January polls in the Netherlands show a left-of-Labour party, the Socialist Party, ahead of all other parties.
If an election were to be held now, the SP would be the biggest party in the 150-seat proportional-representation parliament, with 32 seats, way ahead of Labour with 17. Among low-income voters, the SP got 32% of preferences in a poll taken on 22 January, ahead of Labour with 14%.
The governing right-wing parties, VVD and CDA, and the PVV which supports their coalition, would still have 62 seats, down from their current 82, and the remaining seats would be shared among smaller parties.
Peter Drucker, a US socialist long active in the Netherlands, told Solidarity: “I would caution against reading too much into the SP’s very high standing in the polls right now. It could win a great electoral success if elections came at a lucky moment, but electorates have been extremely volatile across Europe for years now”.
For all that, the SP’s result is a startling contrast with the results of left-of-Labour parties in Europe for many years now.
A look at the SP’s history makes it even more startling. It is not a splinter from Labour or from a big old official “Communist Party”, like Die Linke in Germany or Rifondazione in Italy. It is a linear descendant of a Maoist group of the 1970s which has evolved slowly into a relatively large left social-democratic party (50,000 members, equivalent of about 180,000 in Britain). It formally declared itself no longer “Marxist-Leninist” in 1991.
Peter Drucker told Solidarity: “The SP has a solid core electorate of about 8% due to its years of party-building in working-class neighbourhoods.
“This is the key thing left from its Maoist past, which is not reflected in its politics today or even in all of its core leadership group”.
The record, therefore, is a warning against the illusion common on the British left, that appearing at each election with a newly cooked-up “coalition” or “front”, and a new permutation of populist or leftish slogans, is a way to win mass support which bypasses the need for solid “party-building” activity.
Drucker continues: “The lower scores of genuine anti-capitalist parties (not just the Scottish Socialist Party and Nouveau Parti Anti-capitaliste [in France] but the Portuguese Left Bloc and Danish Red-Greens) reflect, I think, objective difficulties in this period for full-fledged anti-capitalist parties, which the SP is not.
“Of course the SP’s base is a very different kind of launchpad [from the one which, for example, Die Linke has from its base in the old ruling party in East Germany and a large splinter from the Social-Democratic party in West Germany], but it is a serious launchpad. The SP has for years had tens of thousands of members (mostly inactive, but at least a few thousand active). Although it subordinates extraparliamentary activism to its parliamentary strategy and tactics, it has consistently taken extraparliamentary work seriously.
“Another factor is the exceptionally class collaborationist course of the Dutch trade unions since the Wassenaar agreement for wage restraint in 1982, the Labour Party’s coalition government with the VVD (the most right-wing of the major bourgeois parties) from 1994 to 2002 [which made Labour a pioneer of neo-liberal government policy in the Netherlands: Labour had also been in coalition government with a more moderate bourgeois party in 1989-94], and the virtually total absence of a class-struggle opposition inside the unions until only a couple of years ago (or a significant Labour Party left wing in recent decades).
“Despite the SP’s failure to do serious trade-union work, this situation made it the reference point for a substantial and growing layer of union activists fed up with social democracy.
“One more important factor is the rapid secularisation of the Catholic southern Netherlands, which was a virtual one-party state until the 1960s; the well-known affinity of Maoists with lapsed Catholicism (SP leader Jan Marijnissen had a Jesuit education) positioned the SP for its initial breakthrough in southern cities like Oss and Nijmegen.
“Finally the role of the electoral system should not be underestimated; a party needs only two-thirds of one per cent of the national vote to get into parliament here, so that the SP could get into parliament with two seats in 1998 with a vote that would have shut it out in virtually every other European country (except Denmark)”.
The Dutch Labour Party, with the complicity of the main trade-union leaders, seems to have hacked away at its traditional connection to a working-class base almost to the point of cutting it completely, radically more so even than other labour parties which have pioneered neo-liberal policies in government in their countries (New Zealand, Australia).
The SP’s rise has been gradual, but not inexorable. In the 2006 elections it won 25 seats in parliament, almost as many as it could win now, but in 2010 it lost heavily, going down to 15 seats.
It cannot be assumed that the SP has found a magic recipe which could ensure victory for left-wing politics in other countries too. The obverse of the SP’s electoral rise has been political accommodation, and it may be that with further electoral successes will come an evolution like that of the German Greens, once dominated by “Third-Worldist” radicals, now a thinly leftish party of government.
Back in 2007, SP left-winger Leo de Kleijn argued: “The problem is that in the SP the weight of the parliamentary group and the groups in city councils have become much greater in comparison with the weight of militants outside of such institutions”.
SP left-wingers are worried about “a more moderate view on the monarchy, on NATO and on socio-economic questions... supposed to create an image of a ‘reasonable party’...”
These are “explained by arguing that ‘we should only make demands that we can make happen in four years, in other words until the next elections’”, and by the leadership’s declaration “that the SP has to prepare for government responsibility”.
SP left-wingers blamed the 2010 setback on a softening of the SP’s social message. The SP had responded to the global crisis by advocating nationalisation of banks that were in danger of going bankrupt, a parliamentary inquiry into the causes of the crisis, and more supervision over the financial sector. “The manifesto ended with a plea for a return to the so-called ‘Rhineland model’ [of social-market capitalism], without asking if such a return was even possible”.
The SP has expelled some Trotskyist groupings which have tried to organise inside it, but other Trotskyists remain active within it.