Dutch Socialists: preparing for power?
The Dutch Socialist Party – despite its name, an EU-critical left party – is riding high in the polls and looking forward to the elections on 12th September. Its 18th national congress on 2nd June took place, therefore, in an atmosphere of confidence and optimism. Currently the SP holds fifteen seats, but polls predict that this will increase to twenty-five or more at an election precipitated by the collapse of the right-wing minority government of Christian Democratic CDA and the Thatcherite market liberals of the VVD. The government fell when it lost the support of Geert Wilders’ hard right, anti-Islam PVV, and polls indicate that it will not be easy for the right to return to power. For the time being, this leaves only the option of a government which straddles the traditional divide. Dutch politics being what it is, most voters see no problem with this. But for the SP it could present some very big problems indeed.
If so, however, these problems are for the future. For the moment there is a celebratory, anticipatory atmosphere, which is reflected in a debate which is for the most part friendly. To the unitiated – and the hostile – SP congresses can appear as stage-managed as those which characterise the Maoist movement which gave birth to the party forty years ago. This is, however, misleading: every aspect of the conference document under discussion has previously been debated at regional conferences. The resulting proposal is therefore the product of a long and consensual process, so it is neither surprising nor something which reflects poorly on the SP’s internal democracy that generally speaking only those which win support from the party executive are carried.
Debate is nevertheless passionate and – the party’s hallmark – humorous, with three rounds interrupted by various events: a film about recent developments within the SP, a slide show about the party’s impressive new headquarters in Amersfoort, a comedian, a presentation from Rood (‘Red’), the SP youth movement, and, of course, lunch. Comrades who have dedicated their lives to the party are presented with its only award, the Golden Tomato – the red version being the SP’s symbol. In the breaks, the sunny weather –rare in the Netherlands as elsewhere this spring – allows people to congregate outside in a sort of courtyard attached to the theatre in Breda where the congress is being held.
Having grown from a fringe party which entered parliament with just two seats as recently as 1994, the SP now faces what may be its biggest trial. In the past, high standing in the polls failed to translate into seats, as in 2002 when in the last week before the election the Labour Party stopped looking nervously over its left shoulder and simply stole many of its policies, winning back swaths of votes. SP activists admit that many Labour defectors state an intention to vote SP in order to persuade what is the traditional political home of the Dutch working class to rediscover its purpose. On that occasion, Labour’s about-face worked.
So when I asked numerous conference attendees what they thought would happen on September 12th, nobody was simply assuming an unprecedented success. Besides the Labour Party, activists worry about the far right. Wilders, despite his background in the neoliberal VVD, from which he defected in order to establish his own party, has adopted a social programme which looks superficially not unlike that of the SP itself. He too is EU-critical and claims to be opposed to austerity policies imposed by Brussels. Instead of inaccurately and polemically calling the PVV ‘fascists’ therefore, the SP is busily compiling a list of two hundred occasions in which Wilders and his colleagues in parliament have voted – in just two years - in ways which conflict with their election promises. Of course, the SP also attacks the racism of the PVV and its rampant Islamaphobia, but its careful dissection of Wilders’ inconsistencies is typical of the way the party operates: close analysis rather than political name-calling.
The major contest for votes, from the SP’s point of view, is with Labour. The other, much smaller centre-left party, the Green Left, lost both credibility and support when it voted for the outgoing government’s latest austerity package, designed to bring the Netherlands in line with the EU’s new Stability and Growth Pact. This party, which only a decade ago was considerably bigger in parliamentary terms than was the SP, seems to have lost its way in its bizarre determination to go along with everything and anything that the EU wants. Its odd decision to tell the Dutch Parliamentary authorities that it no longer wished to be seated to the left of Labour (the layout reflecting traditional left-right lines) but in the centre, reflects this identity crisis. Dutch politics is too volatile to allow for certainty in predictions, but it is hard to see how the Green Left can recover in time for a September election.
Unfortunately the Green Left remains, along with Labour, the most likely candidate for participation in a coalition government with the SP. The difficulties would be tremendous. Unlike Labour, with its routine social-democratic ‘pro-European’ line – which in common with all things social democratic is open to negotiation – the Green Left has made ‘Europeanism’ its trade mark. Despite considerable remaining overlap between the two parties’ policies, it is hard to see how this can be overcome.
In any case, the three parties traditionally seen in the Netherlands as ‘the left’ cannot possibly muster the seventy-six necessary to form a majority in Parliament. As each goes up and down in the increasingly unpredictable polls, they tend to win votes almost entirely from each other. Their combined total rarely rises above sixty-five, and is often considerably lower. If there is to be a government which includes the SP, then, it would be necessary to include parties not directly associated with the left. The PVV is clearly out of the question. Also, though the SP does not rule out going into coalition with any ‘democratic’ party, in reality there is no room for cooperation with the unreconstructed neoliberals of the VVD. The CDA is, however, a different proposition. Traditionally, in common with the Flemish Christian Democrats next door, it boasts a ‘left’ wing with its roots in Christian social activism and organises its own trade unions. It is, however, in deep trouble itself, having sunk to its lowest ever level of support in the polls. In the eyes of the majority of the Dutch electorate, ruling parties that have been trounced in elections are generally not considered worthy to continue in government.
This leaves something of a ragbag of potential partners. The Christian Union, a much smaller party than the CDA, has a good record when it comes to defending the welfare state, even if this is based on paternalism and on a form of conservatism which prefers social peace to class warfare. The centrist liberals of D66 might be inveigled into a coalition with the promise of fulfilment of a few of their pet ambitions, but while they are progressive on issues such as gender equality and gay rights, they are close to the VVD when it comes to the economy. As this is precisely the opposite of the Christian Union, the two would make for an uneasy partnership. Finally, there is an animal rights party which may get two seats and which tends to vote with the left, and a new party designed to represent older people may win a seat and will presumably oppose austerity policies.
Of course, successful coalition negotiations which led to the SP’s entry into government would present the biggest challenge of all. Through its rise to become the nearest thing to a mass left party in mainland Europe, the SP has maintained a high profile outside of Parliament as well as in, continuing to use the street, the workplace, the local council chamber and any and every other available site of struggle to pursue its ambition to save the country’s welfare state and, beyond this, to build a Socialist Netherlands by democratic means. It has taken part in coalitions at local level with a range of parties and with varied success, but national government is different, as it freely acknowldges. The party’s message, hammered home by SP leader Emile Roemer at every opportunity, including in his keynote conference speech, is ‘Wij zijn klaar’ – ‘We are ready.’ It is, however, impossible to know what that means and whether it will turn out to be an accurate prediction or a case of misplaced confidence. It has been confirmed many times and in many different circumstances that, to paraphrase a famous Latin saying, ‘whom the gods would destroy they first put into a coalition government’. However, two things can be said about this: firstly, though we have no experience of the SP in government, the party has, at every stage of its development, weighed up the situation in which it found itself and taken intelligent and almost invariably correct and successful decisions; secondly, to turn its back on government would lose it all credibility with the Dutch electorate and condemn it to return to the fringe, to a protest politics which it has long outgrown and to which it is no longer suited.
It remains likely, however, that the other parties will take the decision out of the SP’s hands, doing a deal which would exclude their participation in government. The Netherlands has a recent history of what are termed ‘purple’ coalitions, made up of centre-right and centre-left. Though Labour voted against the austerity package agreed last month, there is little evidence that they would rule out governing with those who voted for it and who would need to do no more than cosmetically alter their approach in order to lure the centre-left into a broad ‘government of national unity’. This becomes, perhaps, ironically more likely if the SP emerges as the biggest party. This remains possible, and if it were to happen the Queen would be obliged to invite Emile Roemer to attempt to form a government. Should other parties accept an invitation, however, they would have to accept an SP prime minister and other SP members in senior positions. While Labour might be able to live with a smaller SP in a coalition led by itself, a minority of positions in an SP-dominated cabinet would be an entirely different matter. It is also likely that such a government would attract considerable hostile attention from both Brussels and Washington, as well, of course, from ‘the markets’.
How the SP would deal with all of that cannot be predicted, other than to recall that its record implies, as I say above, that it would do so intelligently. For the moment, the party is in high spirits, girding its loins for a summer of electoral campaigning. The Golden Tomatoes, the films, the cabaret, and above all the leader’s speech are all greeted with huge enthusiasm by the delegates. The next congress is only weeks away, at the end of June, its purpose to amend and confirm the election manifesto and the list of candidates. As the delegates disperse, the sun is still shining and all seems well. But nobody is under any illusions: the fight to win these elections will be a tough one, and it won’t leave a lot of time for the beach or the - ever popular with Dutch holidaymakers - mountains. What will happen afterwards, however, could be even harder. What may confront the party is the dilemma of how to govern a capitalist country while moving it further along the road to socialism. The alternative will be the continued need to convince the pragmatic Dutch electorate of the utility of voting for a party which others forces seem determined to keep away from power.
Steve McGiffen is Spectre’s editor. He is also the English-language translator for the SP and formerly represented the party on the Secretariat of the European Parliament United Left Group (GUE-NGL).