Netherlands: As austerity begins to bite, change is being prepared within labour movement

In 2010 there was a right-wing government installed in the Netherlands. After a honeymoon period, it seems its initial popularity has faded. Internally it is in crisis, it has just faced a teachers’ strike and the Socialist Party is at its biggest popularity ever in the polls.

The right-wing liberal VVD became the biggest party in the 2010 parliamentary elections. As we have explained in an earlier article, the election results were the expression of a deep political crisis. This crisis has mostly affected the Christian Democratic CDA and the Labour Party (PvdA), which now both are at record lows, desperately trying to find a new “vision of society”. Meanwhile, the VVD, having become the biggest party in parliament formed a cabinet with the CDA, based on support of the right-wing populist PVV, the party of Geert Wilders.

Right-wing commentators were over the moon with the new situation. Finally, the Netherlands would see an end to its supposedly eternal domination by the left-wing parties, conveniently forgetting that the last left-wing government at national level was the Den Uyl cabinet in the 1970s. Since then the Labour Party has been in coalition governments with the Liberals, or as junior partners under a Christian Democratic prime minister. In spite of these facts the right-wing still promotes the myth of “left-wing control” to blame the Labour Party for all kinds of problems which they themselves are actually responsible for.

The new cabinet initially benefitted from a honeymoon period. The VVD came up with a prime minister for the first time, the young and fresh Mark Rutte, while Wilders’ PVV provided support in exchange for some concessions. These included some anti-immigration measures, but also the guarantee that the minimum wage, unemployment benefits and protection from dismissal would not be touched. Scandalously the Labour Party was never able to give such guarantees during the last 20 years. This temporarily strengthened the idea that Wilders was a friend of the Dutch workers and the unemployed.

There were plans to cut 18 billion euros in public spending to bring down the budget deficit, which had shot up due to the bail-outs to big banks like ABN AMRO, Fortis and ING. Prime Minister Rutte, however, initially tried to avoid a direct confrontation with the labour movement. This he did by attempting to divide the workers by first targeting the weaker sections. This meant cuts in the Bijstand, which are welfare grants for the weakest layers of society, and cuts in the “social workplaces” for people with working disabilities that have almost no prospect of getting a job otherwise.

The next set of cuts were in the culture sector, in which spending was to be cut by 200 million euros. This was preceded by a hate campaign against art and culture by Geert Wilders and other right-wingers, who claimed that art was “for the left-wing elite” and meant nothing for the “ordinary people”. When it became clear that this meant whole orchestras and museums were to disappear, even a faction within the VVD started to protest against this vulgar denunciation of art and culture. This hate campaign was also directed against public broadcasting, which has a proportional representation system for different parties, based on membership. It was denounced as a “left-wing state broadcaster”, as a means of creating a climate in favour of cuts. These will mean a weakening of public broadcasting and its higher quality programs, in exchange for more private broadcasting.

However, according to the logic of capitalism, cuts in these sectors alone were not enough. The next victim was higher education, in which students are now getting fines for “studying for too long” and no more grants will be available for Master studies. Dutch students have protested massively against these measures. However, these will not be the last of the education cuts, as the cabinet is now discussing the abolition of the whole system of university grants, and its replacement with a system of loans.

Internal disagreements

Because the Rutte cabinet is in effect a minority government, which leans on the PVV for support, it has had to lean on parties other than the PVV to implement some measures. This has to do with the “eurosceptic” stance of the PVV on the European crisis, with its hate campaign against the so-called “lazy Greeks” and a refusal to spend more money on “Europe”. To get all money transfers to the EU programmes it has had to lean on Labour, the Green Left and the social-liberal D66 party. In the same way, it has had to lean on Labour to implement a raise in the age of retirement, and on the Green Left for a police training mission in Afghanistan (which also provoked much protest from the left-wing of this party).

In this balancing act between the PVV and the centre-left, Rutte can hold on for now. However, the centre-left opposition and the PVV have both been trying to distance themselves more and more from Rutte’s cabinet. They both accuse the other of supporting the unpopular government policies.

The latest policies are indeed very unpopular and short-sighted. They are merely destructive measures for short-term gain. For example, the Natura 2000 project is now to be stopped. This is a project aimed at restoring the natural environment of the Netherlands, which has already been running for five decades. There are to be cuts in mental healthcare and special educational needs, which would mean a huge leap back in time. They would not have dared to speak about these cuts a few years ago. However, now the crisis has turned the ruling parties into very short-sighted butchers.

The rise of the Socialist Party

In this situation, the Socialist Party (SP) has had an enormous rise in popularity in recent months. In the polls it is the second party and in some polls even the first. This is due to a combination of different factors.

First, the SP has fought all cuts in social security. It is especially because of its opposition to the increase in the age of retirement that its popularity has grown. Second, the SP has been in opposition to the unpopular “European support packages”. Unfortunately, however, the party has done this from a narrow nationalist perspective. Third, the Labour Party is in deep crisis. On the one hand it supports counter-reforms; on the other hand it tries to present itself as the biggest opposition to the policies of this cabinet. For many workers it has lost its credibility. In the polls it stands at a record low. However, that does not mean the party is dead yet. Fourth, the PVV has lost some of its popularity, as it has had to support different unpopular measures. On top of that, there have been many scandals involving councillors with a criminal record, racists and careerists breaking away. Meanwhile, Wilders has focussed on many minor issues, hysterically denouncing things that the public does not really care about, for example the fact that the queen wore a headscarf in a mosque in Oman. This ranting on about minor issues may have worked in opposition, but now people are worried about more important matters, about their future and that of their children, and not at petty issues.

This rise of the SP is worrying the bourgeoisie. We can see this from the fact that the media is starting to focus on the issue of what would happen when the party comes into office. The last time they had similar concerns was in 2006, but now the party is even stronger in the polls than back then.

The leaders of the SP, however, are now trying to present themselves as a responsible “grown-up party”. Party leader Marijnissen has even stated the label “socialist” is a relic from the past and that he would give the party a different name had he founded it now. The parliamentary leader Roemer has even indicated that forming a coalition with the VVD was an option, that very same right-wing liberal bourgeois party that is now implementing deep cuts!

The SP is a formerly Maoist party with a left-reformist programme. However, while its programme is left-reformist, its internal regime still resembles that of the bureaucratic centralism of the Maoist and Stalinist parties of the past, whereby they push out genuine left-wingers and socialists. Last year more than 2,000 members left the party as a result of this situation.

Its programme contains a lot of progressive reforms, especially in the fields of social security, education and healthcare. However, the party raises these demands as if they were achievable within the limits of capitalism. The leaders say the programme is to be funded by taxes on the rich, and also some extra taxes on the middle class layers. Thus, instead of separating the middle classes from the bourgeois and winning them over, they alienate them from the very idea of socialism. While they mention some partial workers’ control in big companies, they do not raise the need to nationalise the banks and big companies under workers’ control. As they do not raise the need to break with capitalism, the bourgeois parties will put enormous pressure on the SP leaders to shift more to the right. If they fail to do that, they will try to influence public opinion by saying that socialism creates chaos, pushes companies to move their operations abroad, etc. That is why it is essential that the SP adopts a real left-wing socialist programme, which breaks with the myths of so-called “social capitalism” and also with the narrow confines of nationalism.

Uncertainty ahead

The 18 billion euro in cuts is not enough for the ruling class. Now a further 12 to 15 billion are to be cut. The parties are seeking an agreement for new cuts. This will lead to a new crisis in the ruling cabinet. Wilders is an unstable element in the situation. As he sees his popularity is shrinking, he could decide to withdraw his support, or present himself as the “noble saviour”. One thing is for sure: the Dutch workers will not tolerate this. For many people the first wave of cuts may have been accepted as a necessary price to pay to put an end to the crisis, but a new wave of savage cuts will be received with much anger.

Last week there was a strike of the secondary school teachers. They were protesting against working more hours for the same wage, presented as “improving the quality of education”. In spite of the hate campaign launched against these teachers that were accused of “abandoning their students”, 20,000 teachers came out on strike! Also, there has been a very militant cleaners’ strike going on for the past month. While this is not immediately linked to the government’s policies, by their militant actions they are providing a good example to the rest of the workers’ movement in the Netherlands.

The right-wing stability dreamed of by the bourgeoisie has not materialised. As there is wave after wave of cuts, with a new package being prepared now, the Dutch workers and students are being pushed more and more into action. Especially the public sector workers and students are the victims of the cuts, so they will be forced to fight back. That is why it is important that all the struggles against this right-wing government should be united into one. Unity makes them much stronger.

However, even this is not enough! In the present climate, with a deep crisis of European and world capitalism, austerity measures at best can only be delayed. So long as capitalism remains, it will increase the pressure for more and more cuts. That is why what is required in the Netherlands is to organise a fightback around a socialist programme that has to be taken up within the trade unions and the student unions. If the SP were to stand on a genuine socialist programme, of the nationalisation of the banks and the commanding heights of the economy, it would be in a position to fight for a socialist government with support from the unions. In the last analysis, this is the only way of stopping the draconian austerity measures which the ruling class in the Netherlands is pushing for.