Two months ago, the members of the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA) overwhelmingly voted for Diederik Samsom to be their new leader. Today he is fighting his first general election campaign. Rarely has an opposition leader’s call for “elections, now!” been answered so swiftly.
A bit of background. On 21 April the Dutch minority government of Liberals (VVD) and Christian Democrats (CDA) collapsed, after Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV) withdrew its parliamentary support. Just as Prime Minister Mark Rutte looked set to pull off a deal on the government’s austerity budget for 2013, Wilders’ own MPs called time on the coalition. They refused to back the deal Wilders had negotiated with CDA and VVD, forcing him into a humiliating public climb-down. Wilders withdrew his support for the budget – and for the minority government.
Rutte’s government continued in a caretaker capacity, with just one urgent task: to find support in parliament for a budget submission to Brussels, with a deadline looming just one week later. There ensued 48 hours of frantic negotiations between government and opposition parties, with finance minister Jan-Kees de Jager acting as go-between.
The Left-Liberal D66, Green Left and Christian Union parties all indicated their willingness to help the government secure a majority, in return for concessions on the cuts already agreed by the governing parties, as well as a set of health care, pensions and labour and housing market reforms.
Labour’s Samsom, who refused to accept the 3 percent budget deficit target for 2013 (in line with the position he took during his leadership campaign), found himself isolated and shut out of the negotiations. When he changed his mind two days later, after it became clear that voters wanted him to reach an agreement, it was too late. A deal had already been done by the two governing and three opposition parties.
The budget package was welcomed by the Dutch public (including Labour supporters) like an act of national salvation. In the public perception, after years of populist-inspired gridlock in the Hague, politicians finally showed a sense of responsibility and a willingness to put the national interest before party interests. The opposition parties which took part in the deal were rewarded in the polls; Labour looked out of touch and took a big hit. Samsom admitted he had handled the situation badly.
At a meeting of the Labour Party specially convened to discuss the political situation, party members were critical of Samsom’s decision not to join the budget deal with the government. But after he warned that the five-party budget deal would hit the lower and middle classes hardest and reiterated his call for a more gradual path to fiscal balance, they gave him their unanimous backing and a round of rapturous applause.
Samsom feels emboldened by two recent developments. The first is the statement by Olli Rehn, the European Commissioner for budget discipline, that “the stability pact is not stupid”. Samsom believes that in view of the poor state of the Dutch economy, the Commission will accept that the Netherlands cannot be expected to bring its budget deficit below 3 percent in 2013. The second is the victory of François Holland in France, which Samsom thinks will herald a move away from austerity to Keynesian-style demand-driven growth policy across Europe.
In Samsom’s dream scenario the EU relaxes its budget criteria, the austerity budget deal between the five government and opposition parties collapses, and the PvdA reclaims the mantle of leader of the left-wing opposition, currently held by the hard left, anti-market and anti-European Socialist Party, which is riding high in the polls. Samsom repeatedly says his ambition is to make Labour the largest party once again.
There are two major potential flaws in Labour’s election strategy. The first is that even if the Commission gives the Netherlands some additional respite in meeting its budgetary obligations, there is widespread public and political support in the Netherlands for bringing state finances under control as soon as possible and for undertaking a number of long overdue economic and social reforms. In the March edition of the State of the Left Review I wrote that “the new leader must be careful to extract the party from its current predicament without jeopardising its reputation as a reliable and responsible potential party of government”. That is exactly what Samsom is in danger of doing by pursuing his ‘spend now, save later’ policy. Instead he should take a leaf out of François Hollande’s book, who despite his anti-austerity rhetoric is committed to meeting Europe’s deficit targets.
Secondly, by opting for a more traditional socialist agenda, Samsom is moving the party away from the centre ground. At the same time, he refuses to state a clear preference for a government of the Left. Like his predecessors, he wants to keep his options open until after the election. This strategy risks pleasing no-one. Labour voters who have defected to the Socialists will not vote for a Labour party which may yet form a grand coalition with the parties of the centre-right. And voters who defected to D66 and the Green Left will not vote for a Labour party with a policy platform resembling that of the Socialists.
A more sensible strategy would be to emulate the experience of countries such as Denmark, Germany, Norway and Sweden. There, social democratic parties have formed pre-election pacts with other parties of the Left and won, while allowing each to retain their own specific identity and thus attract a maximum of voters. A Dutch Labour Party firmly anchored left of centre, but allied with the Green Left and Socialist Parties and committed to forming a government of the Left if the electoral maths allow, would be in a much stronger position to win voter support.
Luckily for Samsom, Labour is not the only party facing difficulties. As soon as the government collapsed, Liberals and Christian Democrats began falling over themselves to declare that they had never believed in working with Wilders’ PVV in the first place. Interior minister Liesbeth Spies, a Christian Democrat leadership contender (one of six currently battling it out), withdrew her support for the burqa ban and a ban on holding dual nationality – both of which she herself had put forward. Geert Wilders, in a desperate bid to remain relevant, called for the Netherlands to leave the EU – something even his most die-hard supporters would not contemplate. The leader of the Green Left, Jolande Sap, is facing an unexpected challenge to her leadership from a young MP, Tofik Dibi. And after the failure of his minority government to deliver results, the shine has come off Prime Minister Rutte.
Samsom faces an uphill battle to establish his credibility and win back the voters Labour lost over the last ten years. But with four months to go until the Dutch elect a new parliament there is still everything to play for.