A few weeks ago it seemed the die was already cast for the outcome of yesterday’s election in the Netherlands. It quickly became a story about one man and his regressive brand of populism. Journalists clamoured with expectations – will Geert Wilders do enough to become the largest party in the Dutch Parliament?
For all intents and purposes the people of the Netherlands rejected Geert Wilders, with 83 per cent of Dutch voters looking elsewhere other than his Party for Freedom.
One less-told story has been the remarkable rise of GroenLinks, the Green Party of England and Wales’ sister party, and their leader Jesse Klaver. It had the biggest upswing in vote share of any party. Whilst it is undoubtedly true the Netherlands is not the UK – the Dutch electoral system is highly proportional with a low qualification for entering Parliament – there are still valuable lessons for us to learn as Greens in the UK.
After the crash of 2007, and with years of deregulation and globalisation leaving workers behind and causing inequality to rise, the liberal establishment’s failure to tackle the deep economic fissures of our age is now coming home to roost. Old social democratic parties – from Spain, to Greece to the Netherlands – are finding themselves to be victims of their own failures.
The far right has, to some extent, filled the vacuum. Migrants and refugees have been used as scapegoats – and some progressives have been completely unwilling to make a stand. While populist parties like Ukip and the Party for Freedom often fail to impress at the ballot box, that doesn’t mean their politics hasn’t infected the mainstream. As the Dutch author Rutger Bregman said this morning, other parties “have copied Wilders’ ideas/language. [He] may not have won this battle, but is winning the war”.
In the Netherlands, Greens offered a principled response to toxic, far right populism. GroenLinks capitalised spectacularly on the perfect mix of a well-run campaign, a fair voting system and most importantly, optimism. Klaver had an overwhelmingly positive message for Dutch voters, particularly young voters. The campaign promised a new era of hope and change for the Netherlands. Their vision encompassed empathy, economic equality and protection of the climate, presented to Dutch voters through innovate campaigning techniques. And they did not engage with war on migrants and refugees by edging towards the right – they stood up tall against xenophobia.
Klaver talked nonstop about the future during the campaign and the need for a futurist vision is the same here as in the Netherlands. We need big policies for changing times – less work, more humanity and new ways to power our communities. We need liberation in our lives, rather than liberation for big business.
There’s no doubt that lessons can be learnt from GroenLinks. For a start it’s clear that a proportional voting system allows people to back who they actually believe in.
But GroenLinks’ success should also make us redouble our efforts to offer voters a vision of Britain as an open society with an economy that’s managed for the good of everyone, not let loose to wreak havoc on people’s lives.
In just two weeks’ time Green parties from across the world will gather in Liverpool for the first ever joint congress between the European Green Party, the Green Party of England and Wales and the Global Greens. We are all buoyed by the success of GroenLinks, but we know we have a lot of work to do.
While the right keep saying people at the bottom just need to get a foot on the ladder – we will concentrate on stopping the rungs from getting further apart. We need to end the language of opportunity for the few and replace it with a politics that lifts everyone up. To fully counter the far-right we must re-embrace a tradition of welcoming migrants and refugees, not only out of compassion but because they make us a bigger and better country. We must also address the conflict, abuse and climate change which causes them to come.
The Dutch election has proved what we know to be true, that this kind of positive, optimistic vision for a better future can successfully take on the politics of fear pedalled by regressive politicians.
Now it is a matter of convincing people their vote will count if they invest it in our party. The truth is that this is difficult in the UK as long as we face an out-of-date first past the post voting system. But the desire for change is out there. A petition to adopt proportional representation has topped 100,000 signatures. And, as our London Assembly members, MEPs and Members of the Scottish Parliament will attest, people are much more likely to vote Green when they know their vote counts. Just last year the Scottish Green Party tripled its number of MSPs and now they now hold a pivotal role in determining the future of Scotland.
Proportional representation would undoubtedly add more voices to the debate. On the left, a more diverse input from a range of parties would determine the direction progressive politics heads in. Historically the Labour Party claimed a monopoly on left-wing politics – but this has clearly changed. More than a million people voted Green at the last election and almost all of Scotland’s MPs are from the SNP. Pluralist politics is here to stay.
The election in the Netherlands could be a taste of things to come here in Britain – and it’s my mission to make it so in the coming months and years.
In the meantime, I’m looking forward to meeting Greens from around the world in Liverpool at the end of the month. We will explore together how hope can triumph over hate, how we can build bridges not walls, and offer a vision of a better future. The success of the Dutch Greens is a cause for hope for all of us, even if we face an uphill battle against our voting system.