Shift to hard right
Jos Alembic and Richard Hoogstraten analyse the results of the Dutch elections and where they leave the Socialist Party
The March 15 general election has, once again, radically altered the face of the Dutch political landscape and it is still unclear where the country is heading.
The Labour Party was annihilated in a collapse that can be compared to that of the Christian Democrats in 2012. Meanwhile, the Conservatives of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) maintain their position as the most prominent of the bourgeois parties on just over 21%, fending off challengers from both the left and right. Yet none of those challengers managed to pull away from the rest, with the remaining five major parties scoring between 10% and 15% of the vote.
Amidst this political instability, the Socialist Party launched its most leftwing campaign in years, hoping to enlarge its share of the vote by drawing popular discontent towards its strong anti-austerity programme and campaign for affordable healthcare. But it did not enjoy much success: while the SP is now the biggest force on the left, it actually lost a seat, its support falling marginally to 9% and reducing it to 14 seats.
Just a week before the elections took place, it looked as though no clear winner would emerge from among the wide variety of middle-sized parties. But in the final few days of the campaign the diplomatic crisis with Turkey pushed the VVD up at the cost of the rightwing nationalist Party for Freedom (PVV). This means that the VVD, as the only remaining sizable party in parliament, now dominates the coalition formation process. Not only this, but the election has produced a huge shift to the hard right: the Socialists, Labour and Greens combined got less seats than Labour had before. Instead, a significant part of the electoral space that was once filled by the Labour Party has gone over to right-of-centre parties like Democrats 66 (D66), reflecting the way Labour itself had succumbed to rightwing policies when it was in government.
Following the election, there are a couple of possible coalitions, the most likely of which will see the VVD in alliance with D66, Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) and the Christian Union (CU) - a coalition that would enjoy a safe 76-seat majority.
With such a drastically changed parliament, it is worthwhile taking a closer look at the results for the various parties. The most glaring and serious change obviously came with the collapse of the PvdA (Labour), which dropped from 38 seats in 2012 to just nine, out of the 150 available - its lowest number since it was founded in 1946. Partially this reflects the end of the two-party contests of previous elections, when many voters either backed Labour to keep out the Conservatives or the other way round, but they ended up with both in a coalition in any case. Labour had attracted voters on a wide political basis: from both old-style social democrats, who were told that the party’s less than radical policies were a result of a necessary compromise; and social liberals, who voted PvdA to keep out the rightwing VVD. This year though, disappointed social democrats decided not to vote at all, and Labour fell drastically in the polls from just under 25% (38 seats) in 2012 to less than 6% (nine seats) this time.
While the Conservatives fell from 41 seats to 33, they are still well placed. Despite the unpopularity of the last government, the party succeeded in positioning itself as the last line of defence against a right-populist takeover, attracting tactical votes from some who would have preferred to vote for a different party. On top of that the political crisis surrounding Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s attempt to strengthen his hand in the forthcoming Turkish presidential elections increased the prime minister’s support. Together these factors have strongly consolidated the Conservatives’ position. The party is left standing clear of its rivals in a splintered political field.
While the Socialist Party is now electorally the biggest party on the left, its lead over the Greens (GroenLinks) was just 0.3% - both have the same number of seats. But, in contrast to the Greens, who presented themselves as a safe pair of hands, it does not look like the SP will be approached to take part in the new coalition.
There was another interesting phenomenon, which is that the support base of the SP seems to have shifted a lot: 57% of SP voters did not vote for the party in 2012.1 One explanation for this could be that the SP exchanged voters, so to speak, across the spectrum, attracting many former Labour supporters, whilst losing others to the PVV, CDA and Greens.
The Greens themselves have seen a rather spectacular growth, gaining 10 seats - their best score in their 27-year existence. This growth can mainly be attributed to their stylish political leader, Jesse Klaver, whose message of ‘hope’ and ‘change’ can be compared to Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign - in fact they both used the same advertising agency! At heart though, the Greens are little more than social liberals, who believe in market solutions. They recently supported a change in funding for higher education, whereby students, as in the UK, now have to accept large debts in order to go to university. A few years ago they also backed drastic cuts to healthcare, an increase in VAT and a rapid rise in the retirement age. For the next period GroenLinks proposes to raise healthcare costs for those on low incomes, to raise VAT on meat and to levy a charge on those driving during rush hours - a direct attack on workers under the guise of ‘green’ politics.
Where Geert Wilders’ PVV got 15 seats in 2012, this time it adopted a bolder anti-Muslim platform, picking up more support from those parts of the electorate that came under heaviest attack from the previous PvdA-VVD coalition, and now has 20 seats. But, of course, this gain is far less than anticipated - a fact that has been attributed not just to the Turkey crisis, but also to Wilders’ absence from most of the debates. However, while he is perceived by many as ‘anti-establishment’ because of his strong anti-Muslim stance, in fact the PVV has been very consistently voting for Conservative policies since its inception. But in many municipalities the PVV scored solidly, in many urban seats actually topping the poll. Next year, when it contests local elections across the country for the first time, a further shift to the far right can be expected.
Two other traditional parties also gained slightly: the CDA Christian-Democrats went from 13 to 19 seats, while the D66 liberals increased their seats from 12 to 19. Of the small parties the Christian Union remained stable on five seats; the single-issue party for elderly people, 50Plus, saw a doubling from two to four; the Partij voor de Dieren (Animal Welfare Party) saw an increase from two to five seats; and the fundamentalist Christian SGP remained stable at three.
We also saw two new parties enter the fray: DENK, a pro-Turkey group, which defends the interests of those from a petty bourgeois migrant background, picked up three seats. The Forum for Democracy, a party headed by an eccentric columnist which presents itself as the intellectual alternative to the PVV, won two. This takes the number of parties represented in parliament up to 13.
Two conclusions can be drawn from these results. Firstly, the ruling coalition has taken a beating, although Labour much more so than the Conservatives. Secondly, the other political parties have not been able to make substantial gains. A new coalition will need four or five parties, with the added complication of the existing party distribution in the senate.2 Furthermore, the decline of traditional political parties has given rise to various single-issue groups that have just a few seats in parliament.
Previously the Socialist Party had consistently been moving towards the centre, but over the last couple of years it has been shifting towards the left, reversing the previous trend of increasingly watered-down election programmes. The shift was mainly fuelled by the leadership elections of the 21st congress, which was held in 2015, surprising many who consider themselves to be on the left and sharpening contradictions within the SP. It is worth recalling the leadership election race, together with what it means for the activist party base and the composition of the membership.
The Socialist Party started out in parliament as a tiny two-seat fraction in 1994 and saw its main strategy as broadening its electoral support through increasingly compromised election platforms. Of course, having adopted this more ‘moderate’ course and gained larger electoral support, the party attracted a new membership with a more left-liberal vision.
Over the last decade we have seen a generational shift, with the result that many of the old Maoist cadre that founded the party in the 1970s have been marginalised. Jan Marijnissen had led the party since 1988 and was the main driving force moving it away from its Marxist-Leninist legacy toward a ‘new left’ role. The idea was to fill the gap left by Labour’s move to the right - a policy which reached its zenith in 2006, when the SP won 25 seats, but failed to participate in a coalition.
After Marijnissen stepped down from his role as leader of the parliamentary fraction in 2008, a period of uncertainty set in, resulting in a drop to 15 seats in the 2010 and 2012 elections and a fall in membership from its peak of 50,740 in 2007 to 39,550 today (although this fits in with a more general downward trend in Dutch politics: the SP is still the third largest party after Labour, which has 46,162 members, and the Christian-Democrats, with 48,775).
This period came to an end in late 2015 at the 21st congress, when Jan Marijnissen stood down as party chairman, making room for former union leader Ron Meyer. Under him we have seen greatly increased engagement in the party - as a union activist, he had been responsible for setting up the cleaners’ union pretty much from scratch over the course of a few years, and this new organisation is now one of the most militant components of the trade union movement.
This engagement has been most visible in the campaign to end the current method of financing the healthcare system. Introduced in 2006, it has put insurance companies at the centre of healthcare financing. The SP has proposed to replace this system, which has put many people in financial jeopardy, by something very similar to the NHS. A petition calling for “No profit at the expense of patients” has gathered the support of more than 250,000 people so far, and this campaign has single-handedly put healthcare on the agenda as one of the main topics in the elections, forcing other parties to nod in the direction of the SP.
But, where Ron Meyer was the candidate favoured by the party leadership, Sharon Gesthuizen ran as a second, independent, candidate, representing the more ‘moderate’ wing in the party. She ran on a superficially pro-democracy and small-business-friendly platform, and called for the party to adopt a more explicit anti-racist policy.
This liberal faction arose from the party’s policy, in the 1990s and 2000s, of trying to target ‘moderate’ voters and shifting programmatic demands in that direction. But since 2006, after the party was thankfully denied participation in the governing coalition, and again after 2015, when a more activist route was taken, this part of the membership has been drifting away.
The liberal faction was defeated at the 21st congress and, besides Ron Meyer, a number of other leftwingers were elected to the leadership (the SP eschews traditional names for its organs, but the leading body could be viewed as a kind of politburo). Patrick Zoomermeijer and Arjan Vliegenthart, for example, are explicitly on the far left. Patrick has a Trotskyist background and recently visited the Committee for a Workers’ International Seattle councillor, Kshama Sawant, while Arjan has cited Fidel Castro favourably in the NRC Handelsblad, one of the main ‘serious’ centre-right newspapers. This resurgence of the left has also found reflection amongst the party’s MPs, with Sadet Karabulut referring to herself as a “Marxist-Leninist in a modern way” last October in Trouw,3 while Sandra Beckerman also has a Trotskyist background.
The Meyer leadership has changed other things too. On the level of common parlance, words like ‘comrades’ and ‘class struggle’ have come into use again, though they are not employed in a fully rounded manner. For example, Emile Roemer started his election speech live on television by exclaiming, “Comrades!” While this is more radical in terms of style, it has not found reflection in terms of theoretical depth.
In the branches the influence of the new course has also been felt. There has been a strong focus on the aforementioned campaign on healthcare, with members tirelessly collecting signatures for the petition and mobilising people to national demonstrations, such as the 10,000-strong rally in The Hague on February 18. Not a huge number, even by Dutch standards, but a doubling in size compared to a previous demonstration in October and reflective of a growing popular base.
On the national level efforts have been made to support branches in other ways. For example, a national calling team was set up to contact all potential activists for the election campaign. The information gathered was then directly transmitted to the local branches, which were able to contact these people. In the last few months, this in itself has resulted in almost a thousand new members for the party.
The national line of focusing on single issues has been fruitful organisationally. Where before there was a labyrinth of different campaigns, now healthcare is the overwhelming priority. Paradoxically, this also allows branches to focus more on local issues, while the national canvassing from the leadership helped a lot of branches which did not canvass very much at all.
So, organisationally speaking, the local branches have gained a lot from the new leadership’s focus on trade union-like activism. This has been pushed as the best way to build the SP, with the aim of becoming the biggest party in terms of membership.
The new election programme, which was drafted for the 21st congress in advance of the 2017 elections, represented a major left shift. Although hard-line positions, such as leaving Nato, remain notoriously absent, gains have been made in other areas. Unfortunately, little of this has had to do with a strong, organised left in the party and much more to do with the aggressive political style of the new chairman. To illustrate this, only three motions were accepted at the congress that had not originated with the organising committee.
We should keep in mind though that the leadership has developed a habit of denying a vote to members on motions they look set to lose. Thus it has become quite hard to measure the actual influence of informal factions and the degree to which amendments are in line with the leadership’s preferred course.
The programme is intended to serve for a period of four years and as such only comprises short-term demands. This allows the leadership to argue against more radical motions by claiming that, while such aims are, of course, in line with the party’s goals, they are not appropriate for a short-term election programme. In general though, it is a leftwing document and certainly the most daring set of proposals we have seen in a long time. As such we should welcome it and applaud the direction it is taking the party.
One of the most striking demands in the programme is featured in its flagship chapter, ‘Take power’. It calls for the democratisation of medium to large-sized companies by obliging them to create a works council with the same degree of power as the board. Furthermore, the salaries of the company management would be subject to the consent of this works council. Whilst obviously not calling for the revolutionary takeover of the means of production by factory soviets, it is a major step towards empowering workers and could have its place in a minimum programme - the minimum basis on which a communist party should be willing to take on power, breaking the grip of capital over society.
Additionally, healthcare and education should be democratised, states the programme. Consumers and workers should enjoy far-reaching influence over the operation of these institutions, and both should be entirely separated from market mechanisms. These show large similarities to the public transport policy put forward by Jeremy Corbyn and, combined with the slightly less radical, but broader democratisation policy, they show that the margins of what is possible within bourgeois democracy are certainly being pushed.
Economically the party still clings to Keynesian theory, arguing that large-scale government investment will in the long term generate more growth than the concomitant increase in debt. On the basis of this reasoning a rise in the minimum wage is demanded - increased worker spending will lead to more rapid economic growth. But, while all this is, of course, presented as making gains for the working class, it shows a deep uncertainty about the party’s own strength: it still needs to pretend to work for the national interest instead of directly championing the advance of the working class. The danger is that those propagating this nonsense will start to believe it.
Furthermore, while the party treats the petty bourgeoisie as a natural ally in the struggle against large capital, in profiling them as equally ‘hard workers’, it thus obscures class antagonisms. There is no proposal to erode workers’ rights in favour of small companies, but the programme aims to strengthen small capital’s position against that of big capital, and create a national investment bank that will promote its development. As the Netherlands is a country where the petty bourgeoisie is particularly strong, and the working class is relatively weak, this is an understandable concession. It would be preferable to change the premises of this alliance, but for the moment the working class has little to bargain with. And sadly a motion to defend cooperatives as alternative, democratic and worker-based economic organisations did not make it onto the congress agenda.
We should appreciate the fact that the party principally defends the interests of the working class and does not water down its call for workers’ rights in exchange for petty bourgeois support. We should note that the defeated liberal faction was in favour of making such concessions, with MP Sharon Gesthuizen, who is now leaving parliament, submitting a bill in parliament which would have made it easier for small companies to dismiss workers.
Prospects for communists
The party has long since abandoned Maoism and Marxism-Leninism, but has maintained many of its previous organisational aspects. Factions, for example, while not explicitly forbidden, are highly discouraged. This explains why the liberals have not been able to organise effectively: a culture of debate is lacking, which gives the leadership a free hand, while some rank-and-file members feel encouraged to question the loyalty of those who raise criticisms.
The only ‘faction’ then is that of the leadership, which feels free to adopt changes, particularly of nuance and style. Its main aim is still to participate in a coalition - along with parties that represent the interests of capital. This time around, the leadership was hoping for a coalition consisting of the SP, the Greens, the Christian Union or Christian-Democrats, Labour and the Animal Welfare Party. Among this ‘dream team’ only the Animal Welfare Party and the SP itself have explicitly opposed neoliberal policies.
So, for communists and those party members who argue for a complete break with capitalism in order to move to a society based on the stated values of the SP - summarised as solidarity, equality and human dignity - a big task lies ahead of them. Where to begin?
To start with, the SP needs to be taken seriously. There are far-left groups outside the party, but with only a few hundred members between them they are completely and utterly irrelevant. The party is where (young) workers look if they want to become active and take matters into their own hands in order to change things. The SP therefore, for better or worse, represents the most class-conscious workers within our movement. To refuse to be part of it is effectively to put yourself outside the struggle for working class power.
Secondly, we need to decide where we want to go with the party - a question of programme. The Communist Platform, a group of Marxists in the party, has published a proposal for a minimum programme on the basis of which the party could realistically campaign to break capital’s hegemony and begin to establish genuine workers’ control over society.4 This programme should not be seen as set in stone: we can and should debate the direction we want to take, but a set of proposals like this can, we believe, offer a useful framework.
Third is the organisational aspect: if we are to make an impact on the course of the party, we need to take leadership seriously, build our branches, educate the membership and communicate horizontally between members as far as possible. This is largely a trial and error-based experience. What room do we have to organise? How do we effectively bring together those members who want to support this endeavour? How do we introduce higher politics at branch level, where it has been thus far non-existent?
What we ought to aim for is a party capable of carrying out the task of breaking with capitalism. We need a party that is much more than a parliamentary apparatus. The SP contains important elements of this already - it is highly active in organising people in the neighbourhoods to fight for their interests all year round. But we need more, much more. If we are to organise against capital, we need to organise the working class as a class-collective. That is, we need a party-movement: a mass movement, consisting at the very least of hundreds of thousands that are active in trade unions, cooperatives, social clubs, communal centres, etc. A movement with its own mass media, banks and other facilities. If we can organise such a movement, with the SP at its head, it is not a question of if we can change society, but when it would be most opportune to do so. The question would not be one of seats in parliament in order to get into the next coalition, but of winning a clear majority for our proposals amongst the whole class.
Last but not least, the European question. So far the SP has been somewhat Eurosceptic. With good reason, of course, as the European Union has been a project for carrying out neoliberal policies. We ought to change that vision. The Netherlands in itself cannot simply ignore international politics and economics and declare itself socialist. We need to think about this at the very least on a continental scale. We need to redefine ‘Europe’, giving it a working class content, by bringing together all the entire left across the continent to form a Socialist Party of Europe, with branches in the Netherlands, Germany, Greece, Portugal, the UK ... On that basis we can start organising on a much larger scale - synchronising our activities, harmonising our programmes, uniting our efforts. While we remain divided, capital will break us: united, there is no-one that can stop us.
The Netherlands has made another sharp turn to the right - that much is clear. Rightwing parties now have a large majority in parliament and the Conservatives are set to dominate the process of forming a coalition.
For the left, the coming months must be spent planning opposition strategies against what is to come. That is uncertain, but one thing is for sure: the working class will not benefit, whatever government emerges. The Socialist Party should stop obsessing over participating in a government coalition in order to bring about change. The Greek experience should have taught us that no left-led government, however well-meaning, can in isolation break with neoliberal politics. If we are to effectively change society, we need to start thinking about a programme that carries us beyond capitalism and a party-movement that is capable of leading that fight. The party desperately needs to reinvent itself in order to win the masses for a leftwing alternative to the capitalist order.
Communists in the Socialist Party should foster, encourage and develop the leftwing tendencies that are already present in the party. Only a strong and well educated cadre can help it grow beyond its current limitations. The ball might be in the court of the bourgeoisie, but the coming period of opposition and struggle offers us a chance to reflect on the way forward and emerge stronger than we were before - armed with a powerful vision of a real alternative to the neoliberal status quo.
1. See http://nos.nl/artikel/2163332-tk17-bekijk-de-uitslagen-per-gemeente-en-vorm-je-eigen-coalitie.html.
2. For a more in-depth explanation of Dutch political structures, we refer to Piet Potlood’s commentary on the previous election: ‘Overcoming a false dichotomy’ Weekly Worker September 27 2012.