Ever since the Labour party presented its new leader and prime ministerial candidate its poll ratings have shot up…
No, this is not a what-if scenario, nor wishful thinking. The polling I am referring to reflects the mood of the Dutch electorate. A month after the Brits on 9 June the Dutch will go to the polls to elect a new government. With a proportionate representational system in its purest form more than 11 parties are fighting for 150 seats in our ‘House of Commons’ or Second Chamber. The outcome will without a doubt be a coalition, because unlike the British the Dutch are not scared of ‘hung’ parliaments. In fact, they are the norm. The Dutch Senate, a democratic equivalent of the British House of Lords, is formed separately through regional elections. These elections take place at different times to ensure coalitions control both Houses. Enough Dutch citizenship education although it might come handy after the 6th of May.
Let me take you back to February 2010 when the Dutch Labour party was at an all-time low with predictions of 15 seats or fourth position in the polls. One of the reasons why Labour was so unpopular was because they were part of an uncomfortable coalition with the Christian Democrats and a smaller Christian party. Nothing too radical or crazy, but a bit boring and definitively not progressive. Then, Labour leader Wouter Bos was praised for his intervention as finance minister in the banking crisis to save Dutch Bank ABN-AMRO from the hands of Sir Fred and RBS, but his decisive actions were soon forgotten and Labour was blamed for, well, almost everything. In addition, the Freedom party of Geert Wilders, the rightwing guy with peroxide blond hair who the British home secretary unsuccessfully tried to ban from the UK (giving him more publicity in the process), was snatching voters away from Labour (and the right-of-centre Liberal party). Immigration, housing, economic uncertainty: Labour’s voters felt the party was not taking their concerns seriously enough. Wilders uses ‘fear’ as a powerful populist tool, mainly attacking the Muslim community, and took advantage of this sentiment by presenting himself as the new Pim Fortuyn – a right wing politician who was killed by a self-described animal activist in May 2002.
Fast forward to April 2010 and the situation has changed dramatically: Labour is back on a predicted 33 seats (https://n8.noties.nl/peil.nl/) and might even become the biggest party. So what has changed? Not much to be honest. OK, Labour refused to extend the Dutch mission in Afghanistan and left an unpopular coalition, but its policies haven’t changed radically. Wilders is still singing the same song, refusing to enter into any meaningful debate and Jan-Peter Balkenende the Christian Democrat Harry Potter lookalike PM is still running the country. Labour policies didn’t change, but its leadership did: Wouter Bos announced in March that he was leaving politics to “spend more time with his young family” and the same day Job Cohen stepped forward.
Cohen had been mayor of Amsterdam since 2000 and was the first public official to wed same-sex couples in the Netherlands. He has also been a deputy minister of education and deputy minister of justice, dealing mainly with immigration. In this capacity he was responsible for a new immigration law, intended to restrict entry of refugees to “genuine cases”.
With the upcoming elections, Cohen is also a candidate for prime minister, and as the polls indicated he is a strong opponent for Geert Wilders, described as he is as “authoritarian but enlightened”. Cohen as PM scores well under centre-left voters and interestingly under voters intending to support the Freedom party (See: http://www.politiekebarometer.nl/).
It is Cohen’s experience addressing immigration issues, running a multicultural city like Amsterdam and being a minister in a Labour/Liberal coalition that will be valuable in the election campaign and beyond. He will be able to speak with conviction about “keeping the country together” whilst at the same time promoting a thorough but fair immigration system. Furthermore, Labour/Liberal governments (or ‘purple coalitions’ as they are referred to) have always been my favourite combination in the Netherlands, introducing progressive-liberal policies unthinkable under a conservative-led coalition, such as opening up marriage to same- sex couples or introducing clearer rules around assisted dying.
What Labour’s recent rise in the polls shows is that it seems to be personality more than policy that drive undecided voters, something echoed by the ‘Cleggmania’ that has taken Britain by surprise. Sure, people want change, but they don’t know what this ‘change’ should look like.
Let me make a prediction: it won’t be ‘blue’ in either country. Change will be ‘purple’ in the Netherlands (mix ‘red’ for Labour and ‘blue’ for Liberals) and ‘orange’ in the UK (‘red’ for Labour and ‘yellow’ for Liberal Democrats… unless you consider the Liberal Democrat colour to be ‘orange!)’ In this case change in the UK will look ‘coral’ (mix ‘red’ and ‘orange’) – almost red but not quite there…
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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