Is this the end for the (Dutch) Labour Party?

1st July, 2012 11:58 am

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?
  • IslingtonRed

    It is nice to see some European-focused comment on LL however getting the name of the Dutch Labour Party incorrect throughout the article is not a good start. It is PvdA or Partij van de Arbeid. 

    Due to the electoral system in the Netherlands most on the left would be happy with a left coalition.
    If PvdA, GL, D66, and SP managed to get their act together it would mean the left would be power for the first time without the need for the centre right. On the whole most on the left in the Netherlands would consider this more important in the long term rather than the actual ranking of the parties.

    • Stephen Bush

      Thanks for reading, but I refer to them as the PvdA several times in the article. I referred to them as the Labour Party generally for ease of reading, for the same reason I didn’t refer to the PVV. Cheers!

    • Stephen Bush

      Just read it over – I can’t spell. Hrm.

  • Roger McCarthy

    ‘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’.

    Only if by seats you mean one seat lost to the Greens in a 4-way fight in Brighton and two seats won in by-elections by George Galloway in what were effectively Muslim majority constituencies (with Galloway having shown himself no more capable of winning a non-Muslim seat in a regular election than any other ultra left candidate).

    As for the Lib Dems running to Labour’s left this was always an illusion fostered by the pseudo-left media commentariat’s obsession with foreign policy and constitutional reform and deliberate obfuscation of the LD adoption of free market fanaticism.

    I see the it somewhat differently:

    a) Firstly look at the results for Green parties on the continent post and pre-recession: unless Greens have joined a wider left grouping their votes have almost invariably plummeted as support for such parties seems to be very much a middle class indulgence for good times.

    b) The ‘far left’ on the continent are often a very different proposition to our weird little ultra-left grouplets  – Syriza, the Dutch Socialistische Partij, die Linkspartei and the Front de Gauche are whatever their origins now social democratic parties whose manifestos are no more revolutionary than those of PASOK, the PvdA, SPD and PS (and Labour)  in the 1970s or early 1980s. 

    c) It is indeed the mainstream social democratic parties that did the changing and became neo-liberal – which opened up a space not to their left but on the left that they abandoned.

    d) But electoral systems are all important – without some form of PR it is extremely difficult for a left party to establish itself.

    e) There is also a European aspect – all of the successful left parties are to some degree anti-EU.

    f) Successful left parties are also to some extent able to draw on former mass support for communism – either incorporating former Communist Parties wholesale or resulting from splits in CPs.

    If Britain had had PR, a stronger communist party and a leftish intelligentsia (something of a misnomer in our case….) that hadn’t become hopelessly besotted with the EU under Thatcherism we too might have seen an effective left electoral challenge  – but in the absence of these factors we have nowhere to go but Labour.

    • Stephen Bush

      Cheers for posting as ever Roger. A lot of points here:

      Agree that the Liberals were never a party to the left of Labour, particularly not after ’07, but they were percieved to be by their voters, which is surely the most important thing.

      a) Agree wholeheartedly on the ecology parties.
      b) Agree on the Dutch Socialists and Left Front. SYRIZA are a very different proposition in my view, because they’ve grown so fast and so unexpectedly, while there are still people at the top of the Left Party who think the Stasi weren’t so bad. But agree, most of these parties of the left are effectively offering a 21st century version of what their predecessor parties offered in their wilderness years.c) Agree.
      d) Agree.
      e) Agree
      f) Yes, this will almost certainly be the subject of a round-up at some point.And yes, I think the main reason why there isn’t a Left Front in the UK is that lack of a Communist bloc and a proper ‘thinking’ Left. 

      • robertcp

        Good article.   Left parties are a response to social democratic parties moving away from social democracy.  The Lib Dems were for a while our equivalent of a Left party.

      • treborc

        Proper thinking left

        Is that a New labour view from the right of the party, seem to remember you once spoke about  New labour conservatism.

    • robertcp

      I agree with most of this but some people, including me, did vote for the Lib Dems in 2005 because of Iraq.   FPTP and the coalition does mean that centre-left voters have nowhere to go apart from Labour, although I would vote Green if Labour returned to Blairism.

  • Elliot Bidgood

    Interesting article, Stephen. In terms of the run-down of European SD parties in trouble, I’d maybe add Denmark to the list as well. Although Thorning-Schmidt’s “win” in 2011 looked like a comeback for European social democrats, below the surface the details were more ominous- the Danish SDs still came second to the centre-right Venestre and actually lost 0.6% of their vote and 1 seat compared to 2007. Further, the more traditional left-wing Socialist Party took a kicking, making Thorning-Schmidt more dependent on the ascendant centre/centre-left Social Liberals and far-left Red-Green Alliance.
    To be honest, I still fear a result like that here in 2015 is a likely scenario- Ed Miliband leading the largest party in a hung parliament and dependent on the smaller left-of-centre groupings in parliament, including the parochial centre-left nationalists as well as whatever is left of the Lib Dems. However, it is worth baring in mind that FPTP and the current differences between British and Danish liberals should shield us from it being quite that bad. Like one of the other commenters pointed out, your observation about Labour losing seats to the Respect, the Greens and previously to the Lib Dems isn’t quite in the same league as the problems other parties are having on the continent, although I am concerned by the possibility that that might simply be because the comparative stability of our electoral system means that the same phenomena may be occuring here, but is presenting in a much more limited fashion because of FPTP.


    • Stephen Bush

      Cheers Elliot, and thanks for reading. 

      I agree that the Danish SDs are in a worse position that their current circumstances would suggest, but they have the advantage of being able to deliver a successful first term and possibly consolidate in the next poll.

      Agree also re: 2015. I think the Liberal collapse will gift a lot of rural seats to the Conservatives, and it’s easy to see how we end up with a weak minority government propped up by all sorts of odd parties of the left. I think FPTP inoculates parties against extinction a  little bit, but I think all the ingredients for Labour’s extinction are present in the UK.

      • Mike Homfray

        But a weak result for the LibDems gives us lots of seats where we come second to the Tories in the Midlands and north, where we will be the primary beneficiaries of their collapse

        • Elliot Bidgood

          That’s true to some degree, Mike, but the argument that Robert Philpot & Joan Ryan recently put forward about the risks of a Lib Dem collapse for Labour not only highlighted not only how there are demonstrably more Lib-Con than Lib-Lab marginal seats among the current 57 LD seats, but also addresses the argument that enough Lab-Con marginals could flip to us on weight of ex-Lib Dem votes, concluding that it’s far from a dead-cert that we would uniformly benefit from that either. Some of it’s still a bit sketchy, particularly Joan Ryan’s theory about us only being able to look at ’97/2010 Lib Dem “switchers” and the fact that their analysis assumes we will get no Tory switchers at all in 2015 (both ignoring Andrew Harrop’s stats about “Ed’s converts”), but it’s worth taking account of them, just to be on the safe-side.

          • Mike Homfray

            Ah well, I would be sceptical about anything published by Progress, who have a vested interest in making Labour as right wing as possible and think that presenting a picture of having to win in the south is the way to do it. They are wrong. Its not about LibDem MP’s losing their seats, but about Tories losing seats they would have held had the LibDem vote not collapsed. Most of them are not in the south. Its far easier to get ex LD’s to vote for us than expect widespread Topry conversions – and what about those who didn’t vote last time, most of who were previously likely to vote for us – mainly our core voters

          • Elliot Bidgood

            I accept that Progress supporters may have a cognitive bias towards conclusions that involve us needing to win more Tory switchers- some of the question marks in Joan Ryan’s analysis possibly reflect this. However,  my concern is that equally, the left of the party are more likely to subconsciously respond to strategies that involve us relying solely on a united core-Labour/ex-LD base and never needing to move right to win Lab-Con swing voters, when it may be wishful thinking that enough LD switchers will stay loyal and will be correctly distributed enough for us to win outright. There’s stats to support both Andrew Harrop’s “Ed’s converts” view and the Philpot-Ryan view, but both have holes, and my guess is there’s probably an element of confirmation bias/cognitive dissonance in both accounts. We probably need more Tory switchers than Harrop assumes, but not as many as Philpot-Ryan seem to assume either.

            Also, although you may be correct about not strictly needing the south in order to win a parliamentary majority, I don’t like Labour ceding the south. First of all, as a West Country native myself, I believe that to be a credible one-nation party we can’t consciously ignore an entire region and it’s interests. But further, not having party organisation in the south means that we will be weaker than neccesary at the council level there, and therefore only able to facilitate progressive changes in the daily lives of southern Englanders when it falls within Westminister’s purview.

          • MD

             Mike and Elliot are both right and wrong to some extent.

            In order to win a working majority in 2015 Labour will have to win over Tory and Libdem voters, as well as winning over former Labour voters who stayed at home the last couple of times.

            That requires a multi-pronged strategy;

            1. Those who went Tory – aspirational, slightly fiscally conservative voters, voters who just fancied a fresh face in government etc
            2. Those who went Libdem – students, civil libertarians, “Guardianistas” etc
            3. Stay at homes – generally lower income working class, want a decent welfare state for those who deserve it, good public services, have seen their pay frozen or dropping etc

            There are policies that can appeal to all of them, and policies aimed at one set that will pay for the policies aimed at others.

            The recent talk about bankers, immigration, and re-nationalising the rail are all in their own ways steps in the right direction strategically.

    • robertcp

      I actually quite like the idea of a minority Labour government.  Labour did some amazingly daft things when it had a big majority.

  • Mike Homfray

    Surely all this shows is that in a PR system, some left wing voters are opting for a more socialist option – the Dutch always have coalitions, so why not one with all the left of centre parties – Socialist, Green, Labour and Left-Liberal(D66)


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