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
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder