A coalition of losers

20 January 2010

A coalition of losers

Tiny KoxTiny Kox argues that a fear of moving away from the neoliberal consensus left Holland with a 'coalition of losers' as a Government and a centre-right consensus that doesn't properly reflect the views of the Dutch

Although general elections in the Netherlands are scheduled for 2011, the chance that Dutch citizens will have to cast their votes as early as the autumn of 2010 is quickly increasing. The current government of Labour and Christian Democrats – the country's two biggest parties – supported by the smaller Christian Union, in office since 2007, will have to dismantle several major political cluster bombs if it wants to survive.

Halfway through January, Parliament will receive the result of an official independent inquiry into the role of the former Dutch government in the US-UK-led Iraq war in 2003. Christian-Democratic Prime Minister Balkenende, who fiercely backed Bush and Blair in 2003, will now be in the centre of the debate on whether the Netherlands violated international law.

Also in January, the Government will have to take a decision on whether or not to prolong Dutch military presence in Afghanistan. US President Obama and UK Prime Minister Brown are constantly pressing the Dutch government to stay in Afghanistan, but the majority of both Parliament and public demand withdrawal of Dutch troops, before the end of the year.

If the government can survive these two clear and present dangers, it will have to decide, before late spring, how to deal with a possible draconian 35 billion euro budgetary cut in the Dutch welfare state, due to the financial and economical crisis that also is hitting Dutch society.

Between January and June, local elections in March could easily turn out to be a disaster for both Social and Christian Democrats and put both parties under unbearable pressure from their members to end the strangling cooperation in government.

Meanwhile, outside Parliament, the trade unions will try to mobilise the working class to oppose the Government's proposal to raise the pension age from 65 to 67. If the unions prevail (public opinion is on their side but a parliamentary majority to date backs the government), the government will have to step down.

Looking at Dutch politics from abroad, transparency will probably not be the first thought in a person's mind. Dutch politics means an inevitably large number of bigger and smaller parties in Parliament, right, left, centre, some religiously-inspired, others secular-based, elected via a system of proportional representation. It also means a steady tradition of coalition governments ever since the introduction of universal suffrage in 1919 – but also a tradition of governments that do not complete their full term in office. So, Dutch coalition governments come, go and change – and in the meantime, often do not quite represent the wish of the voters.

The present government was formed in January 2007 by two parties which both lost support in the elections as compared to the previous vote, but nevertheless succeeded to leave the big winner of the elections outside a coalition, by asking the small somewhat fundamentalist Christian Union to join them in a narrow majority coalition, which nobody would have thought of before election day. The big winner of the November 2006 elections was, without any doubt, the Socialist Party, positioned clearly to the left of Labour and the Greens. The SP won over 16 per cent of the votes and 25 out of the 150 MPs in the Second Chamber of the States-General, the equivalent of the House of Commons or the House of Representatives. Its attempts to enter government for the first time in its history, however, failed due to the harsh resistance of the centre-right Christian Democrats the idea of forming a government with two left parties, and the understandable fear of Labour of bringing its main ideological competitor into a favourable position from which it could try to take over the number one position in the Dutch Left. Whereas Social and Christian Democrats ingeniously did succeed in forming a coalition of losers in January 2007, leaving the winner outside in opposition, its coalition Government since then has never succeeded in gaining much public support, neither in the good times of 2007/2008 nor in the crisis years of 2008/2009.

Though it had won greatly increased support in the 2006 elections, the failure to enter the new government in 2007 cost the SP some of its public support. Many people were disappointed that the expected shift to the left in government policy did not happen and most things stayed as they were. Being now the biggest opposition party of course strengthens the SP's position but not to the extent that the party could already seriously influence the government's internal economic and social policy. Although right-wing liberals (also in opposition now) like to say the government is afraid of us and that we participate in the government's policy-making from the opposition seats in Parliament, reality shows that we are indeed able to block some neoliberal developments, for example in health care and education, and that we did get bonuses and top salaries on to the political agenda – but nevertheless the political mainstream is still neoliberal style. The government continues the privatisation of state owned energy companies and won a parliamentary majority for a raising of the pension age – which is in effect a Big Robbery: people will not be able nor allowed to work longer (most people nowadays have to stop working before 63), but they will have to wait two more years to receive the pension they were promised to get at 65. Meanwhile government continues to decrease both company taxes and taxes on the Rich. More successful until now are our attempts to press the Prime Minister to finally accept an official Iraq inquiry and to press Labour to take a clear stance against prolonged Dutch military participation in the Afghanistan war. Both results could lead to a collapse of the Government in the near future.

Whether the SP will be able to mobilise in the coming months together with the trade unions and Dutch working class against the proposed raising of the pension age to 67 is not yet clear. The same goes for the struggle against other upcoming severe cuts in the welfare state. Although the SP's resistance to the Government's policy is backed by a big share of the public, that same public is not yet convinced that resistance will be effective, given the continued support of Parliament for the government's approach to the crisis. Part of the problem of effecting a regime change in our country after the next elections is that the Netherlands has hardly any experience with a left-orientated Government. Most governments have been dominated by centre right Christian Democrats, in changing coalitions with Labour and Liberals. Only in the 1990s did the Netherlands get, for a period of eight years, a Lib-Lab-coalition headed by a Labour Prime Minister but clearly based on a neoliberal ideology. So, Dutch governments used to be centre-right. That is what we know. And although many people have a lot to complain about, quite a lot of them also tend to say when asked about the future Government: 'better the devil you know than the devil you don't know...'

Another part of the problem is Labour's fear of getting into an electoral alliance of the Left – or after elections ending up in the opposition together with SP and Greens, while the Christian Democrats enter into a new coalition with the right. At our next Congress on January 30 the SP leadership will propose to its members the continuation of the party's attempts to mobilise the people outside the Parliament against the government's social, economical and foreign policy, while also attempting to free Labour from its understandable but yet ineffective fears for a left electoral alliance as a realistic alternative to another centre-right government. As the SP we cannot but combine these two elements of our political approach. Without a strong base in social struggle, the party would lack its main reason of existence; without allies in Parliament, SP participation in a coalition would not be possible. But while organising social struggle, we necessarily provoke those Labour forces which are hostile to us, and give them even more arguments to increase their resistance against an electoral alliance of the Left. Our hope of convincing Labour nevertheless to look to left options, is related to the clear wish of a majority of Labour's membership for some kind of cooperation of the Left.

And of course: the financial and economical crisis that has hit the world shows how the neoliberal approach has failed to deliver what it promised to citizens. The mantra of more market and less government, combined with the processes of deregulation, liberalisation and privatisation, has clearly proved to be false and ineffective. Now neo-liberalism is losing its credibility, it is up to those who believe in socialist alternatives to convince the public of the possibility of such an alternative. In the next 18 months local, provincial and national elections will show whether or not we van meet this challenge.

Tiny Kox is Senator for the Socialist Party in the First Chamber of the Dutch States-General and Chair of the Group of the United European Left in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe

SP: main opposition party of the Netherlands

The Dutch Socialist Party SP, founded in 1972, operated for over two decades as a socialist grass roots movement before entering the national Parliament in 1994. Since then its national popularity has grown quickly, due to its clear opposition to the neo-liberal policies of changing coalition governments of Christian, Social and Liberal Democrats. Since 2006, the SP has been the country's main opposition party and, with 47,000 members, the third party in terms of membership, just behind Christian and Social Democrats. Although it can trace its origins to the Marxist-Leninist movement of the early 1970s, the Dutch Socialist Party long since exchanged this borrowed ideology for a home grown variety which prioritises practice over theory, and action in the here-and-now over dreams of a distant utopia. The party defines socialism in its party programme as the ongoing movement for human dignity, equality and solidarity. The SP now has 25 MPs in the Lower House, 11 Senators in the Upper House, two MEPs in Brussels/Strasbourg, three MPs in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and is represented in all 12 Provincial Parliaments and in about 100 city councils. In 2005, the SP lead the successful Dutch campaign against the European Constitution. Although almost all parties in Parliament supported the proposed Treaty, nearly two out of three citizens said no to it in a nationwide referendum. In 2009, the Government, scared of another defeat, refused its citizens a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty (although Labour had in 2006 promised its voters such a referendum). Parliament ratified it, while the SP voted against in Lower and Upper House, a position backed by a majority of the public.

While strongly opposing the neo-liberal development of the European Union since the Maastricht Treaty, the SP advocates European cooperation as such as necessary and inevitable. SP representatives therefore participate actively in the European Parliament as well as in the parliamentary assemblies of the Council of Europe and the OSCE. In the European Parliament and the Council of Europe the SP participates in the Group of the United European Left. More information: www.international.sp.nl

This article was first published in Scottish Left Review

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