The recent Dutch provincial elections were a serious defeat for the Labour Party. The austerity coalition government, composed of the Liberal and the Labour Party, faces more instability.
Austerity is a permanent feature of politics in the Netherlands. Cuts in health care, student grants, wages and pensions have been implemented. Holland is a tax paradise for large corporations. It is a heaven for capitalists who dominate society in every aspect. Half of the board of the Employers Federation is represented in the Upper House and the chairman of the Dutch Federation of Industry is the ruling viceroy of the country.
The Provincial elections are politically important because the provincial estates elect the Upper House in Parliament, where the government does not have a majority. Until now, the government gained the support of several conservative Christian and neoliberal parties. This will no longer suffice and other parties must be won to the government. The fact that more than five parties are necessary to support legislative proposals in the Upper House is an indication of the fragmentation in Dutch politics. No parties, not even two or three parties, command a majority, and more are needed to do so.
The opposition Socialist Party has overtaken the Labour Party in the Upper House, where it gained one seat. The Liberal and Labour Party also only have the smallest possible majority in the Lower House because of defections and a series of complications. The latest seat for the Liberal Party will be filled by someone who was convicted for fraud. He will not be admitted to the Liberal fraction but can take his seat on the basis of the electoral law. Many more fraud and bribing scandals have racked the Liberal Party, but this has not affected their vote very strongly. The Labour Party has been punished much more severely in terms of vote losses.
The election results are undoubtedly a setback for the government. The next parliamentary elections are set for March 2017. The government is determined to stick together and hopes that an improved economy will save them from disaster. Should the government collapse over difficulties that the present election results create a combination of Liberals, Neoliberals, Christian Democrats and other Christian parties could form an even more conservative coalition.
If the current government holds together it will mean it will continue with austerity for another full two years and possibly four more years of austerity for after new elections. We will not all be dead by then, but we will certainly be a lot poorer! Dutch workers cannot afford to wait years for their living conditions to improve.
The Socialist Party tries to present itself as a ‘real’ opposition, but instead of pursing independent, pro-working class politics, it all too often resembles a replacement for the failed social democrats. In Brabant province, for example, the SP is in a governing coalition with the right wing Liberal Party and in the city government of Amsterdam it is in coalition with the Liberal Party and the neo-liberal Party D66.
The hard facts of Dutch politics are that at this stage only democratic, combative trade unionism offers a way forward in resisting austerity. The unions have gone through a phase of lengthy reorganisation, which was designed to push back left opposition and to make the unions more subservient to the Labour Party. This process was largely successful but the plan has backfired because the Labour Party is political liability. It is not likely to recover its position. Trade union leaders realise they are on their own. And if they do not act, unions will largely die out in the Netherlands.
Union resistance needed
In the present situation, rebuilding the labour movement by building up trade union resistance to worsening conditions, redundancies and austerity, is the only option. In the Dutch union movement strong pockets of resistance are present. Successful actions were taken by cleaners, retail distribution workers and in other sectors. Youth unemployment is high (more than 15%). The cost of education has gone up and the government’s stopgap of promoting young people to become “entrepreneurs” only means offering young people a future without any job security or reasonable income.
The situation is, in some respects, comparable to that of the late 19th century, where the trade unions have their beginnings, although the general level of prosperity and technology is much higher. Extreme working hours, piece-wages and zero hour contracts are now all standard features of capitalism and the pro-big business governments, whatever their composition, will continue to support this system.
A programme of wage increases, with a minimum wage of 12.50 euro, a 32-hour week with no loss of pay, increased job security, measures to reduce youth unemployment, restoring the pension age to 65 years, could form the basis for rebuilding the Dutch labour movement and would provide a future for young workers. Recently the trade union movement decided to reintroduce 1st May as a day of struggle and socialism. Let it also be the start of an active campaign to build combative and democratic unions around these demands.
Of course the Dutch working class also need a political alternative. The SP has risen in the polls only to sharply fall again after it disappointed workers by not putting forward a clear socialist alternative. Despite making important electoral gains in local elections in 2014, the SP is now local coalitions with parties that support cuts.
A mass party of the Left is needed urgently, to campaign against austeity and to aim to win power on the basis of majority support and with a socialist programme.