Netherlands: The rise and rise of the Dutch Socialist Party

'If Roemer becomes Prime Minister, we’ll all move to Switzerland.'

Although parliamentary elections are often billed as “historic”, and results hailed as “landslides” and “political earthquakes”, events usually turn out not to have been so dramatic once the dust settles. But the September 12 national election in the Netherlands really does seem to be living up to the rhetoric.

Holland’s most left-wing parliamentary party, the Socialist Party of the Netherlands (SP), is leading opinion polls, with 23.3% support (35 seats in the 150-seat lower house). Its nearest rival, the ruling neoliberal People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), is on 21.3% (32 seats).

Could the “Eurosceptic” SP, a large, well-resourced and genuinely left party with 47,000 members, really win elections in a wealthy country at the heart of the neoliberal project of the European Union?

Will the established political system be forced to accept seasoned, hard-nosed, non-careerist socialists playing the leading role in government?

Consensus breaks down

The search for answers takes us back a decade. In March, the Dutch media celebrated the 10th anniversary of what was surely the country’s most infamous post-election television debate.

Openly gay anti-immigration populist Pim Fortuyn, who was assassinated two months later on the cusp of a historic national election victory, wiped the floor with a handful of national leaders from the establishment parties.

Fortuyn had just recorded an unexpected huge victory in the Rotterdam council elections. With obvious relish, he rubbed the noses of the visibly depressed career politicians firmly in it.

That gripping display was watched by all political people in Holland, conscious that they were witnessing a historic watershed, whatever their party affiliation.

What Fortuyn had seemingly managed single-handedly was to finally break through the impenetrable wall that had sheltered “The Hague” from the disappointments and frustrations of a generation of voters who saw themselves as politically abandoned outsiders, whether on the right, the left or non-voters.

The moment was a mark of the demise of post-war Dutch politics. This had operated within a system of political “pillars” ― most importantly the Social Democrats, Catholics, Liberals, and Protestants ― that broadly defined the social and political network into which people were born.

Schools, clubs and newspapers were largely affiliated to one or another stream. Parliamentary representation and government coalitions were relatively predictable within a limited range of possibilities.

The social movements that began in the 1960s steadily undermined this comfortable arrangement. The final chapter was reached in the 1990s. A succession of “purple” coalitions between the VVD and an increasingly Blairite Labour Party (PvdA) governed in the context of some “good” economic years.

Fortuyn put his finger on the democratic bankruptcy and social failure of that cosy alliance, even while scapegoating non-European immigration into Holland as the key factor in the decline of Dutch social cohesion.

Socialist party rises

The other main player in the breakup of politics-as-usual was the SP. It had steadily been making inroads into Labour’s traditional electoral and campaigning territory. By the 2006 national elections, it was rewarded for its consistent opposition to economic rationalism and refreshingly direct campaigning approach with 25 lower house seats (16.7% of the vote).

Although the party temporarily lost electoral support in the 2010 elections, the national political landscape was changed once and for all.

A key factor facilitating the rise of the SP has been the Dutch electoral system. Proportional representation applies at all three levels of government (national, provincial and municipal) and there is no threshold other than a single seat―for the lower house requiring a very low 0.67% of the vote.

This set-up inevitably produces a varied parliament with a few large parties, several medium-sized parties and a few one- and two-member fractions and independents. Public financing of parties represented in the parliament is comparatively generous, and renders the influence of private and trade union money considerably less important than in many other countries.

Because no single party ever comes close to a simple majority, the cabinet is always a coalition of at least two, but usually three or four parties. It is universally accepted that all parties may have their own election programs, but all will have to compromise to form a cabinet.

Once the result of an election is finalised, however unexpected or unusual, it is respected and the horse-trading begins. The rule is that the largest party gets to lead off negotiations. Only when its prospects seem to have run out, does the next largest have a turn.

The media climate has been comparatively open, with a general expectation that the “Fourth Estate” will at least be even-handed. Although some sections, for example De Telegraaf, revel in Murdoch-like headlines and witch-hunts, even the business establishment paper NRC Handelsblad feels obliged to report relatively objectively on matters political.

Decline of the centre

In this rather exceptional institutional context, the combined pressure of the crises ― the global economic crisis, the euro crisis and the crisis of the neoliberal, undemocratic project of European integration ― has severely undermined the credibility of the old centre-left/centre-right political alignments.

There has been a flight to the flanks of the political playing field, with the VVD gathering support away from the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), and the SP from Labour and GroenLinks (Green Left).

To a certain extent, the SP has even won support away from Wilders’ xenophobic Party for Freedom (PVV) ― reflecting a growing sense that the SP is a more viable vehicle for protesting the establishment.

As a result, in recent months the VVD and SP have represented the leading poles of a left-right fight, with the “sensible, balanced voices of reason” being drowned out in a campaign dominated by their diametrically opposed positions.

The only middle-of-the-road party (in reality firmly on the economic right) still holding its own is the left-liberal Democrats 66, selling itself as insurance against “extremism”.

The emergence of the SP as the leading left-of-centre force also ends the tendency of many Dutch elections to turn into a three-way fight between the CDA, VVD and Labour over which will win the most seats, the right lead coalition negotiations, and (almost always) supply the prime minister.

Now, for the first time, it’s becoming increasingly possible that the SP and the VVD will run a two-horse race, and that the “useful vote” phenomenon which has always previously favoured Labour may this time pull support from that party to the SP.

Not only would this be a unique development in modern Dutch history, but―perhaps more importantly in the long run―a real hammer-blow to Labour, which risks losing its 100-year-old hegemony on the left and becoming just another semi-progressive party with a confused identity and uncertain prospects.

As for Green Left, over the past decade it has increasingly presented itself also as a libertarian, lifestyle-based party. More recently, it has moved sharply right on a range of economic and work-and-welfare issues.

Despite the global climate crisis and a broad acceptance of green ideas, the historic weight of Labour and the growth of SP (also an explicitly green party) have prevented Green Left from taking advantage of Labour’s embrace of “third way” labourism.

The left needs to treat this situation very carefully, as there are absolutely no guarantees it will remain. Strange things have happened in the last two weeks of Dutch elections and anything is still possible.

The opinion polls can become a self-fulfilling tendency, and any nudge in a particular direction can have dramatic consequences.

‘New confidence’

Until the late '90s the SP presented itself as an alternative party working largely outside the established parliamentary system: a vote for it was seen as a genuine left protest (symbolised by its red tomato logo) and a way of putting left pressure on Labour.

Later, its approach changed from “vote against” to “vote for”, with the party establishing itself as a left governmental alternative with practical policy proposals of its own and experience in provincial administration.

Throughout its evolution, the SP has proudly and firmly maintained two fundamental principles: there can be no local elected representation without first establishing active integration into local on-the-ground campaigns; and all publicly elected paid office-holders ― from part-time local councillor to (future) government minister ― agree in writing to submit their wages to the party and receive something like a normal wage (or pro-rata proportion of it).

Any surplus goes to the party to finance general running, publication and campaign costs.

Disagreements over this principle led to several departures from elected representatives, but SP members and leaders remain adamant on this point, which enjoys broader public respect and approval.

In the current campaign a whole packet of long-held SP policy standpoints, particularly those originally seen by many as unfashionable or unrealistic, are now bearing fruit. These include:

Opposing neoliberal economic principles from the very beginning;
Early warning of the folly of military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan;
Opposing the introduction of the euro (although not in favour of withdrawal from or dissolution of the euro now);
Successfully opposing the 2005 Dutch referendum against further undemocratic European integration (in opposition to almost all the other parties);
Early warning of the dangers of privatisation in the public sector, particularly health care;
Supporting trade union and workers' rights, with active involvement in key union campaigns in the virtual absence of Labour; and
Highlighting the negative economic and social consequences of a deregulated labour market across Europe.

SP leader Emile Roemer dramatised the choice for voters with these words: “After September 12, will we be a liberal or social country? Will we continue cutting, or build a better Netherlands? We stand for a social route out of the crisis.”

As outlined in its electoral program New Confidence, the SP’s “social route out of the crisis” is based on increasing spending in housing, energy conservation, a clean environment, improved public transport, accessible health care and high-quality education.

The initial boost to public investment would be €3 billion in 2013, with an emphasis on dike repair and boosting energy efficiency. The rail system would be brought back under public control.

Living standard improvements promised by the SP include keeping the pension age at 65 (to be reviewed in 2020), an increase in the statutory minimum wage, gender wage equality, increased funding to disability, child and aged services and to council anti-poverty programs, and an increase in the housing grant for the low-paid. The public health insurance “excess” would be reduced.

The program also aims at increasing workers’ rights: in the workplace (half of big company boards to be elected by employees); in wage negotiation (to be national by industrial sector); and in occupational health and safety.

On migration, the SP stands for the application of Dutch labour standards to all migrants, the fining of companies that violate these and for the temporary restoration at a European level of work permits for Eastern European workers. Development aid to the newer members of the European Union should be boosted (the SP calls for an aid budget of 0.8% of GDP).

Funding of its program would partially be carried out by a new National Investment Bank. In addition, the SP program targets “the big end of town” to pay for its social welfare and investment spending. Banking would be re-regulated with savings banks separated from investment banks and an “anti-speculation plan” introduced; a financial transactions tax would be applied and the bank tax rate increased; the tax rate on incomes over €150,000 a year would increase to 65%; the capital gain tax would increase to 40% and a separate property tax introduced.

Bonuses for company directors would be banned and a limit set to maximum salaries in the semi-public arena. Dutch taxpayers would not be asked to fund European Union “bailouts” but the banks and other holders of the public debt of the European “periphery” required to take a larger “haircut” on non-performing loans.

The program aims to carefully draw the line between small and big business, with small business to be given better access to government contracts, relief with its social security contribution obligations and restrictions maintained on shopping hours.

Possible coalitions?

Who might join the SP ― assuming it maintains its current electoral position ― in a new cabinet? Green Left, the Christian Union and Labour would presumably feel bound to join if a feasibly stable cabinet seemed at all possible.

The biggest problem remains that many of the new SP votes are coming directly from Green Left and Labour, so a clear, or at least easily manageable, left majority still seems unlikely.

Only if the left in general, and most importantly the SP, can attract votes away from the parties on the right will a left or centre-left cabinet be feasible.

Nonetheless, September 12 still may mark a critical turning point in Dutch―and European―politics.

[Will Wroth has been an active member of the SP in Rotterdam since 2005. A more detailed version of this article will appear at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. For news in English on the SP go to]