Monday evening saw an interesting coincidence.
In the UK, Channel Four was broadcasting the last installment of Charlie Brooker's "Black Mirror" second season, called "The Waldo Moment". It was a sharp political satire about a foul-mouthed blue bear cartoon character called "Waldo", who stands in as an independent candidate in a by-election, as a protest against the political status quo.
In Italy, the national election was being counted, which resulted in an inconclusive result. The two main parties were more-or-less tied (the centre-left PD narrowly ahead), with the third "party" being a non-partisan, anti-establishment movement led by Guiseppe (Beppe) Grillo, a comedian and satirist. Grillo's most famous epithet was, uncannily like the UK's fictional "Waldo", simply "Fuck Off" to the establishment.
Call it Italy's "Grillo Moment". Let's be clear: what has happened in Italy is unprecedented in modern European political history, certainly in a major European country. In Greece last year, the left-wing SYRIZA coalition came close to victory on an anti-austerity ticket. In the end, their moment passed, and the self-destructive foreign-imposed austerity has continued as before.
But nine months on from that election in Greece, attention has turned to Italy, in a much more financially-dire situation that even Greece. What Beppe Grillo has achieved has been to turn the system against the establishment. He bypassed the normal means of electioneering, turning to the internet and a massive grassroots movement that has mushroomed in exponential terms in a matter of months. Grillo has been able to tap into the massive undercurrent of apathy, turning the disillusion into a focused rage against the broken corrupt political system. The "Indignados" movement in Spain has close parallels, but seems to lack one central figure for people to direct their attention on. With luck, that may change.
Southern Europe is now in the throes of different popular, grassroots uprisings: SYRIZA in Greece, the "Indignados" in Spain, and now Beppe Grillos' "Five Star" movement in Italy. SYRIZA, as a loose political alliance, is the more conventional of the three, and has an identifiable and articulate leader in Alex Tzipras. But while SYRIZA represents the "traditional" left and an easily-identifiable enemy for the political and financial establishment to target, Grillo's "Five Star" movement represents something far more difficult to identify - and therefore far more dangerous to the establishment.
What makes Grillo's movement so effective is the way it cuts through the traditional pigeon-holes of politics. As Grillo himself has said, his movement is against the established left and right parties and political system. What Grillo wants is to disengage, to resist against the system as it currently stands. In this sense, Grillo's methodology implies an anarchic approach to resolving political and national problems. Grillo's success in the Italian elections is perhaps the first political success of an anarchist movement in a major European country. The "MPs" that will represent his movement in parliament are not politicians, but ordinary people, from the unemployed, to students, to housewives. Grillo has found a way of bypassing the system.
One possible outcome of this is an eventual informal deal between the biggest party, the centre-left PD, being supported on a case-by-case basis in parliament by the "Five Star" movement: called "confidence-and-supply" in the UK. Some of the PD's MPs have already dismissed working in a "Grand Coalition" with Berlusconi's party; the other alternative to an informal PD-5SM deal is paralysis in parliament, with Mario Monti staying on in a caretaker government. This would find it virtually impossible to get anything done through parliament, so would also be a non-option for effective government.
Judging from the masterly way Grillo has turned the electoral system against the establishment, it is unlikely that Grillo's movement will fade away. It is just possible that this "Grillo Moment" may not be just a "moment", but a turning-point, and an inspiration for other similar movements across Europe.
This brings me back to the fictional version, "The Waldo Moment". Charlie Brooker sharply shown how to tap into the deep well of apathy and disgust at the political system in the UK. Grillo's movement became so popular because many people saw their political system as corrupt and closed, and saw a way of getting their own back. But in some ways the UK's system is even more closed.
Italian politics may well be more openly corrupt than in Britain. But at least Italy's political system is representative. The entire reason why Grillo's movement has become the key broker in Italian politics is because its PR electoral system is a fair representation of the votes cast. A grassroots movement like Grillo's would have no chance of gaining anything like the same proportion of seats in Westminster, due to the FPTP system.
The last election was a case in point, where the LibDems gained nearly a quarter of the vote (almost as much as Grillo), but less than ten per cent of the actual seats in parliament. UKIP, whatever your views on its politics, is being prevented at every turn from even having a single MP in the national parliament. Although it regularly gains around ten per cent of the vote in national polls, the only way it can get even a single MP is by convincing the voters in a single constituency to vote for it above all other parties. This makes the UK political system the most closed in the EU, if not Europe (barring Belarus). In other words a party could get thirty per cent of the vote in every constituency in the country, and still have no MPs in parliament. This is the system we have in Westminster, the so-called "mother of all parliaments". It is worse than a joke; it is a national disgrace. It is this reason that there is so much apathy towards the political system in the UK, and why British people feel so disconnected from their political masters. If you know that your vote will be wasted because you happen to live in a party's "safe" seat, or a "marginal" between two parties you don't like, then what other feeling can you have?
So how could a "Waldo Moment", or even a real-life "Grillo Moment" happen in the UK?
The first time it happened in modern British politics was in 1997, in the Tatton constituency, when local people voted tactically for the Independent MP Martin Bell, in order to remove the incumbent Conservative. Since then, there have been a few other independent MPs, as well as a Green MP for Brighton, and the left-wing demagogue George Galloway. But these are people working with the system, not against it. In the UK, it is the voting system itself that keeps the political establishment closed to new movements.
So unless you can somehow manage to persuade a vast apathetic cross-section of society to vote tactically in key constituencies, the chances of a "Grillo movement" gaining a good slice of parliament using the current system are next to nothing.
The last time the UK political establishment was terrified of its people (as all good democratic governments should be) was during the infamous "Winter Of Discontent". I described these events in more detail here, but the way that ordinary workers gained the attention of government then was by mass, spur-of-the-moment strikes. The country was effectively paralysed for a number of weeks, but the workers got what they wanted: better wages and conditions. Mass civil action would be the most obvious method to use to, and is most likely to get politicians attention. Unfortunately, with current UK laws, it is also likely to get many people at the wrong end of the police. So you would need to gain the trust and implicit support of the police. Police are unable to strike; however, they are allowed to interpret the law as they see fit.
So some kind of agreement between the police and a mass civil movement (which offered the police better working conditions and fewer unworkable laws to enforce) would be the most effective way to terrify the political establishment. Remove the link of subservience to government: give the police genuine independence from government, and reducing its workload by allowing it to give more discretionary cautions against unworkable or politically-motivated laws. That would be the first step, and would make police less over-worked and our criminal justice system more efficient. This would also terrify and emasculate the government in equal measure.
The second step, like Grillo, would have to be disengagement from the orthodox political system. UKIP, and Nigel Farage, in particular, have found a way around this, by discrediting the political system. The problem that UKIP has is that it hasn't managed to find a way to get tactical voting, or a political stalemate, to work in its favour. The 2010 election was the nearest thing we've had so far to a "Grillo Moment": that turned out to be a "Clegg Moment". And we all know the result of that.
The problem with the UK political system is that to change it, you have to do it from within. So how do you disengage from the political system while also bringing about change from within?
Political change only comes about after a social crisis. Political reform in the UK happened this way, and is the most likely way it will happen in the future. In order for this to happen, the people themselves have to realise that there is a crisis to begin with. And for that to happen, there has to be a turning-point; a moment of revelation.
After the government's "bedroom tax" kicks in, and changes to DLA, perhaps that "moment" will not be long in coming...