Shift to the Far Right – Where Now for the Dutch Socialists?

Jos Alembic and Richard Hoogstraten do an election post-mortem of the Dutch Socialist Party - where is it going and how should communists relate to it?

How to build the revolutionary party-movement?

The elections on Wednesday 15 March have, once again, radically altered the face of the Dutch political landscape and it is still unclear where the country is about to be headed. The Dutch Labour Party was annihilated, following the example of their Greek colleagues, also bearing similarities to the collapse of the Dutch Christian Democrats in 2012.  Meanwhile the Conservatives of the VVD maintain their position as the most prominent of the bourgeois parties, fending off challengers from both the left and right wing of capital. Yet none of the other parties have managed to gain a strong lead over the rest, with the remaining five major parties scoring between 10 and 15 percent of the vote. Amidst this political instability, the Socialist Party launched its most left wing campaign in years, hoping to enlarge their share of the vote by channeling popular discontent into a strong anti-austerity program. The policy brought little success, propelling the party to be the biggest force on the left, but nevertheless losing a seat and thus failing to be sizable enough to put its mark on the formation process. What are the chances for the Socialist Party in the aftermath of the recent elections?

Just a week before the elections took place it looked like their might not emerge a clear winner from the elections, instead producing a wide variety of middle-sized parties. But in the last few days the diplomatic crisis with Turkey pushed the VVD up at the cost of their direct right-wing challenger. This means that the VVD, as the only sizable party in parliament, now dominates the formation process. Not only this, but the election has produced a huge shift to the hard-right; the Socialists, Labour and Greens combined got less seats than Labour had before. Instead, a significant part of the electoral space that was once filled by the Labour Party has gone over to right of center parties like D’66, reflecting the way the Labour Party was giving way to right of center policies when it was in government.

 

via fd.nl

Looking at this situation there are a couple of possible coalitions, the most obvious of which is the VVD + CDA + D66 + CU, securing a safe 76-seat majority.

With such a drastically changed parliament, it serves us well to take a closer look at the shifts in seats for various political parties. The most glaring and serious change concerns the collapse of the PvdA (Labour) dropping from 38 to just 9 seats, out of a 150 total in parliament, its lowest number since it was founded in 1946. This is a result from the collapse of the inflated result during  previous elections, which saw many voters electing ‘strategically’ either Labour or the Conservatives, trying to keep the other out of government but ending up with both in a coalition. Labour, attracted voters on a wide political basis: both the more classical social democrats who were told that the disappointing policy was merely the result of necessary compromise and social liberals who voted PvdA exactly to correct the right-wing VVD policy. This year though, such a rivalry did not arise, disappointed social democrats decided not to vote at all, and the party fell in the polls, this in turn weakened the electoral strategy that Labour had so long exploited and many  voters left for their more natural representatives.

The Conservatives, dropped from 41 seats to 33, are still standing strong. Despite the unpopularity of the last government, the party succeeded in positioning themselves as the last bastion against a populist takeover in the Netherlands, attracting strategic votes from some who would have voted for a different party, on top of that the political crisis surrounding Erdogan’s campaign for strengthening the Turkish presidential position, increased the population’s trust in the prime minister. Together these factors have strongly consolidated the Conservatives’ position. The party is left standing tall over a splintered political field.

The Socialist Party has seen a marginal defeat, going from 15 to 14 seats, not being able to gain from its campaign for affordable healthcare in the last year leading up to the elections. With a 0.3% margin, it is now electorally the biggest party on the left, but has the same number of seats as GroenLinks (Greens). But, in contrast to the Greens which is taking the extra mile in presenting itself as a safe pair of hands, it doesn’t look like the SP will be taking part in the next coalition.

There was another interesting phenomenon going on, which is that the voters base of the SP shifted a lot: 57% of the SP voters didn’t vote for the party during the last elections in 2012. One explanation for this could be that the SP, so to say, exchanged voters across the spectrum, attracting many former Labour voters, whilst losing others to the PVV, CDA and Greens.

The Greens have seen a rather spectacular growth, gaining ten seats; its best score in its 27 year history. This growth is mainly to be attributed to their stylish political leader, Jesse Klaver, who espouses a message of hope and change. The comparison with Obama’s 2008 campaign or Canada’s Trudeau campaign can be easily made, not least because they employ the same advertising agency … At heart though, the Greens are little more than social liberals who easily compromise and believe in market solutions. They recently supported a system change in student funding, where students now have accept deep debt in order to enroll. A few years ago they supported drastic cuts on healthcare, an increase on the VAT and a rapid increase of the retirement age. For the next period it proposes to raise healthcare costs for low incomes and to raise VAT on meat and tax driving during rush hours, a direct attack on workers under the guise of ‘green’ politics.

Where Geert Wilders’ PVV got 15 seats in 2012, it has collected more support from those parts in the electorate that were most attacked by the previous PvdA-VVD coalition, on a more bold anti-Muslim platform than in 2012, and now has 20 seats. This is less than anticipated which can, besides the Turkey crisis, be mainly attributed to Wilders absence at most debates. He is however perceived by many as “anti-establishment” and “direct”, mainly because of his strong anti-Muslim stance. This is despite the fact that Wilders’ PVV has been very consistently voting for Conservative policies since its inception. Policy often directly attacking those who vote for him, a paradox if there ever was one! In many municipalities the PVV scored solidly, in a lot of them actually being the biggest. When they’ll participate in the local elections next year, for the first time in the whole country, you can expect another earthquake, shifting things once more to the far right.

Two other traditional parties have also gained slightly: the CDA (Christian-Democrats) went from 13 to 19 seats and D’66 (Liberals) went from 12 to 19 seats as well. Of the small parties the Christian Union remained stable on five seats; the one-issue party for elderly people, 50+, saw a doubling from two to four; the Partij voor de Dieren (Animal Welfare Party) saw an increase from two to five seats and SGP (a fundamentalist Christian party) remained stable at three.

We saw two new parties enter the fray: DENK, a pro-Turkey party defending interests of petty bourgeois of migrant background, entered with three seats. Forum for Democracy, a party headed by an eccentric columnist that presents itself as the intellectual alternative to the PVV, entered with two. This brings the number of parties in parliament up to 13.

Two conclusions from looking at this broad level at the results can be made: Firstly, the ruling coalition has taken a beating, although Labour much more so than the Conservatives; Secondly, the rest of the political parties haven’t been able to become the new dominant factor. A new coalition will take four or five parties, with the added complication of the existing party distribution in the senate (for a more indepth explanation of Dutch politics, we refer to Piet Potlood’s commentary on the previous election in Weekly Worker 931, 27 September 2012). Furthermore, the decline of traditional political parties has given rise to various one-issue parties that represent only a few seats in parliament.

The SP in a new direction

Previously the Socialist Party had consistently been moving towards the centre, but over the last couple of years it has been shifting towards the left, reversing the previous trend of increasingly watered down election programs. The shift was mainly fueled by the leadership elections of the twenty-first congress, which was held in 2015, surprising many of us who consider themselves to be left of and in the party and sharpened contradictions within it. We will take a look at the leadership election race, what it means for the activist party base and the composition of the party membership.

The Socialist Party started out in parliament as a tiny two-seat fraction in 1994 and saw its main strategy for broadening its electoral support in increasingly compromising its election program. Of course with this more moderate course and larger electoral support, the party attracted new membership with a more liberal-left minded vision.

Over the last decade we saw a generational shift, phasing out many of the old Maoist cadre that founded the party in the 1970’s. Jan Marijnissen led the party since 1988 and was the main factor moving the party away from its Marxist-Leninist legacy toward a “new left” role. Filling the gap left behind by the Labour party’s move to the right and the dissolution of the CPN into the Greens, which both happened in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. This policy reached its zenith in 2006, when the party got 25 seats, but failed to participate in a coalition.

After Jan Marijnissen stepped down from his role as leader of the parliamentary fraction in 2008, a period of uncertainty set in resulting in a drop to 15 seats in the 2010 and 2012 elections and dropping from a peak of 50,740 members in 2007 to 39,550 today (although this fits in a more general downward trend in Dutch politics, the SP is still the third party in membership after Labour, which has 46,162 members and the Christian-Democrats which have 48,775 members).

This period came to an end in late 2015 at the XXI congress, when Jan Marijnissen stepped down from his role as party chairman, making room for former union leader Ron Meyer. Ron has introduced a new lease of activism in the party. As a union activist, he was responsible for setting up the cleaners union pretty much from scratch over the course of a few years, which is now one of the most militant parts of the trade union movement.

This activism has been most visible in the campaign to end the current way of financing the healthcare system. Introduced in 2006, it has put insurance companies at the centre of healthcare financing. The SP has proposed to replace this system, which has put many people in financial jeopardy, by something very similar to the NHS. “No profit over the backs of patients” has gathered the support of more than 250,000 people so far and this campaign has single handedly put healthcare on the agenda as one of the main topics of the elections, moving other parties in the direction of the SP.

But where Ron Meyer was the favorite candidate by the party leadership, Sharon Gesthuizen ran as a second, independent, candidate, representing the more liberal wing in the party. She ran on a superficially pro-democracy and small business-friendly platform, and wanted the party to adopt a more explicit anti-racist policy.

This liberal faction can be seen as a direct result of the party’s policy in the 1990’s and 2000’s, trying to aim for this part of the electorate by shifting programmatic demands in that direction. It stands to reason that since 2006, after the party was denied to participate in the coalition, and again after 2015, when a more activist route was taken, that primarily this part of the membership has been leaving. But while a strong tendency, it remains unorganised on any significant level.

The liberal faction was defeated at the XXI congress and besides Ron Meyer, a few more explicit leftwingers were elected in the new party leadership (the SP eschews traditional names for these organs, but the party leadership would be equivalent to a Polit Bureau). Patrick Zoomermeijer and Arjan Vliegenthart for example are explicitly on the far left. Patrick having a Trotskyist background, recently visited Ksama Sawant in Seattle and Arjan cited Fidel Castro favourably in the NRC Handelsblad, one of the main “serious” centre-right newspapers. This prominence of leftwingers is also seen on the elected MP’s, with Sadet Karabulut referring to herself as a “Marxist-Leninist in a modern way” last October in Trouw and Sandra Beckerman having a Trotskyist background as well.

The leadership of Ron Meyer has changed more things. On the level of common parlance, words like “comrades” and “class struggle” become common again, though they’re not used in a fully rounded manner. For example, Emile Roemer started his election speech live on television by exclaiming: ‘Comrades!’.  It is more “radical” as a style, but is not yet reflected in theoretical depth.

A new lease of activity for the rank and file

In the branches the influence of the new course has also been felt. There has been a strong focus on the aforementioned campaign on healthcare, with active members tirelessly collecting signatures for the petition in the streets and mobilising people to national manifestations, such as a recent 10,000 man rally on 18 February in The Hague. Not a huge number, even by Dutch standards, but a doubling of a previous manifestation in October, reflecting a growing base of support.

On the national level efforts have been made to support branches in other ways. For example, a national call team has been set up to contact all potential activists for the election campaign. This information is then directly transmitted to the local branches, which can get into contact with these people. In the last months, this has in itself resulted in almost a thousand new members for the party.

The national line of focusing on single issues has been fruitful organisationally. Where before there was a labyrinth of different campaigns, there’s now mainly the healthcare campaign. Paradoxically, this also gives branches more possibilities to focus on local issues. The national focus from the party leadership on canvassing also helped in a lot of branches which often did not canvas at all.

So, organisationally speaking, the local branches of the party have gained a lot from the new party leadership’s focus on trade union-like activism. It has indeed been promoted as the way forward of building the party in this manner, with the aim of becoming the biggest party.

Election Program 2016

The new election programme which was drafted for the XXII congress of the Socialist Party and in advance of the 2017 elections, represented a major left wing policy shift. Although hardline positions, such as leaving NATO remain notoriously absent, gains have been made in other aspects. Unfortunately, little of this has had to do with a strong organised left in the party and much more with the aggressive political style of the new chairman. To illustrate, only three motions were accepted at the congress independently from the congress organising committee. We should keep in mind though that the leadership has developed a habit of denying a vote on and directly accepting motions that they are set to lose. Thus it becomes quite hard to measure the actual influence of informal factions and the degree to which amendments are in line with the leadership’s prefered course. The programme is intended to serve for only a period of four years and as such only comprises of short term demands, this also gives the party leadership a weapon against the more radical motions; they will “agree” that radical aims are in line with the party’s goals but do not fit in a short term election programme. In general though, it is a solidly left wing document and certainly the most daring proposal we have seen in a long time. As such we should welcome it and applaud the direction it is taking the party.

One of the most striking demands in the programme is also part of its flagship chapter: ‘Take Power’. It calls for the democratisation of medium to large sized companies by obligating them to create a workers board which holds the same amount of power as the shareholders board. Furthermore, the salaries of the company management will be subject to consent by the Works Council. Whilst obviously not calling for the revolutionary takeover of the means of production by factory soviets, it is a major step towards empowering workers and could well fit as demand in a minimum programme – the minimum basis on which a communist party should be willing to take on power: breaking the power of capital over society.

Additionally, healthcare and education should be democratised. Consumers and workers should get thorough influence on the operation of these institutions and healthcare and education should be entirely stripped free of market mechanisms. These policies show large similarities with the public transport policy forwarded by Jeremy Corbyn. Combined with the slightly less radical but broader democratisation policy, the margins of what is possible within liberal democracy are certainly being pushed.

Economically the party still clings to Keynesian theory, arguing that large government investment will on the long term generate more growth than the increase in debt. On the basis of this reasoning they also demand a rise in the minimum wage, arguing that increased worker spending will lead to more rapid economic growth. Whilst of course a pretext for claiming gains for the working class, it shows a deep uncertainty about the party’s own strength; feeling that it needs to pretend to work for the national interest instead of directly championing the advance of the working class. The danger being that one starts to believe their own nonsense.

Furthermore, the party treats the petty bourgeoisie as a natural ally in the struggle against large capital, profiling them as equally ‘hard workers’ thus obscuring class antagonisms. They do not erode workers rights in favor of small companies, but instead offer to strengthen small capital’s position against big capital and to create a national investment bank that will promote the development of small capital. As the Netherlands is a country where the petty bourgeoisie is particularly strong, and the working class stands relatively weak, this is an understandable concession. It would be preferable to reduce the premises for this alliance, but for the moment the working class has little to bargain with. Sadly a resolution to defend cooperatives as a way forward to an alternative, democratic and worker-based, economic organisation didn’t make it on the XXII congress leading up to the elections.

We should appreciate the fact that the party principally defends the interests of the working class and does not cave to exchanging workers rights for support of the petty bourgeoisie. We should note that the defeated liberal faction did indeed try to give ground to the petty bourgeoisie, with MP Sharon Gesthuizen, whom is now leaving parliament, once submitting a bill in parliament to ease dismissal law for small companies. One of the most striking demands in the programme is also part of its flagship chapter: ‘Take Power’. It calls for the democratisation of medium to large sized companies by obligating them to create a workers board which holds the same amount of power as the shareholders board. Furthermore, the salaries of the company management will be subject to consent by the Works Council. Whilst obviously not calling for the revolutionary takeover of the means of production by factory soviets, it is a major step towards empowering workers and could well fit as demand in a minimum programme – the minimum basis on which a communist party should be willing to take on power: breaking the power of capital over society.

Additionally, healthcare and education should be democratised. Consumers and workers should get thorough influence on the operation of these institutions and healthcare and education should be entirely stripped free of market mechanisms. These policies show large similarities with the public transport policy forwarded by Jeremy Corbyn. Combined with the slightly less radical but broader democratisation policy, the margins of what is possible within liberal democracy are certainly being pushed.

Economically the party still clings to Keynesian theory, arguing that large government investment will on the long term generate more growth than the increase in debt. On the basis of this reasoning they also demand a rise in the minimum wage, arguing that increased worker spending will lead to more rapid economic growth. Whilst of course a pretext for claiming gains for the working class, it shows a deep uncertainty about the party’s own strength; feeling that it needs to pretend to work for the national interest instead of directly championing the advance of the working class. The danger being that one starts to believe their own nonsense.

Furthermore, the party treats the petty bourgeoisie as a natural ally in the struggle against large capital, profiling them as equally ‘hard workers’ thus obscuring class antagonisms. They do not erode workers rights in favor of small companies, but instead offer to strengthen small capital’s position against big capital and to create a national investment bank that will promote the development of small capital. As the Netherlands is a country where the petty bourgeoisie is particularly strong, and the working class stands relatively weak, this is an understandable concession. It would be preferable to reduce the premises for this alliance, but for the moment the working class has little to bargain with. We should appreciate the fact that the party principally defends the interests of the working class and does not cave to exchanging workers rights for support of the petty bourgeoisie. We should note that the defeated liberal faction did indeed try to give ground to the petty bourgeoisie, with MP Sharon Gesthuizen, whom is now leaving parliament, once submitting a bill in parliament to ease dismissal law for small companies.

Prospects for Communists

The party has left Maoism and Marxism-Leninism behind politically, but has maintained many of the organisational aspects. Factions for example, while not explicitly forbidden, are highly discouraged. This has been the reason for example why the liberals have not been able to organise effectively: where they have not been undermined from the leadership, a culture of debate is lacking with a dominant mono-culture and rank and file party members questioning the loyalty of those who substantiate their critique.

The only “faction” then is that of the leadership, which can change in nuance and style, but is not likely to change in content. The main aim is still to participate in a coalition, with other parties that represent the interests of capital. This time around, the leadership for example was hoping for a coalition consisting of themselves, the Greens, the Christian Union or Christian-Democrats, Labour and the Animal Welfare Party. Of this “dream team” only SP and Animal Welfare Party have explicitly positioned themselves against neoliberal policies.

So, for communists – those party members that argue for a complete break with capitalism in order to move to a society based on the main stated values of the SP: solidarity, equality and human dignity – a big task remains ahead of them. Where to begin?

To start with, the SP needs to be taken seriously. There are far left groups outside the party, but with a few hundred members between them they’re completely and utterly irrelevant. The party is where (young) workers look to if they want to become active, change things, take matters into their own hands. The SP therefore, for better or worse, represents the highest political awareness of the Dutch workers movement. Not being within it, is effectively putting yourself outside the movement.

Second is where we want to go with the party; a programmatical question. The Communist Platform, a group of Marxists in the party, has published a proposal for a minimum programme on which basis the party can realistically take power, break capital’s hegemony and begin with genuine workers control over society. This should not be seen as set in stone; we can and should debate on what direction we want to go, but a proposal like this can offer a helpful framework.

Third is the organisational aspect: if we are to make an impact on the course of the party, we need to take leadership seriously, build our branches, educate the membership and communicate as horizontally between members as possible. This is largely a trial and error based experience. What room do we have to organise? How do we effectively get the members together that want to support this endeavour? How do we bring in education and higher politics at a branch level where this has been thus far non-existent? Time and effort will tell.

What we ought to aim for is a party capable of carrying out the task of breaking with capitalism. We need a party that is much more than a parliamentary apparatus. The SP contains important elements of this already, mainly its activism, organising people in neighbourhoods to fight for their interests all year round. But we need more, much more. If we are to organise against capital, we need to organise the working class as a class-collective. That is, we need a party-movement: a mass movement consisting at least of hundreds of thousands that are active in trade unions, cooperatives, social clubs, communal centres, etc. With its own mass media, banks and other facilities. If we can organise such a movement, with the SP at its head, it is not a question if we can change society, but when it would be most opportune to do so. The question would not be one of seats in parliament in order to get into the next coalition, but a question of when we will get a clear majority for our proposals.

Last but not least, the European question. So far the SP has been somewhat Eurosceptic. With good reason of course, as the EU has been a project for carrying out neoliberal policies. We ought to change that vision. The Netherlands in itself cannot simply ignore international politics and economics and declare itself socialist. We need to think about this on a continental scale. We need to redefine “Europe”, give it a working class content, first of all by gathering all leftwing parties in Europe and form a Socialist Party of Europe, which has branches in the Netherlands, Germany, Greece, Portugal, the UK… On that basis we can start organising on a much larger scale and synchronise our activities, harmonise our programmes, unite our efforts. Divided, capital will break us, united there is no one that can stop us.

Conclusion

The Netherlands made another sharp turn to the right, that much is clear. Right wing parties have a large majority in parliament and the conservatives are set to dominate the formation process. For the left, the coming months are spent planning opposition strategies against what is to come. One thing is for sure, the working class will not benefit.  The Socialist Party should stop obsessing over government participation in order to bring about change.  The Greek experience has taught us that we can not simply break with neoliberal politics. If we are to effectively change society, we need to start thinking about a programme that carries us beyond capitalism with a party-movement that is capable of doing so. The party desperately needs to reinvent itself in order to win the masses for a left wing alternative to the capitalist order. Communists in the Socialist Party should foster, encourage and grow the left wing tendencies that are already present in the party. Only a strong and well educated cadre can help the party grow beyond its current limitations.  The ball might be in the court of the bourgeoisie, but  the coming period of opposition and struggle allows for a chance to reflect on the way forward and arise stronger than we were before, with a powerful vision of a real alternative to the neoliberal status quo.

This article appears courtesy of the Dutch Communistisch Platform and is available in shortened form in the Weekly Worker.

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