The Dutch Labour party (PvdA) is in a coalition government with the conservative-liberal political party (VVD) of Prime Minister Mark Rutte: recent local elections saw them lose significant traditional strongholds, with their support falling to 10%. The elections appear to signify an historic shift towards ever greater social fragmentation as ‘Big Tent’ parties fail to bridge different interests and voices.
Social-democratic parties are good at licking their wounds after election defeats, conducting brilliant post-election analysis of what went wrong; but they are rather bad at strategic reflections on their performance while in government. The Dutch Labour Party, PvdA, is again a case-in-point.
The Labour party lost big time in the midterm municipal elections on Wednesday 19 March. Really big time: it was a historical bloodbath. For the first time in nearly a century, it lost the Red Big Cities, the traditional stronghold of Dutch social democracy. It lost Amsterdam. It lost Rotterdam. It lost The Hague, Enschede and Groningen.
Nationwide, Labour took just over 10% of the vote, down from 15% four years ago: a major drubbing, representing a loss of 1/3 of their vote. The other government party, Prime Minister Rutte’s VVD, fell from 15% to just under 12%.
The big winners of these local elections were: the non-voters (the turn-out was an all-time low of 53%), the local parties all over the country (they got a combined 30% of the vote); D66, the social liberal party for urban academics which became the biggest party in nearly all big cities (12.8%); and to a lower extent (6.5%), the Socialist Party (SP) which managed to penetrate the Social Democratic North of the Netherlands.
The Labour party had to fight a multi-front election struggle. In Amsterdam, there was a big battle between the ‘migrant-party’ (Labour) and D66, a social-liberal party for academic professionals. In Rotterdam, the opponent of the Labour party was Leefbaar Rotterdam, the party once erected by the late Pim Fortuyn, which is an anti-migration, law and order party for non-academic professionals. In the rural areas of the Netherlands, the big opponent was the Socialist Party (SP), which took over large parts of former social-democratic heartland in the province of Groningen: The Red North.
Wilders’ extremism masks a historical electoral shift
The seemingly historical shift in this local election – D66 taking over in big affluent cities; SP and PVV gaining ground in more depressed rural areas with a shrinking population – has been totally overshadowed by the actions of maverick politician Geert Wilders. Although PVV ran elections in only two cities, Wilders was very present in the ‘nationalised’ election campaign. He caused a big row on election night.
At the night gathering of his PVV party, Wilders crossed all limits of hate-speech, public decency and democratic-constitutional integrity, by leading his followers in an anti-Moroccan chant. He brutally asked whether the audience wanted “more or fewer Moroccans’’ in Holland. His followers responded by chanting: ‘Fewer, fewer, fewer!’ TV-footage of this nasty event caused a storm of shock and rejection all over the Netherlands. Social organisations, churches, media, other political parties: all reacted in the strongest possible words, accusing Wilders of threatening a whole ethnic community and poisoning the inter-ethnic relations in the Netherlands.
Wilders seems to have radicalised further after his pan-European alliance with Le Pen’s Front National, ‘Vlaams Belang’ and the Austrian FPÖ. Now, for the first time, a kind of cordon sanitaire has been put forward by all other Dutch parties. His PVV party is imploding. Many PVV politicians, including two members of parliament, are leaving his party, stating that Wilders crossed a line, and the PVV is on a steep hill downward in the polls.
Mid-term blues? Labour’s post-election wounds
In the meantime, the Labour party is licking its post-election wounds. The Labour leader in Amsterdam stepped down. There was some fear for a resignation domino effect, but only a few journalists put pressure on Labour leader Diederik Samsom. Lodewijk Asscher (Labour leader in the cabinet) and Samsom reconfirmed that they will continue the responsibility of Labour in government, and said that in the medium term there will be results of economic recovery which will benefit all. New jobs, a reformed housing market and health care system, economic growth and stability.
Some expect that the already vulnerable government construction of a Grand Coalition of Opposites – VVD and PvdA – supported by the three most beloved, constructive opposition parties, D66, CU and SGP, will have tough times ahead. Especially D66, the winner of the local elections, will likely bring in more of its demands, potentially unsettling delicate compromises.
Back to the election results themselves. The Labour party is back into soul-searching, reflection, repentance: what went wrong again? Why this electoral bloodbath? As always, a cascade of causes and circumstances has rained-down in the days and weeks after the election. We enter the Oracle of Delphi-state of politics again: everyone is coming up with explanations, reasons, excuses, alibis.
Some professionals say: just swallow it, don’t look back in anger. Midterm elections are unwinnable by unpopular governments. Period. Nobody can govern during a disrupting eurocrisis and win midterm elections. Nobody can win elections when ‘too big to fail’ banks are rescued and ‘too irrelevant to care about’ young generations are being sacrificed. Nobody can win elections when economic recovery is simply too late.
Most other explanatory analysis focuses on the performance of VVD and PvdA in government: huge austerity measures, especially in care for the elderly, as well as ill-understood reforms and decentralisation operations which produce insecurity and fear. From the start, the cabinet has struggled with a credibility problem. PvdA and VVD campaigned fiercely against each other, but ended up in a political marriage. Then they executed harsh austerity politics against the promise of a post-Third Way “back to the roots’’ reorientation of social democracy. A story of broken expectations.
In some quarters there is thus a very simple formula to explain the bad election result: the VVD has been not right-wing enough in the new purple coalition; the PvdA has not been left-wing enough. And Christian-Democrat CDA (the natural opposition party in the centre) has not been seen as a credible governing party. So the field was open for new contenders: D66, SP, PVV, local parties, non-voting.
Other causes mentioned refer to a huge ‘democratic disconnection’, visible in the amount of non-voters; and to a process of ”localisation’’, the strong rise of local parties together with the increasing disappearance of ‘national’ parties in local communities.
But what makes this election result an existential one is the extent of the losses and the symbolic loss of Amsterdam and the Red North: it reignites deep anxieties about the weaknesses of contemporary social-democratic parties.
Big tent parties are suffering
New social cleavages are breaking down the traditional Dutch political system. These local elections again demonstrate the crisis of the traditional middle parties in the Netherlands. VVD, PvdA and CDA, the liberal, social-democratic and conservative Big Tent parties all suffer from enormous centrifugal pressures. They have become fragmented. People no longer want to camp in one Big Tent, but prefer individual tents or tents of small groups of lookalikes who share the same lifestyle.
The social-democratic Big Tent parties are vulnerable to this trend, because they tend to house the new cultural conflict lines in postmodern societies: those between cosmopolitan academic professionals, nationalistic-communitarian lower middle class and migrant communities. Here, we encounter a disrupting segmentation of politics by the new social cleavages in our societies. D66, the party for urban (self-employed) professionals, is a clear demonstration of this trend of parties encompassing specific identity groups or lifestyle communities.
In defensive reaction to this development, social-democratic parties tend to stress their technocratic functions instead of big ideas. They point at their unique administrative capacity of taking governmental responsibility in good and bad times, to do what is necessary. Or they point at their function of being a bridge party between different groups in society, but combined with rather conformist policies and political behaviour, this functionalist strategy fails bitterly.
It is always difficult to explain incidental electoral outcomes with structural explanations. However, this electoral result reconfirms Dutch Society polarising along new cultural fault lines, putting massive pressure on the Big Tent centre parties, who increasingly fail to bridge different interests and voices. The space seems to be there for the segmentation of identity and lifestyle, for authenticity culture against grey compromises and technocratic incrementalism.
The biggest electoral enemy for European social-democracy is Europe’s new social cleavages. You don’t need the Oracle of Delphi for that conclusion.
This column was first published by Policy Network