Only a choice between the “regular” and far-right?
Dutch voters go to the polls on on 15 March, with a record 28 parties on the ballot paper. Nearly half the parties have only been in existence since 2014. The largest traditional parties are expected to lose many voters (the main three parties are expected to win just around 40% of votes, down from 89 per cent three decades ago). At the same time, Geert Wilders’ right-wing, anti-immigrant PVV (Freedom Party) is expected to win the most seats.
Pieter Brans looks at the reasons for this dramatic change and what the Left can do to offer a viable alternative.
As in other European countries, the general elections in the Netherlands, in March, seem to present a choice between the “regular” right (Dutch Liberal Party) and far right (Geert Wilder’s PVV - ‘Freedom Party’). The PVV is predicted to win 29 seats in a parliament of 150, could come out as the largest party. The VVD (Liberal Party is predicted to win 27 seats) and is the other main contender. Major losses are predicted for the Labour Party (down to 11 seats from 38), which have been in coalition with the VVD in an austerity government for the past four years. The crucial factor is the lack of working class representation. As Benjamin Franklin said; “democracy is two wolves and a lamb deciding on what’s for lunch…” The goal of socialists is to turn the lamb into a lion through organisation and training it to fight.
How did this situation come about? The pushing back of organised labour has been a central goal of capitalist strategy since the early eighties. At the end of that decade, working class organisations had been pushed back a long way. The road was open for the ‘free market’ and the neoliberalism of the nineties. At the end of that decade, however, in spite of the counter-reformist role of the social democratic parties and the abandoning of struggle of most trade unions, protest was on the rise again.
Actions against the G8 summits in Seattle and Genoa attracted worldwide support. Trade union protest was subdued, but the potential for mass resistance remained, as was proven by the massive Dutch trade union protest in 2004. Capitalist strategists decided that they might have dealt a blow to working class organisations, but that working class strength remained unbroken.
Their solution was, partly, to raise ‘auxiliary troops’ for the capitalist system. Right wing, racist organisations were welcomed on the political plane. The same forces also grew because of the consequences of the policies of governing neo-liberal parties, causing growing inequalities and de-industrialisation, precarious jobs etc.
In the Netherlands right wing politicians, like Pim Fortuyn, and parties like the LPF, were pulled out of the bag. They often organised right wing voters more effectively than the traditional right and provided a haven for disgruntled sections of the middle classes and workers who lost out in ‘globalisation’. They started to monopolise discontent of neoliberalism by blaming the elite.
These auxiliary troops became quite effective after the turn of the century. The left was set back even further. The unions retreated and the Socialist Party in the Netherlands (a former Maoist party) never became a mass force despite its potential, mainly due to its failure to put forward a consistent anti-austerity and principled socialist alternative. Left wing action groups, anarchists and other organisations were all pushed to the margins of society.
This was how the Dutch bourgeoisie was able to continue the success of the right after the initial wave of neoliberalism had spent its force around the year 2000. One of the results is that in the upcoming elections there is a proliferation of right wing parties, all trying to cash in on this trend by going for a few seats in parliament. Nationalist pride, “Netherlands first”, are the kind of themes that these parties boast.
Shaken by Brexit
The capitalist class in the Netherlands has been shaken by the success of these far right forces.
The outcome of the Brexit-referendum also shook the Dutch establishment. Britain was their “natural” neoliberal partner against stronger countries in Europe, like Germany and France, where state intervention was more popular (the ‘continental capitalist model’). They were also shaken by Trump’s election in the US. And forces on the Dutch populist, anti-immigrant right, like Geert Wilders and the PVV, threaten to gain political power.
They capitalist class is at the same time confronted with the negative consequences of their neoliberalist measures; in the Netherlands companies now have so many people under flexible contracts that they lack reliable core workers to keep production going (in health care, pharmaceutical and insurance companies, for example). The housing market is one bubble after another and workers spend a huge amount of time in traffic. Serious and expensive mistakes, like over-investment in coal power plants, hang like millstones over energy companies. Tens of thousands of workers are needed in the care-sector but the cuts have been so deep that nobody wants to work there anymore.
Wilders’ PVV is a racist party, openly calling for fewer Moroccan people in Holland during the last election campaign. Wilders has officially been convicted of inciting hatred and discrimination but the trial has given him wide publicity. He says he does not “recognise” the power of the court. He considers the judges to be “PVV-haters” and says he will appeal. That will give him additional publicity in the election campaign. Wilders appeals to the frustrated and passive and as such it remains to be seen if they will be motivated to go out and vote for him. But it is almost certain that his party will come out of the elections as the largest party.
At present a counteroffensive to Wilders is taking place in the media. Trump is also criticised daily and racist utterings by certain newspapers and websites come under increasing criticism. The Dutch bourgeoisie wants them to know their place. Racist and nationalist parties are all well and fine, helping to keep the left at bay, but they should not dominate politics. The capitalist class realises that if the influence of the populist, anti-immigrant and anti-EU right continues to grow it will have counterproductive effects, like damaging the free market in the EU on which Dutch exports (roughly 50% of GNP) depend.
The most likely outcome of the elections in March is a large Freedom Party, a major defeat for the Labour Party and a minor defeat for the Prime Minister’s Liberal Party. As the Liberal Party has indicated that a coalition with Geert Wilders is not on the cards, they will probably try to form a complicated five-party coalition that continues austerity. The rise of right wing populism limits their options to rule. But if a multiparty coalition fails, a coalition with Wilders’ party cannot be ruled out. They have done it before, even though it was not a success at the time.
Ineffective union leadership
In the past five years the trade union leadership have concluded a “social pact” with the Liberal and Labour Party government and carried through a major reorganisation. Both factors have limited trade union militancy, though successes have been booked by made regarding minimum youth wages and collective labour agreements. The recently elected new president of the Dutch trade unions, however, like the previous president, comes from the police unions. With all the respect that we should have for the trade union work in these services, the leaders of these unions do not usually pull the unions to the left.
The Socialist Party is predicted to win a meagre twelve seats in the polls, three seats down on the number that they current have in parliament. The Socialist Party’s participation in local governments, together with austerity parties, is an obstacle to its gaining the trust of workers on a national level. In the media they are presented as a weak left wing version of “populism”. In elections in 2012, an expected SP election victory (an predicted 37 seats in the polls) was snatched away by a media campaign against the SP and by the Labour Party share of the vote. But workers’ disappointment in the Socialist Party is also a key factor.
Yet, in the absence of a campaigning mass workers’ party that consistently represents the independent political interests of the working class, the Socialist Party will be seen as the best choice for many working class voters. The Socialist Party does has some positive policies - fighting cuts in health care, wants to bring back the pension age to 65 and favours higher wages, all of which are necessary – but also fails to effectively resist racism, for example. The SP’s positive policies are not clearly tied to a socialist programme, standing for nationalisation of the big banks, main utilities and big industries, on the basis of workers’ control and management, in order to transform society for the need of the many not the super-profits of the few.
And only such a programme can provide a solution to problems in Dutch society. After years of cuts and austerity, 400,000 children in the Netherlands now grow up in poverty. Amsterdam has special burials for those who died alone, without family or friends. The number of unemployed is more than 400,000. One million people are “self-employed”. With some exceptions, this means that they work for piece-wages, as in a previous period of capitalism. If the outcome of the elections is a larger political platform for racists and a continuation of austerity, it will be clear that only strong resistance from below can start to put an end to this situation of workers’ powerlessness.
The capitalist class might try to curb some of the rampant racism in society in the coming period and they might concede some minor reforms, like small wage increases that will help the economy, or insurance schemes for the self-employed. A moral struggle against racism and discrimination will help the bourgeoisie under the present circumstances, but not the working class. The working class should make sure that their comeback in society and in politics is a show of their own strength. Only independent struggle and organisation, only combative trade unionism and a broad workers’ party can ensure that their interests are taken seriously. The working class m