The Netherlands went through a period of “political consensus” in the past, but now that is definitely over. It is clear that now there is class polarisation taking place in the Netherlands. There are analogies with Germany, but the situation is also slightly different. In Germany ‘Die Linke’ is a new strong force on the left, and in the Netherlands the Socialist Party is also a new serious left-wing force.
On the other hand, however, there are now two new right-wing movements that have emerged that use demagogic language about preserving the “Dutch culture” and about the “dangerous Islamic” culture that threatens it. There is clearly destabilisation taking place within the Dutch political spectrum. The traditional three parties, the Christian Democrats (CDA), the Labour Party (Partij van de Arbeid - PvdA) and the liberals (VVD), are not so popular as they used to be. According to the polls they now hold some 40% between then. The traditional “boring” Dutch politics is over and it is worth taking a closer look at how the situation has evolved.
The Labour Party
After the Second World War, the old Social Democratic Workers’ Party became the Labour Party (Partij van de Arbeid – PvdA). In fact it was the only real Dutch worker's party in the 20th century. It had strong links with the Trade Unions, and many leaders were trade unionists.
After the Second World War the Labour Party held the position of Prime Minister, Drees, in a coalition with Christian parties. Because of the post-war economic boom, the Labour Party was able to implement its programme with a state pension at 65 years, etc. It began building the welfare state that seemed so “naturally Dutch” to many people in the country over the following decades.
On the other hand, because of the coalition and the social-chauvinism that went with it, it was the same Labour Prime Minister, Drees, that sent troops to Indonesia to “restore order”. In the party there was a shift to the right, and it became one of the most right-wing social-democratic parties in Europe.
However, by the 70's there was a strong shift to the left, the so-called “New Left”, and the Labour prime minister, Joop den Uyl, although he was in a coalition with all kinds parties, was the most left prime minister the Netherlands had ever had. The problem was that he was elected in 1973, just on the eve of a recession, and the oil boycott of the Arab countries, when the Netherlands secretly supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War. The seemingly endless economic growth from the 1950s and 1960s was over. Den Uyl made some progressive reforms, but he never broke with capitalism, which would have been the only way to go forward. He was even threatened anonymously by some businessmen that it would not be wise to implement more reforms for the workers.
The Labour government fell in 1977 and was succeeded by coalition governments of Christian-Democrats and Liberals, using the arguments that the progressive reforms were too expensive for an economy in recession, etc. In fact, from a capitalist point of view, they had a point. The post-war boom was over, inflation standing at 10 percent, with a huge budget deficit, and unemployment had doubled. The only way to solve this crisis and to maintain the social reforms would have been to nationalize the big companies under worker's control.
Internationally the era of so-called “neo-liberalism” started with Thatcher and Reagan, and all mainstream Dutch political parties were influenced by this. By now the Labour Party was also shifting to the right again, with the new leader Wim Kok. Although Wim Kok was a former trade union leader, he embraced the “Third Way” of Tony Blair. He stated, “The emancipation of the working class is finished.” Wim Kok became the next Labour prime minister in the 1990s, in a coalition with liberal parties. There were no Christian parties involved now, so some “ethical” reforms were introduced such as the legalization of same sex marriage and euthanasia. But because the Labour party had now embraced “Third Way” neo-liberalism, these so-called “purple coalitions” privatised the railroads and began spending less money on healthcare and refugee care, leading to long waiting lists. And now the Labour Party had become associated with these “neo-liberal” policies, it was getting less popular.
When the politically polarized 1970's had come to an end, there came a new period of “political consensus”. In terms of economic policy this meant the implementation of the “Polder model”, which for a long time had the praise of all reformists internationally. The Netherlands is below sea level, and “polders” are chunks of land that have been reclaimed from the sea. During the Middle Ages, conflicts between different Dutch towns had to be resolved peacefully, through consensus, to ensure the dikes wouldn't break and the polders remained dry. Thus, the economic polder model of the 1980s and 1990s meant that the trade unions, the bosses’ unions and the state would come together to take decisions about wages, etc. But because working class militancy was declining, after the militant days of the 1970s, this meant the trade union leaders could easily make deals that were more advantageous to the capitalists. In reality this model meant a slow implementation of neo-liberalism, with the trade union leaders making sure that the polders would remain dry, i.e. that there would be no big strikes etc. However, when in the 1990s more counter-reforms were introduced by the Labour Party led cabinet, discontent swelled up within Dutch society and the dikes could no longer hold.
First shift to the right with Pim Fortuyn
With mass discontent growing, traditional consensus politics in the Netherlands were over. However, because then the left-wing Socialist Party was too small to pose as a real alternative, discontent was channelled through a right-wing demagogue, Pim Fortuyn. This man used the mess created by the “purple coalitions” to promote his own right-wing programme. Then, shortly before the parliamentary elections, Fortuyn was assassinated. The man who killed him was a left-wing extremist, and the assassination was followed by a media witch-hunt against all the left-wing parties and groups. This one event expoosed the bankruptcy of individual terrorism. As a result Fortuyn was made into a myth. Everything left-wing was associated with the “political Labour establishment” and all groups were blamed for “demonising” Pim Fortuyn. This is in fact partially true, with Labour Party leaders saying that everything was fine in the Netherlands, and that Fortuyn was an evil personality. They had no real answer to him, neither did the sects that were screaming about fascism.
Fortuyn's party, the List Pim Fortuyn (LPF), got 26 of the 150 parliamentary seats in the 2002 election, a historical result. This party subsequently entered into a coalition with the Liberals and the Christian-Democrats, but the cabinet fell within a year because of internal strife in the LPF, a party of careerists without a strong leader.
After the CDA, VVD and LPF government fell, new elections were held. Now the LPF became a lot smaller, but the CDA was still big. They could grow big by telling stories about the loss of morality and ethics in Dutch society, while they were in fact the most immoral of all. It seemed they no longer believed in Christ, only in Friedman! Labour also grew big again, but the CDA chose to collaborate with the liberal VVD. To get the required number of seats to form a government, they embraced the so-called “social-liberal” D66 party.
Now had come the time to break the social consensus of the Dutch polder model, and to attack living standards. This new cabinet, know as the “Balkenende II”, was the most right-wing government since the Second World War. They started to attack all kinds of social security reforms, and introduced a new healthcare system based on “market regulations”, to encourage competition, which according them would “lower the prices”. This has not worked at all, and every year the cost of social insurance gets higher.
Balkenende also supported George Bush's imperialist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, sending in occupying troops to those countries to “maintain peace and order”.
The task of “improving” the policies on refugees was given to the ultra-right Rita Verdonk, who now has her own “Proud of the Netherlands” movement. She introduced a new immigration law, whereby foreigners have to take a test, to check their knowledge about the Netherlands, in order to get a Dutch passport. In fact it is a kind of assimilation test, where one has to know in detail all kinds of traditional customs and history about the Netherlands. The Netherlands was a country that used to help many refugees in the past, from victims of absolutist monarchies centuries ago, to more recently the refugees from barbaric ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia and Burundi. Apparently this is no longer part of “Dutch culture”.
Return of the Dutch working class
However, the Dutch working class could not swallow all these anti-working class policies forever. The organized Dutch working class rose once again, in the year 2004. With the Balkenende II cabinet the ruling class wanted to destroy the polder model and “modernize” the Netherlands at a faster pace. The working class could not take it, and thus the trade union leadership was pressurized by the rank and file to act. With the new cabinet and the bosses’ unions taking an aggressive stance as never before, the trade union leaders could not make a deal as they would have liked to in the past. The discontent of the rank and file had reached boiling point. This meant action had to be taken through other channels.
On October 2nd 2004, the biggest demonstration ever in the Netherlands took place, with some 300,000 workers, students, unemployed and pensioners demonstrating against the attacks on social security by the Balkenende government. Unfortunately, the trade union leaders wanted to halt the movement after the demonstration. They wanted to use the mass demonstration to force the government to talk with them again. They did get their talks, but now the working class was no longer quiescent.
Rise of the Socialist Party
On the basis of all these events rose a new important left-reformist party, the Socialist Party. The Socialist Party started out in the 1970s as a “Maoist” party, with its student members going to work in the factories to teach the workers about China and Mao Zedong. At that time in the 1970s there were a lot more left-wing parties and groups, and the SP only got big thanks to their local work. They were a federation of municipal groups that were helping the local workers and poor, and always stood against “neo-liberalism”. In 1991, they abandoned the “Marxist” programme, and since then they have become a left-reformist party with strong local groups.
The Socialist Party became strong through its rank-and-file work, and also thanks to the shifting to the right of the Labour Party. The SP thus filled the vacuum that appeared on the left. The old Communist Party of the Netherlands had shrunk and then fused with other small left-wing parties into the Green Left. The Green Left also stands to the left of the Labour Party, but has attracted mostly left-wing intellectuals and more highly educated people.
It is the Socialist Party that really has the outlook of the working class and lower middle-classes, with its support for strikes, its struggle against market mechanisms in healthcare, against bureaucracy in the education system, and its opposition to the military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the 2006 parliamentary elections, the SP got 25 of the 150 seats, while the Labour Party got 33. After the elections, the SP was asked to participate in talks about the formation of a new cabinet, together with the Christian Democrats and Labour. SP-leader Marijnissen participated, but dropped out in the first round. It was a good move on the part of the SP that it didn't participate in a cabinet with the CDA, who were responsible for the cuts in social security, wages and healthcare.
However, we should recall that Marijnissen's excuse for going into the talks in the first place was very opportunistic. He said he wanted to appeal to the “left wing of the CDA which was dominant in the 1970s”. This so-called left wing was a dominant wing of the party that had links with the Christian trade unions, and was able to grant some progressive reforms in the field of social security, but only thanks to the post-war boom. Now the CDA stands for Christian Democratic “neo-liberalism”, be it in the hard version (in coalition with the liberal VVD, the governments from 2002-2006) or in the softer version (in coalition with Labour and the Christian Union, the government from 2007).
The Socialist Party has in fact been a “loyal opposition”, but always exposing the hypocrisy of the so-called “reforms”, which in effect are counter-reforms. If the SP were to adopt a clear socialist programme, it could win far more votes. Some changes are required to improve its programme that have to be changed. The SP still is still not very popular among immigrant workers, because of the immigrant quota system that it calls for. This is not because the party is openly against immigrants, but it argues that such a system would stop the forming of immigrant ghettos. However, this alienates many immigrant workers, who traditionally vote Labour. The only way forward is to unite immigrant workers with non-immigrant workers, by combining anti-racism, the struggle against the wars in the Middle East and the struggle for better living standards for all workers, into a generalised struggle for a socialist society.
A second rise of the ultra-right and a new political instability
In 2004 the rightwing filmmaker Theo van Gogh was killed. It was a brutal political murder by a Muslim extremist. Theo van Gogh was an admirer of Pim Fortuyn and repeatedly described Islam as a backward culture, making all kinds of disgusting comments about Dutch Muslims, and always as if they were a homogenous group. Incredibly, he was regarded as an intellectual. This is a clear example of the senility of capitalism, if people like him are the “intellectuals” it produces. The murder however was very shocking for the Netherlands. It was followed by the burning down of mosques and Islamic primary schools by neo-nazi groups. Islamophobia rose once more. The following year came the London Underground bombings, which made it worse.
There had been a first wave of racist Islamophobia after September 11th, with people desiring more safety, security, and less “foreign influence”. When the working class began to reorganize, however, these feelings receded into the background, and people began to concentrate more on wages, social security, pensions etc.
But now there was a new wave of racism, and a “self-made man” used that wave to promote his ideas, Geert Wilders. Wilders was a member of the VVD, and one of the right-wingers of that party. He split from the party because he was opposed to possible entry of Turkey into the EU, and because of his extreme “clash-of-cultures” ideas that didn't fit within the Liberal party.
The VVD is a liberal party, adapted to the interests of the Dutch capitalists, and to the European Union's policies. However, in liberal parties there is also a kind of “reserve”, with bonapartist tendencies. Thus, Geert Wilders split from the VVD and launched his own party, called the “Party for Freedom”. This party, that only allows Wilders as a member, grant freedom only to the non-immigrant capitalist. It has the most anti-working class programme of all Dutch parties. Besides that it uses all Muslims as scapegoats for the problems that afflict society. In this way Wilders is trying to split the working class. This tactic partly paid off, because some of the more politically backward workers, afraid of losing their jobs to Moroccan and Turkish workers, gave him their vote. But most of his electoral support has come from middle class layers feeling the pressure of the situation, and who have become disillusioned with the left-wing parties.
Wilders has also produced a “movie” called “Fitna”, a very poor compilation of images of Islamic fundamentalists and terrorist attacks. When he announced he was making such an anti-Islamic movie, the Dutch government became hysterical and tried to convince all countries in the Islamic world that it was made by an individual, and not by the Dutch government, this in order to “protect Dutch people in the Islamic world”, the most important people of course being the Dutch businessmen.
When this movie was released and everyone could see it was a farce, Wilders’ popularity began to decline and another ultra-right politician started to become popular, in his place, Rita Verdonk, the old Minister of Immigration and Integration Affairs. She emerged as a “self-made woman”, the second in command within the VVD, but was kicked out for her lack of discipline towards the party leader. Like Wilders' party, her “Proud of the Netherlands” movement has only one member, and is funded only by donations, i.e. by wealthy businessmen. Her party still has no programme, but it is clear it will be a “neo-liberal” right-wing party, dressed up with “national sentiment” and maybe some tax reforms that benefit the petty bourgeoisie. It seems that she has also attracted some former SP voters. This means that the SP has to convince people that it is the only party that stands up for the working class, and thus get those voters back.
The situation in the Netherlands is totally different from what it was 10 years ago. Now the only party in the polls with more than 20% of the votes is the Christian Democratic CDA. The Christian Democrats marches on two legs. With the left parties discredited, their programme does not differ much from that of the VVD. Now they are governing with the Labour Party and blame the VVD for some of the problems created by the neo-liberal policies. Their real “left-wing” no longer rules the party. During the post-war boom they could afford to grant concessions to the working class, and at the same time try to control the workers through their links with the Christian trade union federation (CNV). Now even the traditionally relatively right-wing CNV have gone into opposition against the CDA's plans.
The overall situation is not very stable. The present coalition of CDA, Labour and the Christian Union (a so-called “Social-Christian party”, but in fact a very conservative militarist party) is very unpopular. The situation has become more polarized, with the emergence of a left-wing SP, and two ultra-right movements. Who knows what we will see next? The working class is much better organized than 10 years ago. In the spring of this year the postal workers won a national strike against cuts in their working conditions. The Socialist Party supported the strike, and is trying to get better links with the trade unions. If the SP maintains a valid programme, a working class programme, and makes no more concessions to the bourgeois parties, it could grow very big in an upsurge of the class struggle in the coming period. That programme must be a genuine socialist programme that tackles all the serious problems facing the working class.
- The Netherlands calls for a left-wing socialist programme by Laurens Deprez and Wim Benda (April 2, 2006)
- Dutch people say "no" in EU referendum - Rogue Netherlands joins France by Erik De Bruyn (June 3, 2005)
- The Netherlands: The end of the "polder" model by Erik Demeester (November 23, 2004)
- Netherlands: Reawakening of the Dutch working class by Erik Demeester (October 4, 2004)
- The Netherlands: Set on a stormy course by Erik Demeester (May 22, 2002)