Building the Brexit party: how Nigel Farage copied Italy’s digital populists | Politics
One day in January 2015, Nigel Farage gave his senior adviser, Raheem Kassam, an unusual bit of news. “On Monday, we’re going to Milano,” he said. (Farage always pronounced it “Mil-ar-no”, much to Kassam’s amusement.) “I was like: ‘What? Why?’” Kassam said. Farage, who was then the leader of the anti-European Union party Ukip, explained that they were going to sit down with Gianroberto Casaleggio. Kassam whipped out his phone and quickly Googled “Casaleggio” – he had never heard of him.
Farage described Casaleggio to Kassam as the “genius behind Five Star”, the Italian political party that won a 25% vote share in 2013, the first national elections it had ever contested. Nothing like this had happened before in modern Italian politics. Casaleggio and the comedian Beppe Grillo, who was famous in Italy for his rabble-rousing live shows, had founded the movement just four years earlier. They had largely built the Five Star Movement online, with remarkably little money or mainstream media attention.
Five Star was only one step toward Casaleggio’s long-term ambition: to supplant parliament with an online democracy where citizens, highly informed through the internet, could fashion policy directly. Farage had “always been interested” in direct democracy, Kassam said, and in “turning everything over to the internet”. But Farage was more impressed by the fact that, after just a few years, Casaleggio’s largely online movement was on the verge of becoming Italy’s biggest political party. He wanted to know how Casaleggio had done it – and then to replicate its success.
In Milan, Farage was struck by how Casaleggio was using social media and the internet to create a new model for political communications. Five Star members were discussing and voting on policy and nominating and electing each other to run for office while being steeped in party propaganda, all on a single online platform. This made supporters feel as if the movement’s identity was emerging organically from their online interactions, while Casaleggio and Grillo could guide those interactions with messaging from above. What’s more, the “movement” was dominated by a private company owned by Casaleggio. Five Star was in many ways less like a political party than a publicly traded company in which members were voting shareholders, but Casaleggio had the controlling stake.
Farage left Milan “very excited” about bringing Five Star’s style of digital democracy to the UK, Kassam said. So did Farage’s ally Liz Bilney, who was also present at the Milan meeting and went on to found the pro-Brexit group Leave.EU. “If I was starting Ukip today,” Farage told the political scientists Matthew Goodwin and Caitlin Milazzo around that time, “would I spend 20 years speaking to people in village halls or would I base it on the Grillo model? I know exactly what I would do.” Farage and his colleagues in the Brexit movement had been converted.
The Milan meeting represented a surprising new alignment in European politics – between Farage’s blokey nationalism and the digitally savvy direct democracy of the ostensibly left-leaning Five Star Movement. Over the next four years, Farage would apply the lessons he learned from Casaleggio first to the Brexit referendum and then to a new party of his own, pursuing his own political goals under the guise of direct democracy. Although Casaleggio died of brain cancer in 2016, his son, Davide, and Grillo continued to steer the Five Star Movement towards the populist right, pushing eurosceptic messages about sovereignty and immigration. Today, Five Star is the largest party in the Italian parliament and governs in an alliance with the far-right Lega party.
“Casaleggio was looking down the line,” Claudio Messora, a popular blogger who was head of communications in Five Star’s Brussels office, told me. “He predicted a Five Star government in Italy and a Nigel Farage government in London – and so a new Rome-London axis.” This axis would be united over its opposition to the establishment, both domestically and in the EU.
But the Milan meeting was also an important moment in a larger shift: toward the emergence of a new form of populism, in which demagogues use digital tools and corporate structures to direct mass movements. “As long as you are liking them, as long as you’re a fan, as long as you follow them, they don’t need really to account for what they do,” said Paolo Gerbaudo, an Italian political sociologist at King’s College London who studies how political parties use the internet. He added: “What users/members/customers are given is basically a window-dressing of participation.”
In March 2019, three months after leaving Ukip, his political home of 25 years, Farage launched the Brexit party. Ditching the tweed suits and pints of bitter that were his signature during the Ukip years, Farage has set out to lead a modern political movement. Farage’s new party has embraced slick digital ads and promised to save democracy by giving power back to the people. Supporters can apply to be candidates via an online portal, and the party has jettisoned traditional structures and hierarchies. Similarly to how Five Star is structured, the Brexit party is a registered company striving to look like a web-based mass movement – but it is controlled from the top by Farage.
“The Brexit party is the virtual carbon copy of the Five Star Movement,” Arron Banks, Farage’s long-time supporter and collaborator, told me. “What the Five Star did, and what the Brexit party is doing, is having a tightly controlled central structure, almost a dictatorship at the centre,” he went on. “If you have a tightly controlled structure, then the crazies can’t take over.”
The Brexit party’s Facebook page already has 120,000 followers, almost five times more than the new remain-supporting party Change UK, and it is several points ahead of the other UK parties in European election polls. “I’ve watched the growth of the Five Star Movement, from its inception, with absolute fascination,” Farage recently told the Telegraph, adding: “Look at what we’re already doing in four weeks – we’re doing the same kind of thing.”
By the mid-2000s, it had come to seem obvious to the man behind Five Star’s philosophy that representative democracy was past its sell-by date. Casaleggio believed this outmoded form of government was destined to be replaced by a global web-based democracy that removed the pesky middle-men of politics – politicians themselves. “He had this very strong conviction, this belief, that the internet was all about disintermediation,” said Filippo Pittarello, a former employee of Casaleggio who now works in Five Star’s Brussels office. No longer would shops stand between consumers and producers, publishers between readers and authors, bankers between investors and entrepreneurs. “Every single aspect of the organisation of society that was not direct would be disrupted by the internet,” Pittarello continued. “So why not politics?”
In 2005, through a blog fronted by Grillo, beppegrillo.it, Casaleggio put this philosophy into practice. The blog dispensed what Casaleggio and Grillo called “counter-information” as an antidote to the “fake news” they said was peddled by the traditional media, which was dominated in Italy by the seemingly immovable prime minister and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi. The blog also invited readers to debate the country’s countless problems.
It was ostensibly out of this online discussion that Five Star’s original policy positions emerged when the party formally launched in 2009: renewable energy, sustainable transport, internet access for all and a universal basic income. Although the party claimed to be neither right nor leftwing, Five Star’s policies attracted many supporters disillusioned with the Italian left, which, like Tony Blair’s New Labour, had swung to the centre. Five Star’s central message was its condemnation of what it saw as the country’s overpaid, corrupt political establishment – right and left alike.
By putting an online platform at the heart of its operations, Five Star was way ahead of other political parties in Italy – many of which barely had a functioning website. As the movement grew, the party seemed to entrust an increasing number of decisions to party members through online ballots and crowdsourced policies. At the same time, many Five Star members treated Grillo’s blog as an oracle of truth. As a result, Casaleggio, who created and managed the blog, could use it to exert enormous sway over the movement.
Casaleggio “was more a man of the right than the left”, said Claudio Messora, who first met Casaleggio in 2008. “In terms of the political animal he was, he was definitely predisposed in that direction.” Several friends and former staff of Casaleggio told me that he was against open immigration and that he strongly disliked Italy’s left. Casaleggio claimed his politics were neither fascist nor socialist, but in fact they seemed to revere both the imperial and the revolutionary.
In a video he made in 2008 called Gaia: The Future of Politics, he imagined a world in which the shadowy conspiracies that currently rule the world – freemasons, the Bilderberg Group and so forth – would succumb to an era of worldwide internet democracy. At the same time, the video imagined the annihilation of billions of people following a total war, and held up Genghis Khan’s horseback courier network and Mussolini’s radio broadcasts as examples of the great march of disintermediation.
Compared to Casaleggio’s vision of a future without parliaments, Farage’s embrace of direct democracy was more limited – it largely boiled down to crusading for the referendum on British membership of the EU. At the time of Five Star’s launch in 2009, the main thing the two parties seemed to have in common was a taste for anti-establishment rhetoric. Both parties blamed political elites for the deepening financial crisis, which had caused unemployment to soar in Italy as well as the UK, and capitalised on the public’s growing mistrust of mainstream parties. But despite their outward differences, the parties that Casaleggio and Farage built influenced one another and grew in similar directions.
“The way Casaleggio saw it, the messaging and how Five Star won support was similar to Farage,” Messora said. Both parties claimed to be struggling against entrenched powers and taking back control for the people. Farage claimed referendums could address the disconnect between politicians and ordinary people and argued for the right of recall, whereby constituents would have more power to force out their MP. Five Star called itself a “movement of citizens”; Farage said Ukip’s supporters were the “People’s Army”.
Both movements were also moulded around strong, sometimes ostentatiously crude personalities. Footage from the European parliament doesn’t tend to go viral, but videos of Farage’s floor speeches got hundreds of thousands of views and attracted the attention of Casaleggio and Grillo. “You have the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk,” Farage said in a tirade at the new European council president Herman Van Rompuy in 2010. “Who are you? I’d never heard of you. No one in Europe had ever heard of you!” For his part, in 2007, Grillo held a series of “V Day” rallies at which he and his followers shouted vaffanculo! – “go fuck yourself!” – at the political establishment. (The rallies were meticulously planned by Casaleggio in Milan.)
Grillo and Farage saw each other as kindred spirits. “I’ve followed him online,” Grillo told CNBC in 2013. “He is an extraordinary orator … a real eurosceptic.” David Cameron had recently promised an EU referendum for the first time, bringing Farage’s decades-long campaign closer to fruition. “This looks to me like real democracy,” Grillo remarked. Farage praised Five Star and Grillo, too. “I think it’s exciting, it’s modern,” Farage told journalist Alessio Pisanò a couple of months after Grillo’s CNBC interview. “It was a protest movement to begin with, but what I’ve been observing is that he’s been developing a narrative, a story, which is very, very eurosceptic.”
Farage also admired the way Five Star’s appeal to disaffected voters on the left had helped it during Italy’s 2013 general election. Ahead of the 2014 European elections, Farage believed that Ukip could win a majority of Britain’s seats if the party reached beyond the right-left divide. In an attempt to appeal to Labour’s northern heartlands, Farage combined his usual message – about EU idiocy and waste – with talk of how industrial communities had been left behind. But he also stoked fears about immigration and said the EU’s free-movement policy was a threat to national sovereignty. Five Star took no official position on immigration, but Grillo was increasingly critical of the EU and blogposts on beppegrillo.it began to talk about “sovereignty”, too.
In 2014, Ukip and Five Star formed a new, anti-establishment bloc in the European parliament. Farage thought the two parties “could have fun causing a lot of trouble for Brussels”. The new coalition – which also included a smattering of MEPs from the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats and other smaller eurosceptic parties, as well as a rebel MEP from Marine Le Pen’s National Front (now National Rally) – was presented as a “loose alliance” that existed merely to give each party more individual sway within the EU. (“Being outside an official group meant counting for nothing,” Messora explained. “It would mean no money, no time speaking in the chamber.”) But it was more than a marriage of convenience. Five Star and Farage increasingly shared a philosophy. Soon they would share an electoral strategy as well.
Five Star’s unofficial headquarters at the time of its rapid growth was on Via Morone, a quiet street in an exclusive district in the heart of Milan. Here, behind a set of heavy wooden doors, was the home of Casaleggio Associates, the private company through which Gianroberto Casaleggio and then his son, Davide, orchestrated the party’s electoral successes.
Although Casaleggio designed Five Star to look like a member-led movement, he set the party’s course from the beginning. Casaleggio Associates not only managed Grillo’s blog; today it also runs Five Star’s digital operations and controls the valuable data being generated on Five Star’s online platform by the party’s snowballing membership. According to two recent investigations by the Italian data protection authority, the Five Star digital platform was breaching European data protection laws by tracking Five Star members in individually identifiable ways.
Casaleggio was far ahead of other political parties in using this data to help shape Five Star’s messaging, which he fed back to supporters through Grillo’s blog, and increasingly through social media. The very tools that were supposedly giving members control over the movement were allowing Casaleggio to exert control over them. With a thoughtfully crafted blogpost, he could intervene in the movement’s internal debates, bolstering certain positions and dampening others down.
“This is a long-time project of social engineering, using the web,” said Jacopo Iacoboni, who has written two books on Five Star’s rise. The first detailed how Casaleggio had begun to experiment with manipulating online consensus back in the 1990s, as the CEO of an Italian tech company that sold business tools for managing employees. He believes the way Five Star has used data is far more radical, in some ways, than what had happened in the Trump or Brexit campaigns. “In the UK and with Trump, the campaigns were, at least formally, separated from the web company running their data – think Cambridge Analytica, Aggregate IQ,” Iacoboni said. But the Five Star case is unique, he said: “A web company which creates a party, with the owner directly possessing all the data.”
Perhaps the most dramatic example of the top-down control that Casaleggio exerted over the movement was the way he choreographed the party’s decision in 2014 to align with Ukip in the European parliament. Many observers and even members of the party had assumed that Five Star was ultimately a progressive movement, so when the possibility of allying with Ukip came up, many Five Star members were appalled. “Farage’s party disgusts me,” Giulia Sarti, one of Five Star’s MPs, told the Italian newspaper La Stampa. Many vocal Five Star members wanted to ally with the Greens instead.
On Grillo’s blog, Casaleggio responded with a deluge of posts idolising Farage and criticising the Greens. One post rather fantastically claimed that Ukip, too, was essentially a progressive movement, which rejected any form of “racism, sexism or xenophobia” – even though Ukip members with offensive views had poured out of the woodwork in that year’s European elections. Another post argued that Ukip had a “coherent and principled opposition to foreign imperialist wars” in contrast to “the leaders of the Greens and the liberals, who screamed in favour of the war in Libya”. Ukip’s campaign for a referendum on EU membership was heralded as an example of its support for direct democracy.
True to its supposed values, Five Star put to an online ballot the final decision on which European alliance to join. But the post that introduced that ballot left little doubt as to which way members were expected to vote. “It was clearly in favour of the Ukip solution,” Marco Zanni, who had been elected as a Five Star MEP that May, told me. “It’s not a real democratic referendum.” In the end, about 80% of Five Star members who voted opted to ally with Farage. Grillo’s blog hailed the decision as a new milestone in direct democracy. At Casaleggio’s request, said Filippo Pittarello, the Five Star staff member, Farage changed the name of his Ukip-led alliance from Europe of Freedom and Democracy to Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy.
Orchestrating the alliance with Ukip was in many ways a test case for Five Star’s model of digital democracy. When Farage and Kassam visited Casaleggio Associates in Milan in 2015, Casaleggio and Davide were busy upgrading Five Star’s online platform to a more advanced system they called Rousseau – which would allow members to propose laws and debate and edit them online. Rousseau also made it easier for members to put themselves forward as candidates and decide who would stand. But Kassam was most struck by the extent to which the Italians were amassing and analysing data from all these activities to hone the party’s strategy.
Three years later, Five Star would use the approach it had taken to establishing the Ukip bloc to ally with another rightwing party. When Five Star and Matteo Salvini’s Lega formed an all-populist Italian government in 2018, both Farage and Steve Bannon hailed it as the newest revolt against the establishment – following in the footsteps of Brexit and Trump. “In 2015, @Nigel_Farage and I went to see the now departed Gianroberto Casaleggio, the man behind Italy’s 5 Star Movement,” Kassam, who was also close to Bannon, tweeted on the day of the Italian elections. “People thought we were nuts, toying around the fringes.” But the truth is that Five Star had been the trailblazer.
Before Farage visited Casaleggio Associates in Milan in January 2015, he wasn’t exactly tech-savvy. “When I first met Nigel, he barely knew how to turn on a computer,” said Alexandra Phillips, who became Ukip’s head of media in 2013 and is now an MEP candidate for the Brexit party. But it didn’t take an IT whiz to see how far advanced Five Star was when it came to its use of data and the internet. Between the European elections in 2014 and the UK general election in 2015, “we were creating masses and masses of data”, Kassam said of Ukip – from people signing up through the website and from its growing social media following. In contrast to Five Star, though, almost no one at Ukip’s notoriously chaotic HQ was digging through this treasure trove.
Farage and Kassam thought Ukip should be taking data just as seriously as the Italians were. After the general election – in which Ukip won nearly 4m votes – Kassam claims that Farage intended to put him in charge of a new digital platform, Ukip4M.com, which would regularly poll members, give them more of a say in the party and weaponise Farage’s movement by encouraging voters to turn into activists. But Ukip, beset by tensions between Farage and the party’s national executive council, fell into civil war, scuppering Farage’s plans for the party.
Another major opportunity to use the knowledge they had gleaned from Casaleggio would arise soon enough – in the Brexit referendum. In November 2015, Arron Banks officially launched Leave.EU at an event with Richard Tice (now the chairman of the Brexit party) and Liz Bilney, the Farage ally who had attended the Milan meeting and served as Leave.EU’s CEO.
Bilney, who oversees Banks’s portfolio of other businesses, showed me a report she had sent to Banks after the Milan meeting. It describes a timeline of key events in web-based politics: the use of the events platform Meetup.com by Howard Dean’s campaign for US president in 2004; the 2008 Obama campaign’s focus on small, grassroots donations; and finally, Five Star’s use of Grillo’s blog to promote direct democracy. Five Star’s lively online debates and tweetable messaging had boosted its membership and its voter turnout, and the Casaleggios spoke a lot about crowdfunding, of making calls to action and fuelling donations around that rallying cry.
Like Farage, Bilney believed there was an opening for a British party to do the same. “Issue: there is not currently any party in the UK with any true internet presence,” her report begins. To emulate Five Star, she placed online engagement at the heart of Leave.EU’s campaign. Instead of a target audience passively absorbing a message from party leaders, followers were made to feel they were part of a conversation and a movement – a strategy often used by brands, too. As Bilney put it, the goal was to “upgrade” a follower to a paying “supporter” through staying in touch regularly, hitting them with varied, dynamic content and keeping them engaged.
“We’ve taken learnings from business, because if you look at insurance, you want people to renew their policies,” Bilney said. “And I would apply that same principle with an organisation or a party … you wouldn’t want the members to drop off. But if you don’t talk to your members, and you don’t engage your members, they drop off.”
Banks hired the consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which later worked on the Trump campaign, to help the Leave.EU team generate messages and track which ones did best. By the time the referendum came around, Leave.EU was winning the online arms race. Although the Electoral Commission conferred official status on rival campaign group Vote Leave, Leave.EU was getting more online interactions and more engagement than anyone else, reaching up to 15 million people weekly.
As Banks watched Leave.EU grow, he believed it could be more than a one-off campaign. He wanted to turn it into a long-term movement, like Five Star. A few months before the referendum, he emailed Farage to suggest Farage “subtly delink” from Ukip “and we will start building Leave.EU”. He even offered to put up £10m “to develop a popular political movement along the lines of Beppe Grillo’s incredibly successful Five Star Movement in Italy”, he writes in his book The Bad Boys of Brexit. Banks also had a new website built for Leave.EU that would replicate some of the features of Five Star’s Rousseau.
But Farage decided to bide his time. Given that the new prime minister, Theresa May, had promised to deliver Brexit, it seemed sensible to wait. Any new movement could be born out of the ashes of a failed deal, Alexandra Phillips, the Brexit party candidate, said – and Farage could portray himself as coming to the rescue to save Brexit.
“Nigel would say that the market has to be right for us,” Banks told me. “It’s the equivalent of trying to start a fire in a wet forest. But now the forest is tinder dry.”
When Farage publicly launched the Brexit party this March, he presented it as a response to May’s failure to secure a Brexit deal. In reality, its roots stretch back much further – at least to the meeting Bilney and he had with Casaleggio in Milan four years earlier.
If Casaleggio’s ambition was to replace parliament with direct democracy, Farage’s ambition seems, in the first instance, to destroy the Conservative party. Farage declined to speak to me for this article, but Banks told me that the Brexit party and Leave.EU, which is still very much active, were pursuing a sort of pincer movement on the Tories. (He also denied to me that he is a “mystery donor” to the Brexit party.) “Leave.EU goes behind enemy lines, blowing up their bridges, causing mass mayhem in the Tory party, while the Brexit party can come in head-on, into their face,” he said.
Since its launch, the Brexit party has reportedly attracted more than 100,000 supporters paying £25 each. Farage claims they are the main source of the party’s funding. Donations to the Five Star Movement go to a private association run by Davide Casaleggio; similarly, donations to the Brexit party go to a private company. Online donations to the party, which are collected via PayPal, are impossible to scrutinise. Political parties can only accept donations over £500 if they’re from the UK, and must report both the sources of the funding and how it’s spent. With the Brexit party, it’s not clear who’s giving how much money or where it’s going. (On Monday, the Electoral Commission announced it would be visiting the Brexit party’s offices to “to conduct a review of the systems it has in place to receive funds”.)
If the Brexit party continues to follow the Five Star model, this week’s European elections and trying to push through Brexit may be only its first steps. Five Star is continuing to grow its network of anti-establishment partners. Ahead of the European elections, it has courted France’s Yellow Jacket protesters, offering to help them stand candidates for office. It has announced a new European group with an eclectic mix of eurosceptics, nationalists and populists. It has also pushed its messaging and data-gathering further, reportedly requesting that its elected representatives hand over access to their personal social media accounts.
At times, Farage has acknowledged that he is not leading a political party. “We’re running a company, not a political party, hence our model of registered supporters, and the fact that the chairman Richard Tice and I are not afraid to make decisions,” he recently told the Telegraph. But, like Casaleggio and Grillo before him, Farage is also claiming to offer a new form of politics. “We are going to directly liaise and have votes amongst our registered supporters to shape policy and shape our future direction,” Farage told listeners on LBC radio last week. “We will produce policy on the basis of what our supporters think.” This is the language of the new brand of digital populism, in which the director of a private company portrays his firm as the vessel for a democratic mass movement. At another point Farage said to the audience: “This is going to be the most open political party you’ve ever seen in Britain.”