Italy’s Sardines show Labour how to beat Boris Johnson in 2024

Rayhan Haque
© Damian Byrne/

Our country’s 47-year membership of the world’s most successful political and economic union has finally come to an end. For many progressives, it’s a moment filled with great sadness. It should be one of deep regret, too, as it symbolises our collective failure to have halted the obsessive pursuit by nationalists to tear us apart from our closest European friends and neighbours.

Progressives cannot despair, however. This is no time to wallow in grief and rue missed opportunities in preventing this dreaded outcome. It’s the time to wise up: to understand how we got here; examine why people lost faith in our place at the heart of Europe; to map out a new role for the UK in a post Brexit landscape; and most importantly, to develop a plan for electoral success.

Navigating our way forward won’t be easy. But events in Italy last week show us the way. In the northern region of Emilia-Romagna, Matteo Salvini’s far-right force lost their bid to take power. He campaigned relentlessly for months, calculating that a victory would bring down the national coalition government, involving Italy’s unpopular centre-left Democratic Party.

With Salvini commanding a hefty lead in nationwide polls, he was already dreaming of becoming Prime Minister. So, what went wrong for him? It was something called the Sardines. This is a new, progressively-minded grassroots movement, unaligned to any political party. It sees ordinary Italians, who are sick of the hateful rhetoric and policies of Salvini and the far right, cram into public squares to protest. It began just a couple of months ago, with its first public demonstration in Bologna attracting 15,000 people.

There have been dozens more since, with one in Rome last month involving a staggering 100,000 people. The Sardines have now become the republic’s largest ever mobilisation of civil society. The individuals attending these events come from all walks of life, young and old. It is a wholly non-factional and open enterprise. What unites them is their frustration with the political system and the parties that are meant to represent them.

They also want to show Italy and beyond that their country doesn’t belong to the fascists and their hateful anti-immigrant agenda. One recent poll found that 40% of Italians now see the Sardines as the greatest threat to Salvini. And in the Emilia-Romagna’s regional election, turnout rocketed from 37.7% in 2014 to 67.7% in 2020. That is almost certainly down to the Sardines, and their effect in awakening public consciousness and actively stirring participation.

The genius of this project is not just its size and how quickly it has grown, but also its sheer simplicity. It all started with four flatmates who were despairing at the state of the country, and who gathered for dinner one evening last November. They asked themselves: what next for progressives?

Boris Johnson has redrawn the political map in the UK. It is time for progressives here, like the Sardines, to also address the question of where next. We can start by recognising that in order to successfully take on Boris in 2024, progressive parties must ditch the factionalism and work together as part of a broader coalition. The skewed nature of our first-past-the-post electoral system makes this an absolute necessity. At the last election, on average, it only took 38,000 votes to elect a Conservative MP, but 336,000 for each Lib Dem and 865,000 for the Green Party.

Then there is the public’s visceral dislike of the tribalism embedded in our overly adversarial political culture. Just this week, an alarming report by Cambridge University’s Centre for the Future of Democracy found that over 60% of voters were unhappy with the current ‘democratic system’.

This new progressive alliance can help create a fairer and more modern system by committing to electoral reform upon assuming power, involving a more proportional parliament using the Additional Member System for the House of Commons and a fully-elected upper chamber. Until such a system comes to fruition, a pluralistic politics – the litmus test for any healthy democracy – will struggle to thrive.

The Labour Party and its next leader are the only ones who can make this progressive coalition happen. They will need to reach out to the Greens and Lib Dems, and seek a more formalised approach to tactical voting in the next parliamentary election, ensuring the progressive vote is maximised in all places. There cannot be a repeat of Kensington, where the Labour and Lib Dem vote was split, allowing the Tories to slip through by 150 votes.

This progressive alliance should embody the political spirit of the Sardines – one that is open, collaborative and empowering. Politics is meant to be an active process, but far too often, it feels like something being done to you. To create a popular ‘people’s manifesto’, this new alliance could invite members of the public into the policy-making process for the first time ever ahead of the next election in 2024, using citizens’ assemblies and open policy forums.

Keir Starmer has talked about Labour’s failure to connect with those in the middle, while Lisa Nandy has rightly extolled the virtues of getting out of the social media hothouse and into the real world. Both have shown their potential to lead a progressive alliance across the country. This is the kind of vision that Labour’s next leader must have if our party is going to beat Boris Johnson in 2024.

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