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State of the Left Netherlands

Can the Dutch Labour party stage a fightback against all odds?

Bart van Bruggen - 09 March 2017

With one week to go, the prospects are not looking particularly good for the PvdA

Things are not looking great for the Dutch Labour party, PvdA. After four years as junior partner in a coalition government with its political adversary, the Liberal party (VVD), support for Labour has deteriorated in the polls and the party has suffered in local elections. Months of campaign efforts have not changed this picture, only a couple of days ahead of 15 March’s general election.

The polls, as in previous elections in this stage of the campaign, show a fragmented political landscape in which few parties really stand out. After months of stubborn consistency in the polls, no party is expected to win more than 30 seats of the 150 in parliament. Although recent polls have shown some movement, this has hardly been in favour of the PvdA. The VVD took a lead over the far-right Freedom party, followed by the Christian Democrats, Democrats 66 and Greens, who in turn are closely followed by the Socialist party, with the PvdA lagging behind them.

PvdA remain hopeful despite everything it has tried so far having failed to turn the tide. Leftwing policy initiatives, an increasingly thriving economy, and a leadership contest in November – in which current deputy prime minister Lodewijk Asscher beat incumbent party leader Diederik Samsom – have all failed to improve the party’s fortunes. Even the televised debates have not brought the change PvdA was hoping for, suggesting that the ship has sailed for PvdA’s chances of turning the polls around – although the party leadership remains hopeful, jokingly suggesting that after FC Barcelona’s glorious comeback against PSG, PvdA could do the same.

The hard truth is that PvdA consistently lacked a narrative ­– a raison d’être to take part in the coalition government with the VVD. It was presented as inevitable, and PvdA support for the cabinet was often justified along the lines of taking responsibility in hard economic times, providing political stability after a decade of cabinets collapsing, or softening the effects of rigorous budget cuts that would have been much worse without PvdA around.

This did not play well with the voters who were attracted by then party leader Samsom’s hopeful perspective in 2012. He ran a campaign without making promises, but the expectations he created were nevertheless sky high. Samsom did not enter the cabinet, but remained leader of the parliamentary PvdA, afraid that he could not present the PvdA narrative while in a cabinet position. Ironically, he often found himself more on message than most, defending every cabinet compromise rather than PvdA’s preferences. Even now, PvdA struggles to carve out a credible narrative for the years to come.

The simplest lesson from all this is never to go into a coalition with your political adversary, although our German sister party is trying its best to disprove this, with a fresh face as party leader. There is perhaps a more important lesson. PvdA had a hard time defending its participation in this coalition, because it both lacked a value-based defence for it and the appealing policy outcomes to back such a defence up. Successes came either too late or were too small to satisfy the ever-demanding party base. Even if PvdA manages to turn the tide against all odds in the final week of the campaign, this experience should not easily be forgotten.

Bart van Bruggen is communications intern at Policy Network. He is the former chair of Dutch Young Labour

This article is a contribution to State of the Left - Policy Network's regular insight bulletin that reports from across the world of social democratic politics

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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