Netherlands: Socialist Party leads in polls ahead of September general election

Working class faces battle against cuts

The previous right-wing Dutch government, composed of two traditional capitalist parties (Liberals and Christian Democrats) and supported by the extreme right-wing Freedom Party, collapsed last April, over the implementation of an extra round of 14 billion euro worth of cuts. Geert Wilders, leader of the Freedom Party, said it was no longer acceptable to make pensioners suffer for the problems of the EU. Wilders recently shifted his fire from Islam to the EU, in an attempt to regain votes he lost after participating in the coalition government.

After the government collapsed, the EU insisted on extra cuts. Five parties got together in parliament: the Christian Democrats, the Liberals, the Green Lefts, the Christian Union and D66 (another neo-liberal party). They agreed on an extra 14 billion euro cuts package that was even worse than that planned by the previous government. The new plan includes raising the retirement age even higher, starting next year, and an easing of restrictions on firing workers. Even right wing commentators agree that this means employers will fire workers over the age of 50 on a massive scale. The coalition of five parties, called the ‘Kunduz coalition’ after the combination of parties that voted to send police trainers to Afghanistan, holds a small majority and is likely to lose after the parliament elections next September.

Socialist Party

A polling race is developing between the Liberal Party and the Socialist Party. The latter is the largest party, winning a projected 29 seats, followed by the Liberal Party, on 25 seats, and the PVV in third place, on 24. Polls are notoriously incorrect in predicting the previous elections, so the results will have to be awaited.

The Socialist Party’s polling lead shows huge disaffection amongst Dutch workers with the right-wing, pro-cuts main parties and also the great potential for a genuine socialist alternative.

What is the character of the Socialist Party? Founded in October 1972, the Dutch Socialist Party (SP) abandoned ‘Maoism’ and as a broader Left formation took part in workers’ and social struggles. The shift to the right by the Dutch Labour Party in the 1980s and 1990s allowed the SP space to grow as a radical left alternative. Today the party claims over 46,000 members nationwide, which it claims is made up of “factory workers and students, nurses and maintenance engineers, accountants and boat-builders, school students and pensioners”. The SP has 15 MPs, 8 Senators, 2 MEPs and over 320 representatives on local councils and in provincial assemblies. The party states that it campaigns “for social justice and against neoliberalism and the diktat of the market”.

Coalition with pro-capitalist forces

Clearly many workers and youth are looking to the SP to act in their class interests should the party come to power in September. However, there were similar high hopes in the Socialist Party in 2006 when it won 25 seats in parliament out of a total of 150 seats. When the SP failed to take up workers’ interests sufficiently in face of the start of the global economic crisis in 2007/8, disappointment amongst SP voters and sympathisers set in. One of the main beneficiaries of the mood at the time was Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV), which combined anti-Islamist policies with verbal opposition to cuts in the welfare state.

While the polls show many voters want an anti-cuts, pro-worker government, the Socialist Party leadership indicates it wants to move towards a coalition with pro-capitalist parties. In cities and in Dutch provinces, like Brabant, the SP has already entered local administrations. The leader of the Socialist Party, Emil Roemer, was an alderman in Brabant, as part of a local coalition with the Liberal Party. He announced that he wants to repeat that experience on a national level. As an indication of the coalitionist approach of the SP leadership, some leading figures have recently said they are considering renaming the party the “Social Party”! A SP coalition with other ‘mainstream’ parties with a track-record of making cuts, like the Labour Party, the Green Lefts or the Christian Democrats, is a real possibility after future elections.

Socialists are not opposed in principle to working with other parties on concrete issues, as long as there is principled opposition to cuts and other attacks on the rights and conditions of working people. But joining or supporting a coalition government which attacks workers’ rights and living standards has to be firmly opposed.

However, the Dutch Socialist Party website (English language) indicates a willingness to compromise with pro-cuts, capitalist parties:

“The SP recognises the special responsibilities which a role in government, of which it already has experience at local level, brings along with it. Financial management within policy frameworks which are the result of compromise with other parties, deciding when to compromise and when to stand firm, to determine whether a proposal is a step in the right direction or a purely cosmetic sop, none of this is straightforward for a party which wants to change the Netherlands and the world. Yet whether in government or opposition, the SP is committed to everyday contact with the man and woman in the street.”

The top of the Socialist Party has recently decided that its main reason for existence is to get into government, which in the Netherlands means joining in a coalition with pro-austerity parties after the elections on September 12.

For a socialist alternative

Supporters of Socialist Alternative, the Dutch section of the CWI, have participated in the SP for a number of years and call for the party to firmly reject all cuts and neo-liberalism and to adopt socialist policies. Only in this way, can the SP be in tune with the needs of the “man and woman in the street”, the working class and youth.

A socialist party with bold, socialist policies could make a huge difference in the situation in the Netherlands. But a ‘Socialist Party’ that tries to manage capitalism better than the capitalist political parties, or even calls for them to form a future governing coalition, means no real progress at all for Dutch workers and the poor.

If the Socialist Party participates in a coalition with cuts-making capitalist parties, it will prove disastrous for working people and will lead to disappointment for big sections of the working class and youth.

The SP has already seriously disappointed voters in the city of Leiden, where it approved a new busy road through a residential area. The SP had campaigned with local people against the road but approved it when in coalition with the Liberal Party in the local provincial government.

The only real viable perspective for the Dutch Socialist Party is to aim to win support from working people, the unemployed and youth by boldly opposing cuts and the erosion of the welfare state, and by putting forward a clear socialist alternative: jobs for all, a properly funded education and health service, decent and affordable housing, opposition to imperialist wars and so on. Only when the big banks and main planks of the economy are taken into public ownership, under the democratic control and management of working people, will the huge resources of society be employed to meet the needs of working-class people.

The SP must also have open and democratic structures if it is to attract new layers of workers and youth. Bold socialist policies and decisive union resistance to cuts and appealing for working-class unity, can also cut across the poisonous lies of Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party. Otherwise, the perception that the Left failed can provide space for the Freedom Party or other right wing, populist, anti-immigrant parties and forces to grow in the polls, posing a real danger to workers’ unity.

Coming cuts

Dutch politics may be complicated, but one thing is certain: after 12 September there will be an expectation from the Dutch ruling class that a new government will carry out huge cuts. If a new government attempts to carry out such anti-working-class measures, there will be large-scale protests, just as there were against the austerity policies of the previous government, when students, artists, and public sector trade unions all went onto the streets, albeit separately.

So far, the Dutch anti-cuts protests have not achieved the scale of the general strikes seen in other European countries, including in neighbouring Belgium, but there will be no lack of protests against future austerity. However the situation in the Dutch trade unions is an obstacle.

Trade unions

A conflict over how to deal with pensions led to the trade union federation FNV (Federation of Dutch Trade Unions) to formally disband itself and to decide to reorganize. Initially it was proposed that the outcome of the re-organization would mean smaller unions and weaker representation on a national level. Conveniently for the ruling class, smaller unions would dissolve the left opposition in the two largest unions. All in all, the new set-up would have made the trade union movement less able to fight the cuts on a national level.

At the moment, it looks like the larger unions will not give up their independence, so the situation will remain largely unchanged. But almost a year has passed without any large-scale mobilization against the cuts. Socialist Alternative, the Dutch section of the CWI, has called for a 24-hour ‘warning strike’ against the cuts of a future government in the week before the elections on 12 September.

The strength of the Dutch labour movement is a far cry from the seventies. In that period combative unions successfully won cost of living adjustments and defended the working class against the attacks of the employers. The situation in the Labour Party (Partij van de Arbeid) was far from ideal, but despite some of its top-down bureaucratic methods, the working class was politically represented. Now the trade union movement is in retreat and although the SP has partially stepped into the space created by Labour’s shift to the right, there is not yet a mass political party for the workers. In the early nineties, the Labour Party went over to neo-liberalism and joined the Liberal Party in a coalition. It ceased to represent the working class. The Socialist Party in the Netherlands took this role over to a certain extent when it was a ‘protest’ party.

The Dutch labour movement has to be re-built almost from the bottom. It will take time to reconstruct the union movement and even more time before there is a broad workers’ party (a left opposition to future government participation by the SP – insides and outside the SP – could play a role in this process). But one could say that in the Netherlands the right-wing government has fallen even before the working class showed its teeth – a warning to all future governments that want to implement cuts. A new government, even if it is headed by the Socialist Party, will probably enjoy only a short honeymoon. Trade union resistance will not be postponed forever; it is only a matter of time.

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July 2012