Letter From … The Hague

Bart van Bruggen warns that the Dutch Labour party is in need of a narrative

Things are not looking great for the Dutch Labour party, PvdA, ahead of this month’s general election. After four years as junior partner in a coalition government with its political adversary, the Liberal party, known as VVD, support for Labour has deteriorated in the polls and the party has suffered in local elections.

The polls, as in previous elections in this stage of the campaign, show a fragmented political landscape in which few parties really stand out. With polling data stubbornly consistent for months now, no party is expected to win more than 30 seats of the 150 in parliament. The far-right Freedom party has edged a small lead over VVD, followed by Democrats 66, Christian Democrats and Greens, who in turn are closely followed by PvdA and the Socialist party.

PvdA remains hopeful – although nothing it has tried to date has been able 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.

The hard truth is that PvdA consistently lacked a narrative – a reason to take part in the coalition government with 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.

The simplest lesson from all this is never to go into a coalition with your political adversary; though our German sister party is trying its best to disprove this. 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 in the final weeks of the campaign, this experience should not easily be forgotten.

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Bart van Bruggen is a former national chair of Young Labour in the Netherlands and campaigns officer for the PvdA in the 2012 general election. He tweets at @BartvanBruggen

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