Will the next Dutch Labour leader be its last?

Lilianne Ploumen in 2016. Photo: Rijksoverheid/Martijn Beekman

It’s still not clear why Lilianne Ploumen, the leader of the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA), chose to quit last week. The announcement came as a surprise to most members of the party, even though in her resignation statement she said she had been considering her position for several weeks. The fact that only an inner circle of close colleagues were privy to her thoughts might be interpreted as a clue to the state of the party’s health. But what happens next is potentially seismic: a hasty leadership contest with no clear front runner, dominated by a question that strikes at the very core of the PvdA: should it merge with its left-wing partner GroenLinks?

Ploumen only became leader 15 months ago, succeeding Lodewijk Asscher, who resigned over his part in the childcare benefits scandal. As minister for social affairs in Mark Rutte’s second cabinet, Asscher was in charge just as the Dutch tax office was cranking up its campaign against working parents suspected (on the scantiest of evidence) of fraudulently claiming allowances for after-school care. He went on to preside over the PvdA’s worst ever election result in 2017, when it was reduced from 38 MPs to a rump of nine. Labour has still not recovered from that devastating blow, returning just nine MPs again in 2021, and the fact that Asscher is seen as a serious contender to regain the leadership reflects the shallowness of the PvdA talent pool.

Ploumen, whose political career began with GroenLinks, saw a closer partnership with the party led by Jesse Klaver as its best hope of a long-term future. Ideologically the two parties are very similar, but they play to distinct electorates. GroenLinks voters tend to be younger, urban and progressive, while the PvdA draws its support from an older electorate and a broader geographical base. A survey by I&O Research two years ago indicated that 80% of those who voted for the two parties last time would still support them if they merged, and the combined party would pull in extra support from the left flank of D66. Ploumen and Klaver jointly produced a 15-point ‘progressive opposition agreement‘ last December in response to the new cabinet’s coalition deal, and Ploumen said in her resignation statement that ‘the partnership between the PvdA and GroenLinks will broaden and deepen further’. But their efforts to ensure a left-wing presence in the new government by refusing to be split during last year’s coalition negotiations, when either party could have secured a majority of seats in the Tweede Kamer, ended in failure.

In the crowded Dutch political scene, where 150 parliamentary seats are split between 20 parties and independent MPs, a merger seems like a logical step forward. PvdA heavyweights Frans Timmermans and Marjolein Moorman argued in an op-ed in the Volkskrant at the weekend for ‘far-reaching co-operation and even a combination with GroenLinks’. EU vice-president Timmermans spearheaded Labour’s successful European Parliament campaign in 2019, while Moorman’s stock has risen fast since the local election victory in the party’s old stronghold of Amsterdam. They stopped short of calling for an outright merger, but a combined list for next year’s provincial assembly elections is a serious possibility.

The problem is that both the PvdA and GroenLinks are treading water. GroenLinks was reduced from 14 seats to eight in last year’s general election. In the municipal elections in March Labour gained a grand total of three seats across the 333 councils; GroenLinks performed marginally better, growing by 10. More to the point, the PvdA’s headline-grabbing win in Amsterdam came largely at the expense of GroenLinks, whose mayor, Femke Halsema, has struggled to fill the shoes of her PvdA predecessor, Eberhard van der Laan. That strengthened the feeling among Labour’s old guard that the party would do better to concentrate on rebuilding its voter base, rather than compromising its identity and throwing in its lot with GroenLinks.

The PvdA’s struggles are part of a wider malaise on the Dutch left that a fusion of two parties will not weld. At the last election PvdA, GroenLinks and the Socialist Party (SP) mustered just 25 seats between them – the same number the SP achieved on their own in 2006, when the trio returned 65 MPs. The PvdA’s base was shattered by the hammer blow of 2017: progressive voters to D66, younger voters to GroenLinks, the ethnic minority vote to Denk (itself the product of a PvdA rift). White working-class voters have been courted by Geert Wilders, who tells them Labour has left them behind. BIJ1 and the Partij voor de Dieren have swept up activists who wanted the PvdA to take a more radical stance on racism or the environment. Merging with GroenLinks will reclaim only a fraction of these lost supporters and alienate at least as many.

But nostalgia for the days when the PvdA claimed a solid 25% of the vote will not fix its woes either. The fragmentation of Dutch politics is a well embedded phenomenon. ‘Left’ and ‘right’ are more playground insults on Twitter than clear political distinctions. The paradox is that as differences between voters have become more fluid and marginal, party politics has become more polarised. Unless the next PvdA leader can halt the decline of its core vote, the question of whether to merge with GroenLinks will swiftly become redundant.

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