David Maddox: Labour could mimic Silvio Berlusconi

IN almost all respects, Silvio Berlusconi is probably bottom of any Labour Party list of politicians to copy in any way.

Silvio Berlusconi would be an unorthodox source of influence. Picture: Getty

The former Italian prime minister’s corruption, “bunga bunga parties”, promotion of women based on their looks, vast fortune and ongoing friendship with Tony Blair all make him an unlikely role model for the current Labour leadership.

However, there is one respect where Ed Miliband could consider following Berlusconi’s example and that is in how to deal with a nationalist party seeking to break up the country.

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Much is still being made by the Conservatives over whether Labour would do some sort of deal with the SNP in government. Miliband has ruled out a formal coalition, but is being coy in other respects.

The short-term logic of Labour trying to discount any deal with the SNP is powerful because of the way a potential deal threatens to make Scottish Labour irrelevant north of the Border and push English voters to the Tories south of it.

But for all the jokes and sneering, Berlusconi survived for years because he was the Italian master political strategist and deal-broker. He recognised that the best way to deal with the nationalist/separatist threat posed by Umberto Bossi’s Lega Nord (Northern League) was to kill it with kindness.

In 1994, Berlusconi did a deal with Bossi which put Lega Nord on the former’s Forza Italia ticket (the main Italian centre-right party), and brought Bossi into a coalition government. Lega Nord won its most seats ever, at 117, but was tied into the Berlusconi government. When Bossi led his party out of the coalition two years later, it split his party and saw their number of deputies almost halve to 59 – despite getting more votes.

The experience took out much of the nationalist heat in Northern Italy and turned Lega Nord into a fringe player for more than a decade, until 2008 when Berlusconi came calling again and Lega Nord rejoined Forza Italia in a coalition. But after the ignominious end of Berlusconi government in the country’s financial ruin in 2011, tainting Lega Nord by association, and a funding scandal engulfing Bossi personally, Lega Nord in 2013 received its lowest support since the party was founded in 1989 at 4.1 per cent.

In taking short-term hits for his party in 1994 and 2008, Berlusconi’s manoeuvring has all but nullified Northern Italian nationalism as a political force by making its key players to take a share of the blame for national government decision.

So maybe Miliband should take a leaf from Berlusconi’s book and invite Alex Salmond into government if the SNP do hold the balance of power in May, and try to kill off Scottish nationalism with kindness and responsibility.