On Wednesday night, the Dutch elections saw the two parties in the governing coalition lose 37 of the 79 seats they now hold between them. That’s a massive defeat frankly. Yet, the Prime Minister’s party is spinning this as a win. And for some reason, the international press is focusing on the underwhelming gain of the anti-Euro PVV party as if that’s the big takeaway. It isn’t.
I was watching the Dutch news last night. And all of the politicians from the Labour Party – one of the Netherlands’ traditional parties —that were featured expressed a degree of incomprehension over the devastation their party suffered in the election. They now have 9 seats versus 38, a historic loss. There was a clip in which party Leader Lodewijk Asscher told supporters on the night of the election that he accepted the loss but that he would still fight on for the values of the party. I thought the clip of Asscher was quite revealing and tells a story about what has happened to Social Democratic parties in general – especially when you look at the resurgence of the SPD party with Martin Schulz in Germany across the border.
Take a look at this Twitter message from outgoing Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem in English. It’s the most recent thing posted on his Twitter page
A very disappointing result for my PvdA. But the vast majority of voters rejected the extreme populists. Which gives hope for the future.
— Jeroen Dijsselbloem (@J_Dijsselbloem)
It follows a similar same message in his native Dutch about ‘fighting for you’.
Teneergeslagen maar niet verslagen na deze uitslag. Veel dank aan alle vrijwilligers en PvdA-kiezers. We gaan elke dag voor hen knokken.
— Jeroen Dijsselbloem (@J_Dijsselbloem)
First of all, it’s worth asking why Dijsselbloem sent the tweet in English at all since he has no constituency that speaks English. Maybe the message was intended for his ‘wider EU constituency’ given his position as the Eurogroup President. If so, it was not well received because, if you look at the responses, it is filled with abuse from people upset about Dijsselbloem’s role as enforcer in the Troika’s administration of Greece’s bailout program.
And I think this goes to the problem with the Labour Party in the Netherlands, as well as other social democratic parties elsewhere in Europe. Dijsselbloem and Asscher talk of ‘fighting for you’ while supporting policies in Greece that have cut pensions, raised taxes and impoverished many in the middle class. They talk of the inevitability of this outcome due to Greek mismanagement – and that message resonates with some. But the fact that they have supported similar policies on a lesser scale in the Netherlands as part of the governing coalition tells voters that the policies in Greece are just more extreme versions of the policies they want for the Netherlands.
Moreover, the only reason they are in a coalition with the VVD is because the 2010 coalition, led by the VVD, collapsed when anti-euro politician Geert WIlders withdrew his support for the government over austerity, forcing new elections in 2012. Now, five years later, after Wilders got his comeuppance, voters have reassessed their priorities and found the Labour Party wanting.
My view: The Labour Party, like all social democratic parties in the West, has ‘modernized’. That means moving toward market-based and pragmatic, responsible budgetary solutions. And it also means they have liberalized labour markets to make them more flexible, believing this would create jobs and cement their position as guardians of the values of ordinary labourers.
This approach is no longer working electorally. It worked under Clinton in the US in 92, under Blair in the UK in 97 and under Schröder in Germany in 98. But it is basically working nowhere in Europe or the United States now as a calling card for left of center parties. The real message of the Dutch election is that the Labour Party is not considered a ‘labour’ party by many workers. And those workers have been forced to decide whether to support more nationalist politicians and platforms to get what they want or to stay home.
German Social Democratic Chancellor candidate Martin Schulz understands this and is running a pro-labour platform in Germany — not a populist platform, but a traditional, old-school, pro-labour one. And so far, he is making inroads. It is important to note that during the recent German Karneval season, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was at pains to defend the liberalization policies of her predecessor from Schulz. She said that Schulz was running away from Schröder’s reforms as if he were “ashamed”. It will be interesting to see how voters in Germany see this.
Arguably Emmanuel Macron has done the same in France that Schulz has done, by the way. And he is benefitting as a result. He could become the next President.
Populist candidates are filling a void left by old-school social democrats who have become ‘New Labour’. Electorates feel a base level of financial and professional insecurity that dominates political movement. And populists speak to that insecurity. Any mainstream politician who doesn’t learn this lesson will lose support. And that’s what the Dutch election was all about.
Post-script: Dijsselbloem has just updated his twitter feed with an English-language message about visiting Baden-Baden in Germany for a G-20 summit. The first post-election message is in English and about world events. It speaks to priorities. Dutch voters will instinctively understand this.