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

Florence mayor Matteo Renzi during a television appearance, January 23

Florence mayor Matteo Renzi during a television appearance, January 23 (La Presse/Gian Mattia D’Alberto)

Florence’s 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 Britain’s Labour prime minister Tony Blair and draws votes from both the center and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement.

Renzi said in an interview with Il Foglio newspaper that was published on Saturday that he was “fascinated with the idea of ​​doing in the Partito Democratico what Tony Blair did in 1994 with New Labour.”

Although he said he hadn’t decided yet whether to stand for the party leadership again, the mayor, who came second in a primary election last year, had plenty of advice to make the left more electable. He proposed 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 was the case in Greece, Ireland and Portugal, countries that needed European financial support to stave off bankruptcy. 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 employees. 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 Partito Democratico watered down many of the liberalization proposals former premier Mario Monti made.

Second, and notably, Renzi said labor policy should “emancipate itself from the unions” who are the left’s traditional allies. Indeed, union support for Pier Luigi Bersani in the primary last year might have cost Renzi the election. Bersani later resigned when he failed to win an outright majority for the left in both chambers of parliament and his presidential candidates were all shot down by the conservatives.

Blair similarly weaned his Labour Party off militant unionism in the 1990s, preferring a more centrist socialism that accepted many of the market reforms that were implemented by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. By focusing on the issues that 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.

In Italy, the left “must focus on the payroll of our workers,” said Renzi, “and must learn to employ more wisdom with a precise word: productivity.” He said Italians were deceiving themselves when they believed the nation’s economic problems didn’t stem from anything it had failed to do in recent years “but only from the mistakes made by Mrs Merkel,” the German chancellor whom both former right-wing prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and the Five Star Movement’s Beppe Grillo regularly berate for insisting on austerity in the south of Europe.

While Renzi’s Partito Democratico supported Monti’s “austerity” program, which included tax increases, pension and public sector pay cuts, in coalition with Berlusconi’s Il Popolo della Libertà last year, many leftists were critical of continuing the alliance after elections in February failed to give either party control of parliament.

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 rejected a government with the conservatives even if they had no alternative. They would rather have joined forces with the Five Star Movement even when it ruled out coalition politics altogether.

Berlusconi, who has long portrayed his opposition as one of unruly radicals, was quick to exploit the left’s struggles 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 have been more careful what he wished for. Polls consistently show that Renzi is the only leftists who could decisively beat Berlusconi in a general election.