Meet Henk and Ingrid. Married, with two children, they both work – although since the crisis hit, Ingrid has had to move to a part-time job – love their cars, and live in a Vinex neighbourhood – the Dutch equivalent of Crawley or Winnersh – basically. They used to vote for the Labour Party, but recently, they’ve liked the sound of what Mr Geert Wilders, leader of the far-right Freedom Party, has had to say.
Henk and Ingrid are recurring characters in the speeches of Mr. Wilders – Nick Griffin with a Rod Stewart quiff – and serve as both the conscience of the nation, and a more refined version of Enoch Powell’s Wolverhampton constituents. Wilders sufficiently wowed Henk and Ingrid in the 2010 poll that his Freedom Party finished third with 24 seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives. After months of frenzied negotiation, a government of the centre-right, comprising the centrist CDA and the right-wing Liberals, with the Freedom Party supporting the government from outside, was formed. But now, Henk and Ingrid are being sent to the polls again, due to the instransgience and unreliability of Wilders. The election will almost certainly see heavy losses for the Freedom Party, but it could also mark the end of the Dutch Labour Party as the dominant party of the Left.
Poll after poll, the story remains the same. The Liberal Party, under Prime Minister Mark Rutte, are in a nip-and-tuck battle for first place with the far-left Socialist Party, led by former schoolteacher Emile Roemer. In a distant third, the Labour Party – the PdvA – who, as recently as 2002 were the governing party and at the last election were confirmed as the major opposition to the right-wing Rutte ministry. Where did it all go wrong?
While the problem is at its most acute in the Netherlands, the PdvA’s travails are part of a wider problem for mainstream parties of the European Left. In France, the success of Left Front led PS strategists to fear a repeat of the 2002 disaster, when Lionel Jospin finished outside the top two and Jacques Chirac went on to win re-election in a landslide. In Germany, the SPD may be denied a working majority in the next election by their left-wing rivals, the Left Party. In Britain, the Labour Party has lost seats to Respect and the Greens, and came dangerously close to finishing behind a Liberal Democrat party than ran to its left.
In the early Nineties, European social democracy was in crisis. Against all expectations, John Major won the 1992 election. The following year, the French Socialists went down to a crushing defeat in the legislative elections. The year after that, Helmut Kohl won a fourth straight election victory. It wasn’t just the Labour Party that spent the 1980s listening to Blondie in the opposition lobby; the default position for social democrats in the penultimate decade of the twentieth century was defeat. Taking their inspiration from Bill Clinton – who ran and won as a ‘different kind of Democrat’ -, they adopted positions significantly to the right of those they occupied in the 1980s. History had ended, capitalism had triumphed. One by one – from Schroeder to Blair – European social democrats made their peace with capitalism, and were rewarded with the one thing that had eluded them in that long, dispiriting decade: victory.
The Netherlands was little different. Wim Kok – a trade union boss turned parliamentary leader – won the 1994 election as a ‘Third Way’ social democrat, governed in a coalition comprising liberals of left and right, and ended a period of political uncertainty, governing until 2002. But, as in Britain and Germany, victory in the centre precipitated a crisis at the margins. Traditional supporters felt alienated by Kok’s coalition with the right-wing Liberal party, resulting in gains for the ecology party, GreenLinks, and rising support for the far-left Socialist Party, originally a Maoist splinter party, but increasingly prevalent in the mainstream. The election of 2002 saw the PdvA finish fourth, with the Socialist Party making sweeping gains at their expense. In the next election, the PdvA tried to win back its former supporters, but while it reclaimed second, the Socialist Party, too, made gains, coming third. Despite a minor crisis for the Socialists at the last general, the 2006 election confirmed their elevation to the position of major players.
If acceptance of capitalism ended the last crisis of social democracy,its collapse has triggered a second. Left-wing parties that appeared to have made their peace with capitalism now face a crisis of legitimacy. In the Netherlands, it remains to be seen if that crisis can be survived.
This Week’s European Talking Points
- After the runaway success of Paul the Octopus at the last World Cup, Germany’s media has become obssessed with animal oracles, much to the distress of animal rights activists. “It’s too much, almost every dog and pig in the country being made into the next oracle,” the Animal Protection Agency’s Marius Tünte told German weekly Der Spiegel. Radio station bigFM is a particular offender, with a python, Ado, given the choice between two live rats. Now there’s a knock-out tie you don’t want to win.
- Shocking now to think that Dominique Strauss-Kahn was a near-unassailable frontrunner for the PS nomination and with it the French Presidency not so long ago. Still mired in scandal and involved in an investigation into a prostitution ring in Lille, it was revealed last week that the former IMF head’s partner, Anne Sinclair, has thrown him out of their Paris residence. Meanwhile, the forthcoming Gérard Depardieu vehicle about DSK’s fall looks set to be an unmissable event for politicos and Francophiles alike.
- The Danish government has launched an ‘Ungepakke’ or Youth Programme, aimed at reducing youth unemployment in the Nordic state. “We won’t let young people down,” said Thor Möger Pedersen, a minister in the Labour-led government, said, “It is expensive both for society and for the individual when young people are outside of the labour market. The government will keep working to improve the education guarantee and to secure internships, helping everyone who wants to get their vocational training.” Surprisingly enough, the programme will not include dehousing under-twenty fives. Those crazy Danes, huh?