Dutch socialists paint the town red

24 November 2006

Dutch socialists paint the town red

STEVE McGIFFEN looks at the signficance of sweeping electoral gains in the Netherlands for Europe's fastest-growing left party.

by Steve Mcgiffen in the Morning Star, november 24th 2006

A BREAKTHROUGH for the radical left has been on the cards in the Netherlands since local elections last March saw the country's most progressive parliamentary force double its vote.

The only difference is that, this time, the Socialist Party (SP), which has been built from the ground up over three decades by an ever-growing band of dedicated activists, has done even better, almost tripling its seats in the national parliament.

It did so on the basis of a programme which emphasises improvements in health care including an end to the introduction of the "market" and a return to the principles of universalism, training for real jobs for young people, more spending on education and an end to the scandal of effective racial segregation in schools, defence of the welfare state, affordable housing, action against growing child poverty including improvements to child benefits, improvements of facilities for old people, with care for those who need it in their own homes wherever possible, better public transport, with this and other essential services remaining in or returning to public ownership, improvements to environmental and animal welfare policies and an end to the "European superstate" and subordination to US foreign policy.

The full programme represents a serious, affordable plan for socialist government for the 21st century, with increased social spending matched by cuts to defence and a reduction in waste and bureaucracy.

After the disappointment of 2003, when high poll returns were not matched in the election itself, the fear was that the same would happen again. By midnight on Wednesday, however, a rise from nine to 26 seats represented a victory beyond expectations.

Votes were won mainly from Labour, which lost a quarter of its support.
More satisfying still was that the SP, for 12 years one of three or four small but significant parliamentary parties, had now overtaken the right-wing VVD - the Thatcherite party of Frits Bolkestein of services directive notoriety - to become a powerful third force.

Curiously, the senior partner of the VVD in the outgoing centre-right coalition, the Christian Democrats (CDA) of premier Jan-Peter Balkenende, managed to retain 41 of its 44 seats and is expected to head up a new coalition.
Who else will feature in the government is hard to predict, as no obvious combination can muster the necessary 76 seats.

The most likely outcome had seemed to be a centre-right/centre-left coalition of CDA and Labour, but the two parties won only 73 seats between them, three short of the necessary majority.
They would have to find a third partner and the SP remains a candidate, though it is difficult to see how such a varied coalition could hang together.

The only disappointment of the night for the SP was that the poor performance of Labour and Greens meant that the progressive coalition of which it had hoped to form part ended the night 11 seats short of this magic number.
More likely is a grand coalition of CDA, Labour and VVD, but, in reality, the possible permutations are endless.

The fear of many SP supporters is that the parliamentary games it will now need to play will erode its radicalism, transforming it into just another social democratic party, indistinguishable from Labour in all but style.
Rapid growth brings dangers to any party, even if these are problems we would all like to have.

It is also true that the SP has long been criticised by purists on the left for what they see as its populist rhetoric, as well as for the slaying of a few sacred ideological cows.
For some, however, "popular" will always equal "populist."
The SP is playful, colourful and adept at using modern communications.
Its leader Jan Marijnissen is charismatic and massively popular, even among people who would never vote for his party.
He is seen by the broad population as a man of impeccable integrity, who, like everyone else employed by the SP, is paid a salary based on the average industrial wage.
But he is also an astute political analyst who knows how to use television and the internet, the podium and his position in parliament to good effect.
Perhaps most importantly, he knows how to listen.

As Labour and the Greens have moved ever further to the right, the SP has maintained a passionate commitment to the construction of a society based on the principles of equality, solidarity and human dignity embodied in its constitution and expressed in its daily practice.
The party, which retains a heavily working-class base, has been able to attract support from all sections of Dutch society – with the exception of the super-rich – by embracing widely shared values and convincing more and more people that socialism is the most effective expression of those values.
What will guard it against the danger of descending into a Labour-style politics of empty gestures is that it shows no sign of forgetting that the struggle in the streets, neighbourhoods and workplaces is of at least as much importance as what goes on in parliament or council chamber.
It continues to be a highly visible presence on all fronts in the fight against attempts to dismantle the welfare state and public services.

Its constitution commits it to "respect for all that lives" and this is expressed in a commitment to environmentalist priorities in a country whose dense population and high level of prosperity bring huge potential problems of air and water pollution, waste disposal and energy generation.
Its breakthrough undoubtedly began when it was the only parliamentary party to take part in the successful campaign against the EU's proposed neoliberal constitution.
The SP is proud of being a modern organisation whose publicity is so effective that it has even won awards from the advertising industry.
This is a very different use of the word "modern," however, from that associated with the "modernisers" of new Labour.

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