The Dutch opt for centre-right reliability over populism

Like elsewhere in Europe, the leftist camp in the Netherlands is struggling to grow.

The Netherlands has voted – and no one really expected the result. The centre-right liberal party VVD of Prime Minister Mark Rutte achieved its best score ever (26.5 per cent) and is set to lead the next government. The social democratic PvdA under its young and dynamic leader Diederik Samsom came a close second (24.7 per cent) and defied all negative predictions. A grand coalition between the two election winners seems most likely: together, they could form a comfortable parliamentary majority of 80 out of 150 seats. And if deemed insufficient, the third winner of the night, the centre-left social-liberal D66 (7.9 per cent), looks willing to join. All three parties are committed to the European project; all three defend Dutch openness and a tolerant society. Despite significant differences in socio-economic questions, a reliable platform for cooperation is perfectly within reach.

The election losers are no less difficult to discern: both Rutte’s partner, the Christian democratic CDA, which slumped to one of its worst result ever, and Geert Wilders’ xenophobic Freedom party PVV, which supported the government from the margins, lost some five per cent of their electoral share and ultimately paid the price for the collapse of the coalition. As such, they both confirmed and defied a powerful trend in recent European elections: yet another government was voted out of office in the face of the eurozone crisis.

Indeed, 17 incumbent governments have now been angrily removed from office since the Greek crisis in May 2010. At the same time the Dutch have offered their Prime Minister (not his coalition) a second mandate. In this sense, Mark Rutte joins a small group of centre-right politicians who have survived and won back-to-back elections in the crisis era: Frederik Reinfeld in Sweden; Donald Tusk in Poland; and Andrus Ansip in Estonia.

At first glance, the Dutch result seems telling: Wilder’s extreme right and the far-left Socialist Party, which stagnated at around 10 per cent after predictions that it could compete for the top spot, wanted the elections to be a referendum on Europe. Both parties voted against any of the Eurozone rescue measures and are fiercely critical of the kind of deeper integration envisaged by EU leaders. But the hope of capitalising on widespread disillusion, if not anger, with the European project turned out to be misguided. The Dutch electorate rejected populism and opted for reliability instead.

According to Erik van Bruggen, a campaign insider, polarising narrowly around the EU question has been a strategic mistake. Faced with serious social and economic challenges, the Netherlands had to choose between different paths of reforms. Both the Liberals and the PvdA understood this choice and presented sharp alternatives. Against it, Wilders’ Freedom Party and the far Left remained stuck in a fight many were just tired of.

The consequence was a late surge in strategic and tactical voting. Polls in the run up to the election could not possibly predict the huge swing driven by a high number of undecided voters. Rutte skilfully occupied the centre stage on the right, arguing for tax cuts and market liberalisation to revive the economy. Samsom’s PvdA managed to regain the hegemony on the centre-left by offering voters a vision of social and ecological renewal without compromising on economic credibility, for instance on budget deficit limits. In the end, it was a two horse race. Each side tried to push their leader over the line first. In a political system ridden by fragmentation and polarisation, the strengthening of the mainstream and a moderate shift to bipolarity has been the actual revelation.

None of this, however, can obscure another truth: for all the talk about resentment towards financial capitalism and enragement with collective austerity, this was yet another election where the centre-left could not win. To be sure, the PvdA staged a remarkable comeback and achieved its best result for over a decade. But even this wasn’t enough. The last victory goes back to 1998, when the reformist Wim Kok championed the modernisation of the Polder Model. More worryingly, yesterday’s PvdA gains came largely at the expense of GroenLinks, a natural ally on the centre-left. The leftist camp thus struggles to grow. A problem the Dutch share with many of their European counterparts.

Olaf Cramme is director of Policy Network. Find him on Twitter as @olafcramme

Mark Rutte's centre-right liberal party achieved its best score ever. Photograph: Getty Images
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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.