The Dutch Left Lacks a Project — and the Will to Fight

Ahead of last week’s Dutch elections, the center-left called on voters to stop far-right leader Geert Wilders — but he won easily anyway. The Left needs to give working-class people a hopeful project to rally behind, not just rhetoric about defending democracy.

Leader of the left progressive coalition GL-PvdA, Frans Timmermans gives a speech on November 22, 2023, in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (Pierre Crom / Getty Images)

Early this month, Jacobin Netherlands celebrated the publication of its first issue with a keynote speech by Peter Mertens, former leader of the Belgian Workers’ Party. Mertens told a packed hall in Amsterdam: “Everytime I meet people from the Global South they say, ‘Oh, you are from Europe, it must be hard with the extreme right there.’ Yet I believe,” Mertens continued, “that the main problem in Europe is not the extreme right but the lack of self-confidence of the Left.”

Mertens had every right to state this. His Belgian Workers’ Party is one of the few (radical) left-wing parties that has the wind in its sails: it is currently on track to become the largest party in the Belgian elections next year, with other nominally left-wing parties having a good shot at securing a majority of seats. Things could not be more different in the Netherlands after last Wednesday’s general election.

The Dutch left has become more volatile since the 1990s and in decline electorally at least since the early 2000s. It hit an all-time low in 2021 when all the left-wing parties combined only reached a total of 33 of 150 seats. They matched that result in last week’s election. Worse, three smaller but more radical parties lost at the cost of the newly created center-left alliance between the Green Left party and the social democratic Labour Party, PvdA, forming a combined electoral list known as GL-PvdA.

The Most Neoliberal Country in Europe

Theoretically, the social and economic situation in the Netherlands should provide favorable conditions for a revival of the Left. A government and institutional culture distrustful of its own citizens, combined with tax breaks and rulings that allow large multinational corporations to evade taxes, have galvanized large segments of the population to reject neoliberal dogma and policy.

Anti-capitalist attitudes amongst young people are on the rise. According to surveys, over 40 percent of households worry about their finances, and two-thirds are financially vulnerable. At the same time the Netherlands ranks among the most unequal countries in the world in terms of wealth disparities, comparable to the United States. Last year, using an improved methodology, the national statistics office concluded that income disparities were greater than previously thought and branded the Dutch tax system as “regressive.” But despite the ever-increasing number of both millionaires and of people living under the poverty line, the Dutch left has not made hay.

This insecurity was an important theme during the elections: bestaanszekerheid, a Dutch term meaning something like “living in a condition of social and economic certainty,” was often mentioned, and yet it was the Right that managed to hijack this word and set the terms of the debate. The Left failed to rally voters around the theme of bestaanszekerheid, even though this was long its crown jewel and election winning theme.

As a whole, the Dutch electorate has always leaned right, but never in such overwhelming numbers. During the second half of the twentieth century, Dutch politics was considered to consist of “three currents.” There was the center (since 1975 represented by a single Christian Democratic party) flanked by a large social democratic PvdA to its left and the economically conservative VVD party to its right. The three parties each typically had a number of smaller parties in their electoral orbit.

The closing decade of the twentieth century introduced a greater degree of volatility to this traditional landscape. And especially since the millennium, large groups of voters became willing to back very different parties in successive elections, propelling populist challengers and outsiders to meteoric rises and equally meteoric falls.

Having shaken off its “ideological plumage” in the 1990s in a way reminiscent of Bill Clinton in the United States and Tony Blair in Britain, the PvdA felt this volatility first. Its historically loyal voter base feathered out toward the Left and the center — or it stopped turning out to vote altogether. Still, the party eked out a number of electoral comebacks, the last time in 2012. In the longer run, however, the share of the vote that went to the Left steadily declined during the last two decades. Ideologically, the Right was ascendant.

Left Anxiety

The Dutch left, in particular the center-left, has responded to this diminishing share of the vote by developing an anxious style of electoral politics — equally shaken by and in awe of the successes of (far) right juggernauts. It has failed to hear the wake-up call to rebuild and recalibrate its own ideology. In spite of two decades of diminishing electoral returns, the (center-) left has not pursued a consistent effort to shift the terms of the political debate or regrow its share of the vote.

Last week’s election did nothing to reverse this trend — nor does it seem like anything will change soon. While the victory by Geert Wilders’s right-wing extremist Party for Freedom (PVV) suggests a major reshuffling of the Dutch political landscape, its gains mostly came from people who already voted for the (center-) right. Gains and losses for other parties, too, predominantly came from voters within their own political families or closely adjacent groups in the leaky center.

Over the past two decades, left-wing parties pursued fruitless strategies of parroting more “palatable” versions of far-right, anti-immigrant, and anti-Muslim rhetoric in an effort to win back (mostly mythical) blue-collar voters supposed to have been “lost” to the populist right. In other moods, the PvdA presented itself as a responsible and capable party willing to do the dirty work of governing, courting nominally progressive voters in the center.

GL-PvdA leader Timmermans gave one of the clearest expressions of that anxious style in the lead-up to last week’s election when he argued, as a guest on a popular podcast, that while he would like to be like Bernie Sanders, in order to win, he must act like Joe Biden.

The anxious style of politics means that the (center-) left desperately tries to consolidate a shrinking share of the vote. Instead of trying to reverse the trend and expand its base, it implores voters on the Left to “vote strategically” while it courts voters in a political center that is itself increasingly sparsely populated, and which broke for the Right in much greater numbers. Last week’s election confirms that the Left is electorally and ideologically stagnant.

The horizon of parties on the Dutch left appears to be limited to a desire to perform as well as possible at the next election, designing their campaigns to attract voters from parties that are ideologically close and easily activated, rather than those who may be harder to win over or who are alienated from politics altogether. But there is no real project here: it is just the reductive jockeying of campaign professionals armed with pseudo-scientific data on voter-demand and party supply to engineer a coalition of voters that would make a party a midsize contender at best.

Merging to Gain Relevance

The merger of party lists of Green left with the social democratic PvdA provides a case in point. Both parties were ideologically already converging, but were different “issue owners,” with the PvdA performing well if the economy was the central topic and Green left when climate change concerned voters more.

Once upon a time a party that could compete for the largest share of the vote and the prime minister’s office, the PvdA imploded electorally in 2017, nose-diving from thirty-eight to nine seats — its lowest point since the party was founded after World War II. It made the party more of a direct competitor with the historically smaller Green left party. A merger at least offered the theoretical hope of being one of the large parties again and not so easily ignored.

But that did not happen. The merger proved only a very limited success: their combined number of parliamentary seats only increased by two, compared to the respective parties’ combined share in the implosion year of 2017. Apart from the breakthrough victory by Wilders, the main story of last week’s election is that of the Left failing to find new voters or win back ones it has lost.

This failure becomes particularly perplexing considering the thirteen years of neoliberal government under the leadership of outgoing prime minister, Mark Rutte. Part of the failure surely is due to the fact that the PvdA has been complicit in this project between 2012 and 2017 — years marked by bruising austerity that harmed the economy and delayed recovery.

Social democratic politicians led the hollowing out of social services and helped to lay the foundations for the current crisis in the availability of affordable housing. Yet the 2017 implosion did not trigger a process of reflection and renewal, or at least a process in which the party leadership was pushed out to make room for an alternative. On the contrary, three of the PvdA’s leaders since 2017, including the current GL-PvdA leader,  Timmermans, were ministers in the deeply unpopular government.

Lack of Opposition

The scandal of the Dutch left is its failure to rally voters around a rejection of the neoliberal years under Rutte. During five years of opposition, both the Greens and the PvdA have at best only flirted with a more radical approach, even as the effects of Rutte’s governing doctrine became painfully apparent.

Last winter, Dutch households faced acute problems affording their heating bills. When Rutte was asked if he would use his political muscle to prevent people from being cut off by their energy suppliers, he flatly refused. (Another scandal is that it was Wilders who pressured Rutte on this point most tenaciously, while the Left struggled to articulate the political stakes clearly).

When corporate-induced inflation began surging earlier this year, with teachers beginning to notice that increasing numbers of children were being sent to school without having had breakfast, Rutte’s government — so quick to support highly profitable corporations during the COVID-19 pandemic — refused to act. Instead, it blamed organized labor for demanding higher wages. The Left, again, failed to make political hay. Rather than lighting a fire under Rutte’s feet, it chose to scold the “immorality” of a random vice president of the Netherlands’ largest supermarket chain at a parliamentary subcommittee meeting.

In other areas too, Rutte’s true colors were on display. A dramatic and highly publicized scandal involving the Dutch tax agency persecuting over ten thousand families under wrongful accusations of fraud, throwing many into severe financial difficulties and debt, shocked the country. Seventy percent of these cases involved migrant families. As a result of the financial ruin inflicted, 1,675 children were forcibly separated from their parents by Child Protective Services. Adding insult to injury, after years of denying fault, Rutte’s government made the families submit endless paperwork detailing years of financial information before it released its compensation to them.

But the Left has not benefited, because it routinely fails to politicize these issues on its own terms. The lack of affordable housing, for instance, is persistently blamed on the influx of different sorts of migrants instead of cuts on public spending. Although this myth is time and again debunked, the far right continues to push this narrative and the mainstream right — responsible for the cuts — willingly confirms it.

The (center-) left, by contrast, instinctively and persistently buys into the idea that its raison d’être is to be the steward of good, sensible, reasonable governance and policy, approaching politics more as a pageant of competence and smarts than as a fight against the powerful and entrenched interests of the capitalist economy.

GL-PvdA’s campaign strategy was telling. Initially it was centered on “restoring trust” and, even more so, Timmermans as an individual. As vice president of the European Commission, Timmermans had successfully guided a moderately ambitious climate change bill through the European Parliament. In public appearances and televised debates, he typically excelled when discussing climate change. But in confrontation with the conservative VVD party, he was often put on the defensive about his economic policies — increasing taxation for large corporations and the wealthy. Those defensive moments were also the few times he actually talked about his economic policies in more detail.

In the home stretch of the campaign, when the PVV began to break away in the polls, the GL-PvdA tried to present itself as a last bulwark against the extreme right, not unlike the strategy the Democratic Party pursued against Donald Trump. There was no positive program anymore, just a warning to not make things worse. But in a country that has been trending further and further to the Right for decades, the strategy was doomed to fail.

Dynamics of Moving Right

The absence of a credible and defiant political project on the (center-) left is mirrored by a supremely confident far right that seizes any opportunity to politicize any and all aspects of life. It makes political hay out of everything from traditional gender relations to COVID vaccinations, and from climate policies to the widest range of conspiracy theories. Yet the signature strategy remains to unleash different forms of covert and overt racism against ethnic minorities, Muslims, migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees.

At most elections, the far right entertained little hope of actually governing. It was clear to them that winning the ideological struggle was a more effective way to increase its power. The horizon for the far right was often simply to oppose the government while determining the terms of the debate. The far right perfected its political style by copying intellectual and political currents from the Anglo-American New Right and the French Nouvelle Droite. And while politically mainstream parties tried fruitlessly to mitigate the challenge by parroting its talking points and offering similar (if slightly watered down) versions of its policies, they only furthered the rightward momentum.

For some time, the Left had a comparable dynamic. The more radically oriented Socialist Party often acted as a gadfly to the center-left, reminding it not to drift too far to the center. Further back, the predecessors of the Green left were challenging the political mainstream in similar fashion. The tragedy of the Left is, in part, the implosion of the PvdA. Without a credible contender for the prime ministership, the smaller parties were also denied their historical role as parties that bore witness to a more radical politics. And why would they continue in the old way: with most parties on the Left now comparatively small, all might equally hope to become a junior partner in the next center-right governing coalition.

Thus, many of the left-wing parties moved to a power-oriented logic in which the goal is maximizing votes and governing rather than standing on one’s principles. Like the GL-PvdA alliance, the ideological course of the historically more radical Socialist Party today seems to be more informed by the results of opinion surveys than by socialist thought. Other left-wing parties that did stick to their own principles lost much of their appeal as they suffered from internal conflicts erupting over the summer.

Wilders’s victory will likely do much to entrench the anxious style of electoral politics even further. GL-PvdA is already proclaiming that it will stand up to defend democracy against the far right. While a robust and concerted defense of democratic principles against a PVV assault is more than plausibly necessary — especially if Wilders is successful in forming a government — the strategy is also likely a political poison pill. The risk is ending up with a party so obsessed with its far right Angstgegner [dreaded opponent] that it glues the Left to a defense of Dutch parliamentary politics wholesale, including its many dysfunctional elements.

Willingness to Fight

In the process, the Left would end up further neglecting the need for its own ideological renewal while scolding those who desire a more radical and antagonistic approach to politics as traitors of democracy. Like the US Democrats, rather than defending a politically healthy practice of democracy, the Left would end up identifying itself with the dysfunctional status quo, while policing the meritocratic affect of civility and deference to institutional power. By casting itself as the defender of existing institutions, the Left denies itself the space to pursue a more popular approach and side with the victims of decadeslong neoliberal reform.

What the Dutch left needs instead, however, is a renewed sense of ideological purpose. It does not need new ideologies for this. To recover its own ideological and historical roots, adjusted to new realities, would already be a good first step, taking Sanders in the United States as an example or, closer to home, the Belgian Workers’ Party.

Capital is demonstrably responsible for most of the misery in the Netherlands — misery that is already being politicized by other parties, just in their own signature nationalist or racist ways. It is important that the Left offers its own self-confident explanation. A great number of people already know from personal experience about the housing and cost-of-living crisis. What they need is a political party that dares to tell them who is to blame, and what is to be done.