Netherlands: The rise of the Dutch Socialist Party

New right wing government formed – What way forward for Left opposition?

Last November’s Netherlands elections saw major gains for the Dutch Socialist Party, which won large working-class support for its anti-neo-liberal and anti-war message. The results rocked the establishment in the Netherlands but were warmly welcomed by the left and many workers across Europe.

After months of backroom negotiations, a new coalition government was finally formed in mid-February 2007, led by Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, leader of the Christian Democrats (CDA). Balkenende will govern with coalition with the Labour Party (PvdA) and the small Christian Union (CU) party. After the elections, the CDA remained the strongest parliamentary party with 41 seats, the PvdA holds 33 seats, and the CU has 6. The new coalition has a majority of 80 out of 150 seats in Parliament.

Last November’s elections saw all the major parties lost votes and seats. Votes were re-distributed along broad left and right lines. As well as important gains for the SP, the far-right, anti-immigrant Party for Freedom (PVV) advanced, as did the Christian Union. As an indication of electoral volatility and voters’ radicalisation the ‘Party for Animals’ also won a seat.

But it is the vote for the opposition Socialist Party that attracted most attention. The Socialist Party (SP) doubled its seats in local councils, and almost tripled its seats in the Dutch parliament’s main legislative chamber to 25 (16.3% of the total vote). It is now the third largest party in the Netherlands, both in seats and membership (currently just over 50,000). Over the next few years, it is possible the party can overtake the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA) to become the second biggest party in the country after the Christian Democrats (CDA). How has this success come about and what are the prospects for the SP?

The Dutch Socialist Party was founded in 1972 as a split from the Communist Party. The SP embraced Maoism but by the early 1990s, ‘Marxism-Leninism’ was ‘cast off’ (in reality, it had been years before) and the SP projected a ‘broader’ appeal. From the 1970s, the SP built local activist networks. Space on the left opened up as the PvdA, the traditional party of the working class, moved to the right and in the 1990s became part of the neo-liberal ‘Purple Government’ coalition. The SP’s active opposition to cuts and the growing social divide led to poll gains at local and parliamentary levels.

The SP’s biggest gains came during the last few years of social, political and industrial turmoil in the Netherlands. With the background of severe austerity measures, rising joblessness, slow economic growth and a mounting budget deficit, the 2002 general election saw the SP win nearly 600,000 votes.

Union protests

But the newly formed, right-wing populist, Pim Fortuyn List made the most spectacular gains.

By supporting enormous union demonstrations and protests against the government’s policies in 2004, and by campaigning for a ‘No’ vote during the 2005 EU constitution referendum (which Dutch voters defeated by two thirds), the SP was widely regarded as being to the forefront of the anti-neo-liberal struggle. This was shown by the party doubling its local council seats, in 2006, and tripling its representation in parliament.

After the polls closed, SP leaders spent weeks afterwards trying to reach agreement with some of the main parties to form a ‘left coalition’ government. Many SP voters and supporters, desperate to end years of social cuts, hoped the SP could, at least, stop or slow down cuts when in power with the main parties.

Offensief, the Dutch section of the CWI, which participates in the SP, is not, in principle, against participating in coalitions, but argues that the SP should only negotiate sharing power with clearly anti-cuts and anti-neo-liberal parties. The two main parties the SP discussed with – the PvdA and CDA – had a record of making deep cuts and indicated that they intend to carry out more.

The CDA rejected the SP leaders’ overtures, and a new right-wing coalition is now formed, including the social democratic PvdA. Offensief calls for the SP to fight the next elections with socialist policies, and to aim for a majority socialist government.

The new right-wing government will probably be unstable and weak. The prospect of the SP making big gains at the expense of the PvdA means that PvdA leaders will have to continually look over their shoulders while in government.

No doubt under pressure from the PvdA, the new coalition presents itself as a ‘centre-left alliance’, instead of a ‘liberal- right’ coalition, like the previous administration. The three-party coalition agreed a “shift back to the centre”, after four years of right wing government that slashed welfare spending and hard-line, anti-immigrant policies. Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende announced the ‘centrist coalition’ will grant an amnesty to thousands of ‘illegal’ immigrants, cut greenhouse emissions and leave in place the Netherlands drug and euthanasia policies. The new administration also pledged 7 billion euro worth increased spending on healthcare, education and ‘regenerating’ city areas. Balkenende claims he will cut crime by 25%.

What lies behind the ‘package of reforms’ by the three ruling parties is their deep anxiety about the SP’s big gains, potential further successes for the left, and widening political polarisation in society. The main parties look with trepidation at the increasing radicalisation of Dutch workers and youth and their overwhelming opposition to cuts, neo-liberalism and imperialism.

But, in essence, the CDA, PvdA and CU coalition will continue with neo-liberal policies. The promised extra welfare spending will not add up to fundamental changes in the welfare system, which suffered years of cut backs and under-funding. And at the same time, the government pledges to ‘reform’ (i.e. attack) the pension system and worker-disability programme.

While the new government said it will not change some social legislation, in concessions to the right wing Christian Union, it was reported the coalition will “invest more” in “counseling for women seeking abortions”, as well as “ordering a cooling-off period before abortions to allow pregnant women to reconsider their decision.”

The Balkenende administration also pledged to continue supplying troops for ‘international peace-keeping operations’, like the Western occupation of Afghanistan, and to go ahead with the development of the US-led Joint Strike Fighter jet.

Despite Dutch voters rejecting the proposed European Constitution – which was an attempt to increase neo-liberal policies across the EU – in a 2005 referendum, the coalition announced it will “strive for reform and bundling of European Union treaties”.

SP’s programme

In opposition, the SP successfully attacked the caretaker government’s domestic and foreign agenda. Yet a closer look at the SP’s policies and programme shows big deficiencies. During the election campaign, the SP called for welcome reforms for working people, like improved healthcare, index-linked pensions, affordable housing, and an end to child poverty. But these minimum demands were not developed and the question of the overall ownership and control of the economy was not clearly addressed. The party stated, “Train, bus, gas and light should again belong to us all”. It is not clear whether this means public ownership or a ‘mixed’ public-private model. Moreover, does the PS consider it acceptable for the private sector/market to play a dominant role in other areas of the economy?

Offensief supports many of the social and economic demands of the SP but argues that they must be developed into a full socialist programme to meet working people’s needs. This includes nationalising the main utilities, like transport and electricity, and other key pillars of the economy, under democratic workers’ control and management. Socialists should, of course, fight for every possible reform for working people. But recent years of social cuts show the crisis of Dutch capitalism means the ruling class will try to take back the hard won social gains of the working class.

On international policy, the SP opposed NATO’s bombing of Serbia, and the Dutch governments’ support for the occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the parliamentary party voted to send UN ‘missions’ across the world, even though the UN’s function is, fundamentally, to enhance the position of imperialism at the expense of the people of the neo-colonial world. The SP also has illusions in bodies like the World Trade Organisation which, like the World Bank and IMF, is an exploitative institution of big business and imperialism.

The SP is correct to point out that ‘liberalisation’ of the EU labour market is used by the bosses in the West to drive down wages and working conditions. But it is completely wrong for the SP to have decided that it is “opposed to allowing Eastern European workers access to the Dutch labour market”. Not only is this demand impractical – the Netherlands already has high levels of immigrant labour – it can also play into the hands of right-wing, demagogic politicians and racists. Instead, the SP should support the union organisation of all workers, including immigrant labour, to resist bosses’ attacks on wages and conditions. This has to be combined with united workers’ campaigns for housing, health and education.

Entering right coalition = disaster for SP

Following the Christian Democrats spurning SP attempts to form a new government the party will most likely continue to grow, as working people will regard it as a left opposition to the government. The SP could become the second largest party by the next elections, giving the main bosses’ parties even bigger headaches when trying to form a new coalition. The SP would be viewed by the Dutch bosses as too susceptible to the moods and demands of the working class.

The SP wins wide poll support but its programme is not even as developed as previous left reformist parties. The SP does not call for a clear break with capitalism and a socialist society. The logic of its limited reformist policies is to enter a coalition government, to ‘manage’ capitalism better for working people. Already, the SP is in local council coalitions that carry out privatisations, such as in Nijmegen, where the local bus service was sold off. Participating in a national coalition dominated by right-wing parties would be a huge mistake that would jeopardise the future of the SP. It would mean collaborating in making cuts. Many workers would be disillusioned with the SP in office and the party’s vote could fall drastically. This would be a big blow for workers looking for a viable alternative and a complicating factor in the struggle to create a new mass workers’ party in the Netherlands.

However, the SP is likely to continue to play a role in Dutch politics, even if it makes serious political mistakes. The party is over 30 years old, with an established leadership and newspaper. It has traditions and influence among at least a section of workers and a relatively large and predominantly working-class membership, although a mainly passive one. The Dutch working class will give the SP a chance to prove itself, although not indefinitely if the SP acts against workers’ interests when in power. Furthermore, as last November’s polls revealed, the electorate is polarised broadly on left and right lines, and disillusionment with the SP could give more space to the populist, anti-immigrant right, like the xenophobic Party for Freedom (PVV).

To be successful, the SP needs to adopt bold socialist policies. A full discussion and debate among the party membership on the way forward is urgently needed. This also involves creating more democratic and open party structures, instead of the present heavy-handed centralisation. It requires developing a much more campaigning party, involving wide sections of the working class and youth, to lead the fight-back against new government attacks.

In this way, a mass, campaigning party, with a clear socialist programme, can be built. This would enable the SP to contest the next elections from a powerful position; to campaign for a majority socialist government.

A version of this article appears in the February issue of Socialism Today, monthly magazine of the Socialist Party (CWI England and Wales)

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