Dutch social democracy and the recent elections

By Max Lane — In June and July in the Netherlands, almost all polls were showing a strong surge in support for the Socialist Party (SP). The polls predicted that the SP would increase its seats from 15 to 35 in the 150-seat parliament. The SP was polling as the largest party with about 20% support, ahead of the historical party of social democracy, the Labor Party (PvdA). Various conservative parties, however, led by the dominant party in the government, the VVD, and including the racist, right-wing populist Freedom Party, were still polling together more than 50%.

All the same, the SP could rightfully claim to be the party with the largest support at that time. However, by the time of the elections on September 12, its support had collapsed back to 2010 levels. The SP won no extra seats.

Instead, the VVD increased its seats by 10, the PvdA by eight. Many working-class voters returned to the historical party of social democracy. The VVD won a lot of votes from the other right-wing parties, the Christian Democrats and Freedom Party. It is very likely that the Netherlands will return to a “Tory-Labor” (VVD-PvdA) coalition — the so-called “Purple Coalition” that the country suffered between 1994 and 2002. D66, a pro-market formation comparable to the British Liberal Democrats, was also part of that coalition. That was the first period of neoliberal withdrawal of welfare benefits, privatisations and tax reductions for the Dutch capitalist class, continued by following conservative-dominated governments.

When the PvdA helped put in place the Purple Coalition, it represented a severe turn to the right for Dutch social democracy. PvdA leader Wim Kok famously said that the party was losing its “ideological feathers”. Wim Kok was praised by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton for being the first “third way” politician.

The groundwork for this right turn was already laid in 1982 when the PvdA-dominated trade unions committed themselves to wage restraint in the so-called “Akkoord van Wassenaar” (Wassenaar Treaty) with the employers’ organisations. This followed a 1970s period of increasing struggles and wage rises of up to 14%. After the Wassenaar Treaty, unions never got more than 5%.

As the PvdA moved to the right, space opened to its left. The SP filled that space with a consistent opposition to the shift to the right and a defence of welfare state social democracy, including electoral grassroots activism to win council seats on a platform of defending low rents, opposing cuts and fighting polluting factories.

Here we can locate the unique success of the SP — at least up until now. Activists on the Dutch left often point out the lack of social struggles in the Netherlands over the last two decades. The PvdA’s participation in the Purple Coalition demobilised the unions. Neither were there later major, sustained movements against war (despite the Dutch participation in the occupation of Afghanistan) or even against racism, despite two waves of rightist, racist electoral populism. There may have been space to the left of the PvdA during the last two decades, but there was little motion.

From the 1994 general elections, with a slogan of “Vote Against”, the SP began to fill that electoral space. It won two seats in parliament. Over the next five elections, it reached 25 seats in 2006, declined to 15 in 2010, and won 15 again in 2012. This was remarkable growth for a party previously completely outside the “mainstream”. The key to this electoral success for a left social democratic party in an era when the traditional party of social democracy had moved firmly to the right has been the SP’s unique kind of specialisation in electoral politics.

Innovative electoral tactics

I was often in contact with and met leaders and activists of the SP in the 1990s, seeking their solidarity for the Indonesian People’s Democratic Party (PRD), the small radical activist group spearheading the mass protest strategy against the Suharto dictatorship. I made this contact as a leader of the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) in Australia (in which I was active from 1981 until I was expelled in 2008 along with 50 other members.) The SP did provide solidarity to the PRD, publishing articles about it in their press, raising the issue of political prisoners in Indonesia in parliament and providing some material support. However, it was Marxist activists from the Socialist Workers Party (SAP), the Dutch section of the Fourth International, who did the on-the-ground campaigning for solidarity with the PRD. (Almost all of these Dutch Marxist activists later left the SAP as it drifted away from a focused party-building project.)

I became fascinated with the SP’s brand of electoralism and, at the time, thought there was something to be learned from its approach. The SP leadership appeared to have set itself the task of perfecting the art of presenting a left parliamentary opposition to neoliberal policies, consciously eschewing any extra-parliamentary strategy. Of course, all social democratic parties are fundamentally parliamentarist. But “normal” social democratic parliamentarism evolved out of a long history of betrayal and rotting out from just prior to World War I onwards, based on capital’s possibility of buying off sections of workers and their leaders, creating a co-opted trade union bureaucracy. It was a process of gradual adaptation, parties always pretending to be still basing themselves on the organisation and mobilisation of the working class. Only the British Fabians were honest parliamentarists.

In some ways the SP is a left Fabian party. Its leaders, all activists and not trade union bureaucrats, made no pretences of seeking any other path to government than through winning elections. It made no attempt to provide political leadership for the labour movement, through either the trade unions or any other social movement mobilisations.

The SP set out to find the style, gimmicks and marketing through which its message of defence of the welfare state against the neoliberals could be best transmitted. I think they did it honestly, not as a manifestation of the protection of the privileges of trade union bureaucrats or other immediate material interests. The atmosphere at SP meetings, while not that of a movement-based left party, was also not that of a corrupted, morally bankrupt, long-time class collaborationist social democratic party, which is so much the norm since the 1980s (if not before).

There were two early symbols of the seriousness and cleverness of the SP’s approach. The first was the strict principle, still implemented today, of SP MPs surrendering a significant portion of their salary to the party. This was a statement against careerism and emphasising a commitment of “service to the people”. There have been cases of MPs and council members who, because they have refused to implement this principle, have been forced out of the SP even at the cost of the party losing a member of its parliamentary or council fraction.

The second was the very clever choice of the tomato as a party symbol. This was a conscious rejection of traditional left symbols, yet the round, red, non-threatening tomato was easily understood as a symbol of opposition, of tegen, of “against”. Tomatoes had been used by demonstrators in the ’60s to pelt conservative politicians. The SP also developed its website and invented other marketing techniques. Its strength as a communicator was boosted by the much liked, outspoken and anti-establishment oratory of Jan Marijnissen, the leader of the SP’s parliamentary fraction, who consistently defended in parliament the Dutch social welfare system.

2012 congress

I came in contact again with the SP in July this year, when I was invited by its secretary-general, Hans van Heijningen, to attend an SP congress. Van Heijningen had not been an SP member in the 1990s but had headed a Third World solidarity NGO, which had also been a supporter of the Indonesian PRD.

The 2012 congress occurred at a time when SP members were buoyed by their surge in the polls and the likelihood of a strong showing in the September elections. There was much informal discussion, and formal acknowledgment, that the SP might have enough seats in the parliament to force the other parties to consider approaching it to join a governing coalition.

The SP congress startled me. I have attended many left and progressive political gatherings over the last 40 years. This was one of the biggest, with more than 1300 delegates on the floor, but also, without doubt, the strangest. The atmosphere appeared to have been completely depoliticised. There were no book stalls, banners, placards or leaflets. There was no sense of activism. In the whole congress centre, there was just one banner with the SP’s new slogan, very much in the style of marketing — the meaningless “New Confidence”.

I spent almost the full day listening to the discussions, with a Dutch translator. Party members and MPs took turns speaking. Most of the points raised were on minor platform issues. However, from time to time a member would raise concerns that the leadership was making too many concessions to the pro-austerity parties. The SP, while posturing against the European Stability Pact’s demand that the budget deficit of EU countries be below 3% of GDP in 2013, accepted the same goal for 2015. An increase in the pension age from 65 to 67 after 2025 was accepted as inevitable. A few members questioned these matters, and also the leadership’s reluctance to support an increase in the minimum wage. The MPs all argued down these criticisms, calling for the members to be “realistic”.

One factor in the SP’s electoral success has been its consistent defence of the welfare state, at least until 2012 (and, even then, despite its concessions, it remained to the left of the PvdA). The other factor has been the effort and skills and investment in creating a popular electoral presentation, deliberately never trying to mobilise punch or power in the extra-parliamentary sphere. Street actions were for media purposes only. The methods were aimed at filling an electoral space in a time of no motion.

For or against?

The SP is now reaping the negative side of this approach. Perhaps this outcome was signalled in 2002, when it changed its 1994 electoral slogan, Stem Tegen, “Vote Against”, to Stem Voor, “Vote For”. This change reflected the fundamental flaw of the SP’s strategy, even given its limited goal of defending the welfare state. In the era of the neoliberal offensive against the living standards of the world’s peoples, even limited goals can be achieved only through a serious, committed and militant fight. Tegen (against), in the face of that offensive, captured the spirit of what is immediately necessary: a fight back. A fight against a committed neoliberal capitalist class, assisted by a rightist populist sector, needs organisation and mobilisation independent from electoral campaigning, however much the two may dovetail at some points.

The SP’s peaks of popularity reflected the fact that, in a period of “space” without movement, progressive sentiment can still grow and even deepen. The 20% support for the SP at its peaks reflected rejection of neoliberal austerity. But the SP has never sought to transform that sentiment into the energy of political movement. This is not to say the SP members are not activists. Many of them are. Dutch friends always comment that it is the SP members who are handing out leaflets and propagandising for anti-neoliberal policies at events. But these are always in an electoral framework, calling on people to vote for SP candidates, not to organise and mobilise.

Also, it is clear that a sentiment in solidarity with fighters exists among SP members. At the congress I attended, the one big burst of political energy occurred when a leader of a militant, months-long cleaners’ strike took the floor. The delegates broke into a spontaneous standing ovation.

Convincing people to vote against encroachments on their rights and entitlements, being an electoral opposition to neoliberal policies, left less options for cooption. Tegen is tegen. Turning themselves into a party that specialises in electoral campaigning voor something, but something that is “realistic” under the current balance of class forces, undermines even their originally genuine left social democratic project. This is an even deeper dilemma, when they have never considered extra-parliamentary politics, never developed any experience of strength.

From all accounts, during the election campaign it became even clearer that the SP was not trying to mobilise anti-austerity sentiment to fight austerity but to find a path into government in order somehow to manoeuvre past or around or even through austerity. To the extent that the SP’s popularity manifested the sentiment for tegen, 2012’s more serious voor was bound to disappoint. If you thought you had to rely on manoeuvring around austerity in government, better go for those expert in that, the PvdA.

The SP’s failure to peak again was not due to the lack of motion in the space to the left of the PvdA but to its inability to lead what oppositional sentiment did exist in that space and which was reflected in earlier polls. Ultimately, this inability is tied to the total reliance on electoral politics. You can’t simply out-market conservative and reactionary politics; you have to fight them.

Of course, this raises another issue. Once you start to fight the backers of neoliberalism — the capitalist class — the idea must be considered that the best way to fight is to break that class’s power altogether. That is a big task and requires a lot of preliminary work to convince people that such a fight can and must be won. Convincing people of that task, is, of course, the task of revolutionaries.

Direct Action — September 21, 2012