre cinemas and other traditional landmarks. At the very least this pattern of behaviour suggests a considerable degree of incompetence - Senza Sosta, a local monthly of a broadly anarchist/autonomist persuasion, has made frequent allegations about the Livornese PD’s involvement in municipal corruption, supposedly in relation to developers. These are claims which have a certain plausibility in any local administration characterised by long-term, one-party rule, unashamed careerism and a collapse in any ideological commitment of the kind that typified the better elements of the old PCI - parallels with Labour administrations in certain of the poorer London boroughs instantly come to mind. The local PD has also been characterised by a lot of internal bickering over the last decade or so - bickering which owes far more to personal rivalries between leading politicians and their respective clienteles than to any serious ideological differences.

It therefore seems reasonable to assume that much of the vote for M5S - particularly in the second round, when it increased from 19% to 53.7% - was a vote against the local PD rather than a positive vote for either Grillo or his local representative, Nogarin. The Livornese right quite consciously urged their supporters to vote for M5S; the far-right racists of the Lega Nord and the neo-fascists of the Fratelli d’Italia/Alleanza Nazionale4 did so publicly and, whilst the local section of Forza Italia made a feeble pretence of neutrality, presumably mindful of the personal hostility between Silvio Berlusconi and Grillo, the Berlusconian club, Liburni Fides, was also quite openly calling for an M5S vote.

One might argue that it is perfectly understandable that there would be some spontaneous anger against the PD administration’s failings and that the weak local right, thoroughly embittered after nearly seven decades of communist and post-communist rule at local level, would seek to avenge itself on the PD through any alternative available. However, what is absolutely inexcusable is the role of sections of the left. Whilst the soft-left Sinistra Ecologia e Libertà (SEL) had participated in the Livornese elections as a junior partner of the PD, gaining a mere 1.78%, and backed Ruggeri’s mayoral candidacy from the first round, the bulk of the radical left in the city - including Rifondazione Comunista - had supported the candidacy of Andrea Raspanti in the first round.

This 33-year-old activist had got 13,973 votes (16.38%) in the first round and in effect deprived Ruggeri of the kind of first-round victory that the ‘official communists’ had obtained in the past.5 In the second round Raspanti advised his supporters to switch to M5S, and I am not aware of any public repudiation of this advice by Rifondazione at either the local or the national level. It has been claimed in what appears to be a properly researched article by a Repubblica correspondent6 that in the last fortnight a number of Raspanti supporters were actually engaging in door-to-door campaigning for M5S. Whilst the 50.3% turnout in the second round - down from 64.5% in the first - suggests that some Raspanti supporters may have abstained in the run-off,7 it is sadly likely that they made some contribution to the electoral victory of the self-employed “aerospace engineer”.8

The lord’s work

Nogarin’s victory was immediately blessed by the local bishop, Simone Giusti, who went far beyond simple official congratulations, when he said, “Don’t let yourself be beaten by the difficulties you will meet. Trust in the collaboration of so many people and dedicate your role as first citizen to the lord, in whom I know you believe profoundly. You as an engineer know how to plan ultra-light structures, loosen the bureaucracy that is suffocating the city.”9

The Catholic bishop’s enormous enthusiasm for the PD’s nemesis has to be seen in the context of the cosmopolitan and anti-clerical city’s entire history - Livorno was founded as a free port by the Medici at the end of the 16th century, as an area over which the inquisition had no authority, somewhere where a wide variety of heretics and refugees were welcomed and galley slaves were set free on arrival. This city, with its Jews, Armenians, Huguenots, Greek Orthodox and Arabs, was considered in the early modern period by its more devout and xenophobic neighbours from the much more long established Tuscan cities of Pisa and Florence as ‘the city of the damned’ and its staunch communism during the cold war years revived such sentiments amongst the Livornese church hierarchy, who frequently remarked with the utmost distaste on the very low attendance at mass every Sunday.

The 43-year-old M5S mayor - playing to the gallery of useful idiots on the radical left - claims, “Once as a very young man I voted for Democrazia Proletaria” (an alliance of Trotskyist and far-left groups in the 70s). After that he used to vote for the Greens and sometimes the Radicals, which means that “Even if I have never done politics in the parties, yes, I am from the left.”10 It is perhaps more relevant, however, in the aftermath of his victory that he publicly expressed his desire to “break the monopoly of the Co-op” over distribution in Livorno - making it clear that he had in mind a large-scale private company (even if he quickly remembered to qualify this by expressing support for small shopkeepers).

No interviewer seems to have quizzed Nogarin about his view of trade unions, for which his leader, Grillo, has such rabid hostility. Needless to say, Nogarin gave a very evasive answer to a question about the support he received in the second round from the neo-fascists and attempted to dismiss any reference to the alliance of M5S with the UK Independence Party as “press manipulation”.11

It is by no means clear that the Livornese M5S will have the capacity to run a major city and Nogarin’s claims that he will appoint his cabinet by studying various CVs that have been sent him in the last week or two do not inspire confidence. Perhaps like the rightwing municipal administration of Bologna under Giorgio Guazzaloca in 1999-2004 this will prove to be a mere five-year interlude and a chastened PD or some broader centre-left bloc will return to office on the next occasion.

In the meantime, it is absolutely essential to raise concerns about the extent to which the racist and xenophobic agenda associated with Grillo will impact on migrant communities (both legal and illegal - Senegalese, Nigerians, Bangladeshis, Chinese, Roma and others) living in this cosmopolitan city; about whether rhetorical attacks on “bureaucracy” really mean more privatisation, outsourcing and cuts in public services; about how far the attacks on cooperatives will go; about whether M5S’s anti-trade union stance will lead to attacks on the wages and conditions of those still employed in the port, which figures on the Livornese right have advocated for decades; about whether the Catholic church will gain more influence in this hitherto very secular city and whether the civic administration’s record of supporting and subsidising events linked to commemorating the city’s proud tradition of anti-fascism will now come to an abrupt end12


1. Amadeo Bordiga’s party was born as the Partito Comunista d’Italia (PCd’I). The party only became the Partito Comunista Italiano under Palmiro Togliatti’s leadership in 1943.

2. The last freely elected municipal administration of the pre-fascist period had been a socialist one, elected in November 1920 and overthrown by fascist squads with the collusion of the police and army in August 1922. For further details about this period, see my Sovversivi e fascisti a Livorno: lotta politica e sociale (1918-1922) Milan 1991.

3. See ‘Renzi’s rightward march’, June 5.

4. It was interesting, to say the least, that in Livorno the self-styled Christian Democratic centrists of the Unione di Centro were in a joint list with the fascists for both mayor and council.

5. Even if one assumes that some of Raspanti’s voters would in the absence of a hard-left candidate have abstained or voted for M5S or for other minor candidates, it does seem likely that enough of them would have voted for Ruggeri to pull him up from 39.97% to something over the required 50%.

6. See Simona Poli’s ‘Viaggio nel ex feudo rosso’ in La Repubblica (June 10).

7. An abstention was the official position of the hard-line Trotskyist Partito Comunista dei Lavoratori, which stood an entirely separate list for mayor and council in the first round, coming in 11th and last with 0.56%. The PCL regarded Raspanti’s radical left cartel as one that incorporated some petty bourgeois forces alien to the workers’ movement and was thus unsupportable.

8. In the absence of any detailed information about Nogarin’s business activities, it is hard to judge how seriously to take his oft repeated claim that he will take a 16% cut in the mayoral salary in symbolic solidarity with the city’s unemployed, who account for16% of the workforce.

9. La Repubblica June 10.

10. Corriere della Sera June 10.

11. A report in Corriere della Sera (June 10) claims that an M5S internet referendum on this question is scheduled for June 12. It is not clear whether registered members will just have a choice of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to an alliance with Nigel Farage, with whom Grillo is rumoured to be having another meeting this week. There is still some possibility of other options being presented. Faced with internal rebellion from some of his parliamentarians over the Ukip link, Grillo has gone through the motions of appealing to the European Greens. Whilst a ‘Eurosceptic’ alliance with David Cameron would make some sense and Grillo is no more bizarre than Cameron’s Polish partners, the M5S approach to the Liberals is puzzling, given their stance in favour of greater European integration. Readers will note that all the groups to which Grillo has appealed, with the exception of the Greens, are firmly on the right.

12. I owe the publication of my own book Sovversivi e fascisti a Livorno (see note 2 above) to the generosity of the Livornese municipality under PCI/PDS leadership, who paid for its translation and the bulk of the printing costs.