Florence Mayor Carves Out “Third Way” for Italy’s Democrats

Likely prime ministerial candidate Matteo Renzi seeks to imitate Tony Blair’s centrist socialism.

Florence mayor Matteo Renzi gives a speech in Sulmona, Italy, September 30, 2012
Florence mayor Matteo Renzi gives a speech in Sulmona, Italy, September 30, 2012 (Google+/Matteo Renzi)

Florence mayor Matteo Renzi believes Italy’s left can get up to 40 percent support in the next election if it imitates the “Third Way” policies of former British prime minister Tony Blair.

Renzi told Il Foglio newspaper that he is “fascinated with the idea of ​​doing in the Democratic Party what Tony Blair did in 1994 with New Labour.”

Labor reform

Although he said he hasn’t decided yet whether to stand for the party leadership again, the mayor, who placed second in last year’s Democratic primary, had plenty of advice to make the left more electable.

He calls for pension and public-sector reforms — “We must learn to say that we can be more efficient while spending less, we cannot just say spend, spend, spend” — as well as measures to improve Italian workers’ competitiveness.

Average hourly labor costs in Italy are close to the eurozone average but have continued to rise during the crisis, unlike in Greece, Ireland and Portugal.

Italian workers also tend to be less productive than their counterparts north of the Alps.

“Reducing the tax burden on labor is right,” said Renzi, “but you have to be honest and say two things.”

First, he claimed such policies in the past had benefited employers more than workers. The labor reforms of the previous governments, he said, “had no appreciable results in terms of creating jobs.”

Although he didn’t mention that his own Democratic Party watered down many of the liberalizations proposed by former prime minister Mario Monti.

Trade unions

Second, and notably, Renzi said labor policy should “emancipate itself from the unions,” the left’s traditional allies.

Union support for Pier Luigi Bersani in the primary might have even cost Renzi the election.

Bersani resigned when he failed to win a majority for the left in parliamentary elections and his presidential candidates were all shot down by the right.

Blair’s example

Blair similarly weaned his Labour Party off militant unionism in the 1990s, preferring a more centrist socialism that accepted the market reforms of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government.

By focusing on issues middle- and working-class voters actually cared about, Blair dramatically expanded Labour’s support and returned it to government after almost twenty years in opposition.

Divided left

Although Renzi’s Democrats supported Monti, many were unhappy with his austerity program and critical of a pact with the center-right.

The left is divided between centrists like Renzi and Prime Minister Enrico Letta, who are generally pro-European and socially liberal, and progressives and former communists, who would rather join forces with the populist Five Star Movement than rule in coalition with the right.

Berlusconi, who has long portrayed his opponents as unruly radicals, was quick to exploit this division in April when, in a television interview, he advised it to “face criticism in relation to its identification with the communist ideology” and expressed his hope that it would reinvent itself as “a party like those of Europe’s social democrats.”

He should be careful what he wishes for. Polls suggest Renzi is the only leftists who could decisively beat Berlusconi in a general election.

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