The new government in the Netherlands, composed of the Liberal Party (Conservatives) and Labour (New Labour), firmly adheres to neo-liberalism. On top of cuts agreed earlier between Dutch parties and the previous government (30 billion euros), the government is cutting 16 billion euros. The cuts cover all areas of government expenditure and social security. One measure is to increase rents and to tax public housing corporations, so the money will flow to the government’s coffers. There are severe cuts in education and health care; people will have to pay a far higher part of their medical bills. Unemployment is 536,000 and rising. The pension age will rise. For people who took early retirement this measure is particularly harsh. They have an income gap between their retirement pay and their pensions of up to two years! They will have no income. Older people on unemployment pay until their pension starts will also suffer from this measure.
Students will no longer receive grants but have to take out loans to be repaid, of course. Unemployment benefits will be reduced to one year; a measure favoured by the Liberal party. This means basic levels of social security and some people forced to sell their homes after a year. Even the Dutch Federation of Employers has come out against this!
One might think that with this level of attacks, there would be an explosion of protest. There was. But it did not come from the workers, the poor or the unemployed. One of the things the government wanted to introduce was a system of income-related health insurance. This would increase the burden on the middle classes (the system did have a maximum, so the highest incomes were protected). This measure was one which the Labour Party favoured.
Promptly there was a revolt of the middle class under the leadership of the media. The idea of “solidarity” was “acceptable” up to this point, the press said, but these measures went “too far”. The government had not even been formed properly when it buckled and retreated on this measure. This has set the pattern for the Labour Party to retreat at the first sight of mass media opposition against some “measures. Essentially the middle classes successfully revolted against the cuts coming their way.
The unions and the left
The Dutch working class needs similarly determined leadership. But a re-organization of the trade union federation was intended to make the unions more subservient to the Labour Party in government and it has largely succeeded in weeding out the first sprouts of opposition in the unions. The new chairman of the Dutch TUC, the former leader of the union of the military police, is ready to legitimize the new government in exchange for some minor concessions.
The opposition Socialist Party, still smarting from its disappointing election results, has kept unusually quiet. Its leadership said that it was prepared to enter government during the election campaign and even to implement cuts when in government, which makes it difficult to squarely confront the present cuts now.
The SP won 25 seats in the 2006 elections, went down to 15 in the 2010 elections and only managed the same figure on 12 September 2012 general elections. This was a huge disappointment for many SP voters, members and supporters.
The political climate in Netherlands at the moment looks different from the rest of Europe. Workers in southern Europe, France, England and Ireland went on strike against the austerity policy that blights the lives of the workers throughout Europe.
However, in the Netherlands people are also sick of the eternal cuts that only make matters worse for working people and the middle classes, while big bankers continue to line their pockets. Many politicians are implicated in a spate of corruption scandals. At local level, there are countless politicians filling their pockets. It has become ‘normal’ in certain business sectors (especially in building and media) to ‘share’ lucrative jobs and funds and projects with politicians. The first political ‘victim’ of these revelations in Cabinet (after just a few weeks in office) was a Labour Party vice-minister, who had to step down because of corruption allegations.
The Dutch workers’ movement is currently dominated by counter-reformists and union bureaucrats at the top, who, in effect, aid the aims of the ruling class.
The Socialist Party is divided. The leadership agrees to cuts and wants a coalition with austerity parties. But the party cannot survive without at least organizing some opposition to government policy. It must show it is a competitor to the Labour Party.
Mood of working class will change
With 15% of the Dutch population threatened with poverty conditions, mood of the working class cannot last forever. Parents see that their children are worse off than they are. Young people see that they have to study hard for a few rotten pennies, while at the top no one hesitates to take huge sums. Many people will start thinking: ‘If this is the future, then it’s not for me’. The coalition government austerity policies give every reason to protest.
The SP and the trade unions can regain lost ground and lost confidence through mobilizing mass struggles against the new coalition government’s cuts. But this requires a socialist programme. As well as resisting attacks on pensions, the SP can 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. By bringing the big banks and main planks of the economy into public ownership, under the democratic control and management of working people, the huge resources of society be employed to meet the needs of working-class people.
Unless the Left and the unions provide a credible alternative, decisively leading resistance to cuts and appealing for working-class unity, the populist, anti-immigrant right can make a come back, posing a real danger to workers’ unity.