Regular bog followers will know that in summer recess I am usually in Tuscany, Italy, where everyone will be delighted to know that the weather is worse than in the UK, the worst summer here since 1960. (Good for the olives though). But following the dramas of Italian politics is as addictive as ever, not least this year because Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is staking his future on a major reform of the Senate, the upper house equivalent to the House of Lords. It’s currently an elected house with powers similar to the Chamber of Deputies (our Commons). Renzi is proposing a new 315-member upper house stripped of the power to approve budget and hold no-confidence votes on cabinet. It would become a non-elected entity comprised of 148 members allocated between mayors, regional governors and other representatives from the regions, and 21 representatives chosen by the president of the Republic from civil society.
The new assembly would be called the “Senate of Autonomies”, and its legislative powers would be limited to issues related to local and regional affairs. The change is intended to complement a separate reform of the electoral law that would raise the threshold for parties to enter parliament and bring in a two-round voting system that would ensure a clear winner after an election. Not surprisingly the Senate are aghast. The Senate currently has enormous powers and exercises them to block most reforms. The Italian parliament is stagnant as a result. Senators are also paid large salaries, about €130,000 plus handsome retirement annuities and allowances (such as the coffee allowance!) whether they attend or not…those of you out there who complain about our UK allowances please take note and be grateful!
On 1 August the vote to alter the composition and election of Italy’s Senate went through the Chamber of Deputies. There were 194 votes in favour, 26 against and eight abstentions. No centre-right Forza Italia or anti-establishment Five Star Movement representatives were present. But yesterday the Senate set down 8000 amendments to hold up the progress of all reforms and slow the process down by about a year at least if not for ever. The battle is being seen as a sign of the kind of resistance Renzi will encounter with other parts of his agenda, including an overhaul of labour laws, reform of a bloated public administration and measures to rein in Italy’s mountainous public debt, set to top 135 percent of gross domestic product this year.
Italy’s economy, the third-largest in the euro zone, is in urgent need of structural reform after two decades of virtual stagnation. Everywhere one goes in Italy the impact on ordinary people’s lives is obvious. After dipping in and out of recession since the start of the financial crisis, the economy has contracted by some 9 percent since 2007. Renzi (photo to the left) is young, ambitious and very determined to change how Italian politics well. I wish him well. I have always supported an upper elected house in the UK but the dangers of an over powerful elected upper house are very obvious here.