The strange death of the Dutch Labour Party

diederik_samsom_stroinkshuis_enschede_2014_close-upA week ago the Dutch parliament gave Diederik Samsom the kind of send-off reserved for much-loved colleagues who are moving on after a spat with the management. Most MPs joined in a standing ovation for the departing Labour (PvdA) leader, who was praised by parliamentary chair (and party colleague) Khadija Arib as ‘indefatigable and combative’, ‘the type who pointedly refuses to accept that there are only 24 hours in a day’. Prime minister Mark Rutte, whose full term in office owes much to Samsom’s ability to keep his party on side, commended him as a man of his word who had instrumental in putting the economy back on course. Samsom himself contended, in his swansong speech, that the economic recovery ‘should silence the cynics for all time’.

So why was Samsom quitting Parliament, having been deposed as party leader in a contest that he brought on his own head? The immediate reason is obvious: the PvdA is haemorrhaging support. At the last election four years ago Samsom almost single-handedly steered the party out of the doldrums to win 38 seats, more than double the number the opinion polls predicted at the start of the campaign. His combative style and articulate case for a ‘social’ solution to the economic crisis made him the star of the television debates and took the PvdA to a close second place behind Rutte’s Liberals (VVD). On current projections it could be down to single figures when the votes are counted next March.

From the outset, Labour found itself bound to a policy programme with a distinct Liberal flavour. The leitmotiv of Rutte’s second cabinet has been to shift the focus of accountability from the state to the individual. The welfare state was repackaged as a ‘participation society’ in which everyone, including the elderly, disabled and sick, was expected to do more for themselves on fewer resources. Responsibility for administering these services was transferred from central government to the municipalities, fulfilling the small-state dream of the fiscally conservative VVD. Funding for the arts was slashed. The increase in the pension age, one of the last acts of Rutte’s first cabinet, was confirmed and extended. The ambitious plan to put the Netherlands in the vanguard of renewable energy is being bankrolled not by central government, but by consumers through their power bills.

Many of these measures were devised and enacted by PvdA ministers such as Lodewijk Asscher and Jeroen Dijsselbloem. But in doing so they had to sacrifice a large part of the PvdA’s raison d’etre. Samsom had promised a ‘social way’ out of the recession; in practice the economy recovered, but society became more polarised and fragmented. And the voters who had rallied behind the party in the summer of 2012 simply drifted away. In the most recent opinion polls Labour was projected to score as little as 7% of the vote, compared to the 25% share Samsom achieved four years ago. Despite being under little serious pressure in his party, Samsom called a leadership election, hoping to shore up his position and revive the party’s fortunes before March. But Samsom’s success in 2012 had been eclipsed by the unremitting decline that followed. The party faithful no longer believed in their saviour. Instead they chose Asscher, the deputy prime minister who was brought into government on Samsom’s recommendation.

Aboutaleb

NRC’s political commentator Tom-Jan Meeus speculated recently in an article for Politico Europe that Labour might have saved itself if Rotterdam’s mayor, Ahmed Aboutaleb, had been persuaded to run for the leadership in the spring. Some senior PvdA figures, including Dijsselbloem, suspected Aboutaleb of putting his own ambitions before the party and in the end, Meeus writes, the mayor decided not to put his reputation for integrity on the line. I wonder if Aboutaleb didn’t simply take a more practical view, namely that not even he could rescue the PvdA from its current predicament. Labour’s downfall has been cataclysmic. Some national polls have the party in eighth place. In the local elections two years ago it lost control of Amsterdam for the first time since 1949. Cities that were once impregnable Labour fortresses, such as Groningen and Nijmegen, fell to its rivals – chiefly the ‘soft’ liberal D66 group. In many ways Samsom’s achievement in 2012 was a blip that obscured a long-term malaise. The PvdA’s working-class voter base has splintered. The white working classes have thrown in their lot with Geert Wilders’s PVV or the Socialists. Metropolitan progressives have switched to D66. Older workers, anxious about the erosion of their pensions, put their faith in 50Plus, which is the latest party to overtake the PvdA in the polls. And minority ethnic voters are dumping the party for Denk, a new party formed by two ex-Labour MPs, of whom more presently.

In a television interview this week, Samsom commented that ‘one of the paradoxical developments [of the last five years] is that as conditions have improved in this country, increasing numbers of people, with increasing anger, have perceived that they are not sharing enough in that progress.’ But the situation is only paradoxical to a politician who focuses on the economic figures. Unemployment has fallen from 700,000 to 500,000 in the last two years, but at the same time the proportion of permanent contracts has fallen to less than 75%. The casualisation of the workforce has continued apace. Many people coming back into work are on short-term or flexible contracts where they were previously employed full-time, and now have a reduced pension and a later retirement age. The cost of greater prosperity in a Liberal-led age has been greater insecurity. Samsom accepted that the economic improvement had so far mainly benefited people with jobs who owned their own homes. Those who feel left behind include much of the PvdA’s core support.

Identity crisis

Demographic changes have hurt the party too. Meeus writes that the Netherlands has entered the era of identity politics, but perhaps Labour’s bigger problem is that it is grounded in a form of identity that people no longer recognise. For years the PvdA hoovered up migrant votes, because most migrants identified as working class. Increasingly nowadays, however, the fault lines are between communities, shaped by Wilders’s fixation with the ‘Moroccan problem’ and the late onset of the debate on race relations. Historically the PvdA was the most diverse group in Parliament, reflecting its support among minority voters. But under Samsom’s leadership two of his six minority MPs, Tunahan Kuzu and Selçuk Öztürk, split from the party following a bitter row with Asscher and formed DENK, chipping away another layer from Labour’s support base.

It remains to be seen whether Lodewijk Asscher can revive the PvdA’s fortunes as spectacularly his predecessor did five years ago. He has already signalled a shift to the left with a pledge of a new 60% tax band for people earning over €150,000 a year and an increase in corporation tax. The extra money raised would be interested in elderly care and raising wages for low earners, in a clear bid to restore Labour’s core vote. Asscher also plans to use the Brexit negotiations to argue for reforms to freedom of movement within the EU so foreign workers are no longer brought in purely to push down wages. Asscher is admired as a behind-the-scenes negotiator, but that is unlikely to cut much ice in the heat of an election campaign. As deputy prime minister he is arguably even more closely associated with Rutte’s policies than Samsom. And given his role in DENK’s breakaway, it seems optimistic to expect him to win back the confidence of minority voters.

One of the Dutch folk tales I learned growing up was the story of the little boy who sticks his finger in a dike to stop his village flooding. It’s a simple tale that seems to epitomise the Dutch spirit of pulling together for the common good. Only recently did I learn that the story was the creation of an American children’s author and far less well known in the Netherlands. But perhaps it’s an apt image for the fall of Samsom, who plugged the dike but couldn’t save himself from being swept away by the tide.

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