Dutch Social Democracy: Reuniting The Fragmented Left

Rene Cuperus

So, René Cuperus, thank you very much for joining us today in the SWOT analysis project of different social democratic parties across the world. We’re going to talk about the Dutch case today, the PvdA, its position and its strategic objectives.

First of all, what is the historic position of the Social Democratic party in the Dutch political system and where does it stand now?

You should compare the Dutch political system more or less with the German one. There were two post-war people’s parties which were dominant, the Christian Democratic People’s Party and the Social Democratic People’s Party. Those were the dominant forces from the ’50s, from the Second World War.

The Christian Democrats were a bit more dominant than the Social Democrats, exactly the same as in Germany where you have the same kind of more or less even balance between Christian democracy and social democracy.

What we see in the Netherlands is the build-up of a post-war welfare state, like in Germany, like in Scandinavia, like in France or Belgium, like in Western Europe, a liberal democracy and what I would call a post-war, middle-class society.

I think the strength of this combination of Christian democracy and social democracy is that they were able to build a middle-class society combining a rather egalitarian balance between equality and inequality and a social market economy. In that story, the Social Democratic party of the Netherlands, the PvdA, the Labour Party, played a pivotal role.

You can also listen to the podcast version of this interview below

So that’s the start, that’s the historical legacy of the PvdA, that it was one of the pillars of Dutch post-war society. What we see, and it’s a story which is true for all the social democratic parties in Europe, is a permanent revision of social democracy since the Second World War.

First of all, we saw that this party which was the champion of the welfare state radicalised in the ’60s and the ’70s. In the Netherlands, it was a rather extreme radicalisation. The PvdA became more or less a Marxist party or a radical left party. It was penetrated by the new academics, which were the children or grandchildren of the workers. They took over more or less this working-class party.

So, this party transformed from a working-class party to a party for progressives, for hippies, for the emancipation of feminism, of homosexuality, gender equality/identity – these kinds of things. This was the story of the PvdA in the ’60s and ’70s.

Then we had a new revision in the ’80s due to the economic crisis and to the crisis of the welfare state. First, we had this problem of social democracy, in the long years in the desert, that we were not able to be elected as the SPD in Germany was unable to get elected against Kohl, like the Labour Party in the UK against Thatcher. We had the same kind of problem in the Netherlands, that we were out of the political centre for a decade more or less in the economic crisis of the ’80s.

Only by a new revision transforming it from a working-class party and a party for progressive academics into a third way party or a more or less social liberal party, were we able to get elected again in the ’80s and early ’90s.

That’s a permanent revision, that’s a permanent change of the image or the character of the party. I think it is one of the stories, one of the causes for the crisis of social democracy, that this permanent revision led to a problem of credibility and trust within the wider electorate.

Where does the party now stand against the backdrop of recent elections?

At the moment, it’s really in a big crisis. The PvdA is doing worst of all in Europe.

We suffered the biggest historical defeat in Dutch political history in the last elections. We went from 26% to 6% in one election, from 38 seats in a 150-seat parliament to nine seats at the moment. I think now we are about the seventh party in the Netherlands, both in real terms and in the polls.

So, we’re talking here about a total breakdown of Dutch social democracy. This is really a catastrophe. It’s a catastrophe for this party and its history.

The big mystery is: What are the real causes? What are the possibilities to rebuild this party? What’s really going on?

Okay. If you come to the core of the SWOT analysis, where do you think the strengths and weaknesses of the PvdA lie and where is the balance between them?

It’s hard to talk about the strengths of a party with nine seats in Parliament which had been one of the biggest parties of the Netherlands before.

It’s a bit complicated. You could say one of the strengths of the PvdA or Dutch social democracy is that we turned the Netherlands into a social democratic country. So, the legacy may be that the country is far more social democratic than the weak power position social democracy now occupies.

The strengths may be the penetration of its ideas and ideology within the wider society. After all, the Netherlands is quite an egalitarian country still, comparable to Scandinavian levels. So despite a sizeable right-wing populist revolt, it’s still a very tolerant, open and libertarian country in line with social democratic values in this respect.

I think for outsiders, for Americans or for the Chinese, they would conceive the Netherlands as a very social democratic country. That’s a miracle, that we live in a social democratic country with a very weakened social democratic party.

Part of the explanation is the political system in the Netherlands, which is quite different from countries around it.

We have a very extreme representative system. There’s nearly no hurdle to enter Parliament so the political system highlights all the currents in society. So, we have about 10 to 15 parties in Parliament.

This means that all the parties, especially the bigger parties, have to deal with extreme political competition. If you look at the left in the Netherlands, we have one, two, three, four, five different parties all competing with the social democratic party, which is completely different from the Labour Party’s competition in the UK or the SPD’s in Germany.

For instance, in the Netherlands, the competitors of the PvdA are the green left, the Green Party of the Netherlands, we have a social liberal party for academic professionals, D66, which is also on the left more or less. We have a socialist party which conceives itself to be a classic social democratic party against a third way neoliberal social democratic party. We have a party for the animals, for animal welfare, and we have a party for the elderly. All parties are circling around this formerly big tent party of social democracy.

If you look at the last elections, you see that because of disappointment and discontent with the latest government performance of the Social Democratic Party, the PvdA, in terms of austerity and welfare state reform, the Social Democratic Party, the PvdA, more or less exploded into all these different constituent parts, these fragmented, smaller parties.

That’s what happened and the big question is: Can you rebuild this big tent party out of all these smaller constituent parties which are now rather strong in Parliament?

So, the way you resolve that paradox, that on the one hand Dutch politics is very egalitarian, very social democratic, but at the same time the party is doing very badly, is that the electoral system incentivises fragmentation and polarisation in the system. At the same time, these five or six parties that you mentioned on the left, is their vote share stable? Is it just a matter of how relatively stable vote share shifts between these parties?

More or less, but at the last election, we saw a shift to the right, to be honest.

We see in the Netherlands, and I think that’s true for the whole of western Europe, we see a shift to the right, to the centre-right, and a shift to the right-wing populists. The left’s share of votes has diminished in the last elections.

Also for the greens, which were very popular in the Netherlands, unlike the greens in Germany which are facing a crisis or a malaise. In the Netherlands, the greens are the party of the hipsters, of the millennials. But despite the fact that they were quite in fashion and quite cool, they were unable to get as many votes as expected.

We see a shift to the right in the Netherlands because of all the traps and challenges of globalisation, migration and terrorism. We see an overall mood, especially in the Netherlands, a mood of discontent, of fear, which is profiting the right more than the left, which is a general problem for the left.

Would you then characterise the strength of the PvdA as being that legacy of having built up that kind of society, or being a core force in building up that society you see today, and basically that strength is you can build on these foundations to go forward?

Yes. The strength of social democracy, it remains its personnel. The best politicians in the Netherlands still are the social democrats, more or less. Even enemies or political opponents would say that the ministers of the Dutch Labour Party belong among the best politicians of the Netherlands.

People like Dijsselbloem or Asscher or Frans Timmermans they are all well-respected and high-quality professionals, sometimes a bit too far to the right, as is true in the case of Dijsselbloem within the Eurozone, but you cannot doubt their professionalism and quality.

The same applies to some mayors in the Netherlands. The Mayor of Amsterdam is very popular and he is a social democrat. The Mayor of Rotterdam, who is the first Moroccan Dutch mayor of Europe even, together with London, and the first Muslim mayor of a big city together with the London mayor.

These people are very strong and popular in our country. So that’s still the case, because we were of course a classical traditional governing party with all the deficits associated with that, because if you are governing all the time you tend to lose some of your connection to society. You can isolate yourself in government.

There’s a strength and weakness in this regard, that because we were the permanent governing party, you are isolating yourself from the day to day worries of people, but at the same time, you are producing well-governing politicians. So that’s a strength and a weakness at the same time.

Where do you see the opportunities for the PvdA to change course and where are the particular threats? You mentioned fragmentation as a weakness, polarisation and fragmentation certainly a threat going forward, but where do you see these two categories?

They’re combined. One of the biggest problems facing the centre-left or the progressives is what I always call the clash of globalisation. We find in literature that in our societies, there’s a clash around the issues of globalisation between two classes in society – you could even say between the higher educated and the lower educated, between the cosmopolitan and the nationalist, communitarian people.

For me, that’s a bit too black and white, to be honest. I think this way of thinking is not really interested in the middle-class society where it’s much more complex, but there is some truth in this clash around issues of globalisation between the higher educated and the lower educated, especially in terms of identity politics.

This refers to the European Union. Are you in favour of European integration or do you feel threatened by it? This especially refers to the issue of migration and Muslim migration. Do you feel threatened by mass migration? Do you feel threatened by labour migration for your job? Yes or no? These tensions, these are hurting the centre-left and the Social Democratic People’s Parties, in their core.

That’s very visible in the Netherlands, that we have a completely fragmented electorate which is at war about these kinds of issues.

Here, we see the enormous attraction of the right-wing populist movement in the Netherlands attracting the former classic electoral base of the social democratic parties.

The strengths of the left-wing populists, the Socialist Party in the Netherlands, the SP, comparable to the German die Linke or the PVV party, the right-wing populists dealing with the cultural backlash of globalisation seem to be very attractive for the former electorate of the social democratic big tent party. I think this is one of the main problems, the main reasons for the crisis of social democracy.

At the same time, within this story their also lies opportunity because a lot of people say we have to rebuild the people’s party. We have to overcome these divides in society, we have to overcome the divide between the migrant population on the one hand and the lower educated population on the other hand. We have to overcome the divide between the cosmopolitans and the so-called national communitarians.

We can only have one future as a country if we are able to overcome these divides and for that, you cannot overcome divides with a fragmented political system. You need a binding mission, you need co-operation and you need understanding to solve these divides and conflicts. For that, you need the formal people’s parties of Christian democracy and social democracy.

What do you think are the kinds of topics that can be used to reconnect to the different parts of the constituencies that you mentioned have been drifting apart as a result of the pressures of globalisation impacting differently on different people? How can you bridge this disconnect and with what kind of political agenda?

For the left especially, a return to social economic issues is very important. We have become culturally too liberal in combination with becoming economically too liberal, and that’s a suicide letter to social democracy. You cannot both be culturally liberal and economically liberal at the same time. It’s the end of social democracy.

You can remain culturally liberal, but that means that on the economic front you have to tackle inequality, you have to bring security and certainty back into society.

If you look at a country such as the Netherlands, we are living in a hyper-flexible society. People are not getting fixed jobs any more. Young people are not getting fixed jobs and people beyond the age of 50 or more, they also are not hired for fixed jobs any more.

The whole labour market has become one big flexible system which is very detrimental, very problematic for a Labour party which always invested its ideology and values in certainty and security on the labour front.

I think we made big mistakes as social democrats in recent decades. Neoliberalism is a bit too brutal a word. We have had some neoliberal collaboration in the last decades and we were not courageous enough, I think, against the companies and the whole world of business interests and people sense that. People sense that we betrayed our values in this respect and paying a price for that now.

I think to restore an agenda of economic equality in a very hyper-flexible society is more advantageous to the lower classes of our society than to the higher ones. Flexibility is more a problem for the lower strata than for the higher strata in society.

So, we have to restore that balance, otherwise people will continue to feel threatened by globalisation, by Europe, by migration. If we cannot deal with that threat or that perception of threat and fear, we will not win any trust and social credibility back at all.

So basically, your argument then is that the shift towards identity politics has neglected the socio-economic space where conditions have effectively worsened for a lot of people?

That’s a very good summary, yes.

Basically, that neglect of socio-economics led to the fragmentation of the electorate that we now see and you would have to counterbalance this by moving back to socio-economic issues but without necessarily sacrificing the advancements in cultural liberty.

Of course.

But a refocusing of socio-economics against a backdrop of cultural progress might be the best direction to travel?

Yes. But there are some weaknesses there as well. I always say that the social democrats or the Christians to the left have two main weaknesses vis-a-vis the centre right. You will always see this in the German election campaign, it has to do with economic competence and with law and order issues.

If you are not credible or trusted by the wider electorate on these two key issues, economic competence and law and order, you will lose all elections.

Still that’s the case. Look at Schulz at the moment in Germany with his agenda of social equality, social justice. Social justice is great, fine, but it’s an addition to other levels of Maslow’s pyramid, which are economic security and law and order.

We are still not credible and trusted on this front of economic competence and law and order, especially not in a world of terrorist threats and radicalisation, etc. We are weak on these two key issues.

Going back to the social economic agenda does not mean let’s go into social justice again and only talk about equality. No, we are living in a much tougher world where you also have to be trusted on managing the economy, on managing business.

We are fairly weak at business experience on the left. We have a lot of talks about how to run businesses, but we are not very experienced in managing big companies on the left. So that’s a weakness, that’s a flaw.

The same applies to the law and order issue. We tend to be very secondary in this field. We are called the party of the migrants so we tend to defend migrants first and attack neo-Nazis at the same time, which I think is a good position, but we are not seen and trusted as the party of dealing with the negative effects of mass migration and the refugee crisis, etc.

Even in Germany, Angela Merkel was the main factor in dealing with the refugee crisis in 2015. She still is more trusted on this issue than the SPD, and that’s a big lesson I think for the centre-left; how to be credible and trusted while maintaining your values in the fields of economic competence and of law and order.

If you are in this kind of complex society with a lot of insecurities, these are key for any electorate – and social justice and equality are very important but they should be treated as a third part of the whole puzzle.

You have to frame it probably in one broad stroke. Admittedly, the problem is that you probably cannot define all of this just in an election campaign because it probably takes a lot more preparation to convey that kind of competence. But there cannot be security without social justice in the sense that if you are the left behind in society, there is by definition no security for you.

So, what the the solution could be for this dilemma that you sketch out is to define a broader idea of security which contains law and order, which basically is physical security and economic security which is related to two elements of economic progress.

That’s the competence argument, that you can manage the economy well, you’re competent at steering an economy macro-economically, but at the same time at the personal level, the social justice argument is effectively also a social security argument for individual people because – especially if you’re the precariat, one of the left behinds – there is no economic and social security for you and your family. The fear is that you are left behind even further in future.

That’s a good point, but the problem with the social democrats is when they talk about social justice or when they talk about the left behind, people in Germany, in Gelsenkirchen, say, they don’t understand or they don’t trust the social democrats that they mean to help them in Gelsenkirchen. They think that when social democrats talk about the left behind, they may also point at the left behind in Bulgaria or they might point at the left behind in Africa or they conceive the refugees in Africa as the left behind whom they should care for.

This completely unfocused language and discourse about solidarity, to whom does it really apply? If you talk about social justice and equality and left behind, who are you talking about? This unclearness about all these different forms of solidarity; international solidarity, global solidarity, European solidarity, national solidarity, this conceptual mix up of social democrats is I think one of the main causes for its crisis.

We are not trusted in the national theatre when we talk about social justice and about the left behind. That’s a tough lesson but that’s what you can see in a lot of research in the Netherlands, that the concepts and the language of the social democrats are too unfocused for people to feel included.

So, you need to develop a much clearer and more strategically focused narrative and that obviously you cannot do within a few weeks of an election campaign, but that ground has to be prepared over a long period.

We need a lot of analysis and as the centre-left and social democrats, we need a lot of rebuilding. Also, the analysis of society should be much sharper and more focused.

That’s also one of the things I wanted to bring forward here. For me, that’s a big question. Why is this enormous populist movement, right-wing populist especially in western Europe, why is it so strong in the most successful egalitarian, prosperous countries in Europe?

If you look at strong right-wing populist parties in Europe, you talk about Switzerland, you talk about Austria, you talk about Flanders, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, globally speaking, we’re talking about paradise here. These are the most prosperous, most egalitarian, most happy countries in the world.

But still, or because of that, there’s an enormous right-wing populist revolt going on within paradise.

I think that the lesson for the social democrats is that this has to be combined. The lower middle-class is alarmed about whether can we maintain this social democratic paradise in the new global age? That’s for me the alarm of the right-wing populist. Can we maintain, say, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, Switzerland, the way it is like now, can we maintain this model of society in the future?

The alarm signal, which is very problematic, because right-wing populism can be very dangerous for democracy and for liberal democracy if it’s not understood well, but this alarm in the most happy, prosperous, social democratic countries in Europe of a populist movement should be taken very, very seriously by the social democratic elite.

I’m not really sure that we understand the message, even today.

René, the final question basically, do you see any signs internationally that somebody is understanding the message? Do you see any maybe good examples or role models of social democratic or progressive parties shifting in a way that is successful in reconnecting with core constituencies?

It depends on your conception of social democracy and your personal flavour.

I see a Danish social democratic party being quite successful in reconnecting with its former working-class constituency of but they do it in a very brutal and harsh way by taking over a big part of the right-wing populist agenda, being very xenophobic in defending their welfare state and their welfare system and their national culture. There you see a shift which is one of the options but it’s very much disliked by the majorities now in the social democratic parties.

You see other developments like the Corbyn radicalisation within… He’s taking over an established centre-left party via his own more radical grouping, which is a strange model. I like the energy of his movement but I don’t like his proposals or his political platform.

For me, there’s a problem in general with political parties. I don’t see any young people becoming members of parties any more. We have these movements like Macron’s Republic on the march…

So, I’m looking for the new generation, which I’m very hopeful about: the millennials. I see a lot of idealism, I see a lot of social values which I would call even social democratic within this new generation, but I don’t see them invest their social energy into the parties of their grandfathers, the social democratic parties.

I think we should be very keen on developing new parties, new party coalitions, party alliances within the left. Especially the Netherlands where we see all these small parties, I think we have to look for a regrouping where this new energy of the millennials can be very fruitful. That would be my most hopeful statement at the moment.

Okay. Well, to sum it up, the situation is difficult but there is hope for the future, especially if there’s a way to get the millennials involved in party politics from which so far they have been rather put off.

This interview is the second part of a new project on SWOT analyses of progressive parties Social Europe is running in partnership with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.

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