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Dutch Lessons for the Centre Left

PvdA leader Lodewijk Asscher

A much-hyped populist-right party with a “charismatic” figurehead and a sideline in racism, where have we heard that story before? Well, across nearly every Western liberal democracy it seems. But in the Netherlands today, the exit polls strongly suggest Geert Wilders’ misnamed Freedom Party (PVV) has juddered to a deserved halt. The hype surrounding his person served to boost turn out of anti-Wilders sentiment. Their seat tally is up from 12 to 19, but hardly the lead they were hoping for. Likewise the liberal-leftish Democrats 66 (D66) and the Christian Democrats also move up to 19 while the governing People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) make for the biggest party with a likely haul of 31 seats. The Green Left also make an advance from minor party status to the big leagues with a possible 16 seats. The checking of Wilders and his rancid politics is welcome (remember, it happened here first), but the other big story is the complete collapse of the PvdA or, for you and me, the Dutch Labour Party.

Going into this election, the PvdA held the second largest number of seats in the Tweede Kamer, or House of Representatives. At 35, it was only outstripped by the VVD at 40, and so governed in a grand coalition of the centre left and centre right. As the junior partner, the PvdA’s leader Lodewijk Asscher (pictured) served as Deputy Prime Minister to the VVD’s Mark Rutte. And the coalition proved to be problematic for both parties. No sooner was the ink dry on their 2012 agreement, they shared a plunge in poll ratings. The VVD tumbled from around 40% and has mostly languished between 24 and 28 percentage points since. Not good. The PvdA’s fall from approximately 38% was even more immediate and spectacular. By late 2013 it sunk to a low of 13%, and on the eve-of-poll were commanding, if that’s the right word, under eleven per cent. That will give them nine seats. In short, a complete disaster and shambles.

I know people on the centre left don’t want to hear it, but I’m going to spell it out again anyway. The malaise afflicting social democratic and labourist politics isn’t a force of nature, it’s not that electorates have become massive racists or impatient with the boring, plodding work of parliamentary government. The collapse of PASOK in Greece, the humiliation about to be visited on the Socialist Party in France, the failure of Renzi’s referendum in Italy, the dismal performance of the Democrats and blue collar swing to Trump have a common theme. Indeed, the collapse of Scottish Labour and the 2015 evisceration of the Liberal Democrats share it too. All of them, every single one of them, did and were seen to be acting against the interests of their constituencies.

Blair-like Third Way politics might have fooled leaders of class and labour movement-based parties that class and labour movements don’t matter any more, but political realities and interests do not respect wonkish delusions. Enacting policies that attack our people, defined broadly as the coalition of voters who are conscious that their interests are best served by returning the centre left, will only break them up. Pushing through cuts, attacking unions, undermining public provision, the promotion of market reforms, all of these policies hurt our people, alienate them, and fracture the bedrock of our support. Our alliance thrives on solidarity. It weakens and splinters under conditions of insecurityIt doesn’t take genius to work it out.

Unfortunately for the PvdA, they now join that long list of miserable failures. The very act of going into government with its most bitter opponent was bad enough – imagine a Tory/Labour coalition – but to then sit with them as you deliver a programme of austerity that attacks your own base … words do not exist to describe such stupidity and recklessness.

4 Comments

  1. Mike Phipps says:

    I broadly agree. But one of the reason that Wilders did not break through in the manner expected was that Prime Monister Rutte has already conceded much of his narrative and accepted many of his policies, as i analyse further here:
    http://labourbriefing.squarespace.com/home/2017/3/20/dutch-auction

  2. JohnP says:

    If this is your current position, Phil, ie, that the New Labour “policy bundle” that is still the Labour “offer” today, despite the Corbyn Leadership victory, is a suicidal electoral positioning that will deliver Labour its terminal “Pasok and Dutch Labour Party PvdA moment” at the next UK General Election, it must have been painful for you to be a full time political assistant to the anti Left saboteur neoliberal ,Tristram Hunt, and a full time worker assisting the rabidly new Right Wing anti Corbyn Stoke Central MP, Snell, to add to precisely the pro New Labour neoliberal careerist majority in the PLP that guarantees this looming electoral disaster !

  3. Peter Rowlands says:

    The position for the left is in fact somewhat better than either PBC or Mike P describe, because as well as the growth of the Green Left vote the established Socialist Party more or less held its own, giving a total vote for the non Labour Party left of about 18%.

  4. David Pavett says:

    The idea that checking the advance of the populist right “happened here first” i.e. in Stoke is surely just a tad ludicrous.

    In Stoke Labour’s share of the vote and its overall support from the electorate in this once solidly Labour seat continued to slide. Less than 15% of the electorate turned out to support Labour’s right wing candidate. At the same time, and despite the repeated exposure of Paul Nuttall as a liar and a fool, UKIP increased its share of the vote.

    Phil BC can describe that as stopping the populist right in its tracks if he wants to but I think the reality is less rosy.

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