Tag Archives: politics

Dutch social democracy has hit rock bottom. Rejoice!

Why a progressive alliance is the key to renewal for the PvdA.

Across Europe, social democracy is in unprecedented decline. The French PS was irrelevant at last year’s presidential and parliamentary elections and in Germany’s recent general elections the SPD lost yet more ground to rivals left and right. While the Labour Party in the UK may look like an exception to the rule, its 2017 election result owed a great deal to tactical voting – a last-resort strategy adopted by voters whose first-preference candidate or party was effectively disqualified by the first-past-the-post voting system. This article focuses on the Netherlands, where local elections on 21 March resulted in yet another downturn for the Partij van de Arbeid (PvdA). It argues that much like progressives in the UK, the Dutch left needs a progressive alliance, and that building such a pact offers social-democrats a path back to political relevance.

Only 12 years ago the Dutch social-democrats of the PvdA enjoyed a resounding success in nationwide local elections, winning almost 25 percent of the overall vote, and celebrating victories in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht. The party seemed to have overcome its difficult moment of the early 2000s, when large chunks of its traditional voter base had turned to populist parties instead.

Now, three electoral cycles on from that day, the PvdA has seen more than two-thirds of its vote share across the Netherlands evaporate – a fall from first to fifth among the national parties. Looking at the results of last week’s Dutch local elections, one would be tempted to think that their 2006 victory was their last. It may well have been.

While at the national level the collapse of the social democrats (in the 2017 general election) was abrupt and spectacular, their demise in local councils has been a gradual one. Take Amsterdam, where between 2006 and 2018 the PvdA went from 20 to 15 to 10 to 5 seats on the city’s 45-seat municipal council. The picture is similar (if less linear) in other places, and begs the question whether time is up for social democracy in the Netherlands.

The answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

Empty nest

As a party in its own right, the PvdA has little hope of regaining its status as the leading force of the Dutch left. The proportional voting system in the Netherlands has bred a diverse – some would say fragmented – political landscape. Voter loyalty is low: the electorate has seen all kinds of ‘landslide’ election results for the best part of two decades, gradually tempting even the most risk-averse voter into reconsidering their options. All of this has eroded the appeal of a traditional broad-church social-democrat party, which today to many voters just looks bland.

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Map of the Netherlands showing the largest party per municipality (Image ANP)

In Amsterdam and Utrecht, cities with large populations of young, highly educated voters, the greens of GroenLinks were winners in last week’s local elections, receiving upwards of 20 percent of the vote. In Rotterdam and The Hague, where the ‘traditional working class’ electorate is bigger, victory went to local parties with populist roots. Denk, a new party speaking up for migrant communities, took multiple seats in all these cities’ councils. The list goes on, the picture is consistent: the voter constituencies formerly united in the social-democratic mainstream have branched out to new, bespoke political homes, leaving the PvdA a near-empty nest.

Green surge

While to some this may sound like a tragedy, it needn’t be. Sure, the demise of a largely progressive political party with all of its history, institutions, networks, and people represents a loss to Dutch politics and society. One that many, inside and outside the party, will continue to feel for some time to come. Nonetheless, the view from rock-bottom could be a hopeful one, as long as the Dutch social-democrats choose an inclusive path to renewal, one that recognises the challenges and opportunities of the wider progressive left, of which the PvdA used to be nucleus.

Nationally, Dutch progressives are on the back foot, and have been for some time. The so-called moderate parties of the right, as well as most media, are obsessed with anti-immigrant politicians, which the former shamelessly (and successfully) parrot for electoral gain. But it’s not all doom and gloom. While the left as a whole has contracted, the Dutch greens are breaking through into the mainstream, with GroenLinks winning big not just in university cities, but also in suburban areas and even in the industrial town of Helmond. All of this without diluting their message of rigorous economic reform, firm climate action, and welcoming refugees – a narrative previously associated with the electoral margins.

At the same time, the political emancipation of minority ethnic groups in the Netherlands has found a new vessel. Frustrated with barriers to representation within the mainstream parties, a group of non-white politicians broke away from the PvdA to form Denk, and quickly gathered a diverse following. Their agenda is a progressive one, mostly, and one that is finding a warm reception across migrant communities. While it is regrettable, of course, to find that the traditional parties have largely failed to empower migrant voices, the rise of Denk has the potential to improve the political representation and participation of people the traditional left was unable to reach.

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Frans Timmermans   (Image Elsevier).

The diverse progressive left in the Netherlands further includes a socialist party which has proven to be a potent left-wing alternative to divisive populists, and which boasts a wealth of networks and support especially in (post-)industrial communities. It includes a green protest party, which focuses on animal rights and has steadily grown since its inception 15 years ago. It has a good deal of common ground with the liberal democrats of D66 and the social protestant party, both of which are currently propping up the country’s centre-right government. And there’s the PvdA itself still, with all its political capital and its swathes of widely-respected politicians, from Frans Timmermans (European Commissioner) to Khadija Arib (Speaker of the House of Representatives) to Ahmed Aboutaleb (Mayor of Rotterdam).

Rainbow pact

Of course, the internal diversity of this landscape of progressive parties is not without challenges. But in a nation which has the consensus politics of coalition in its DNA, it should not be beyond progressive leaders to build on shared priorities and confront the regressive right in a more unified manner. This is where a renewed PvdA could prove itself essential, and where it could find a credible raison d’être: in being the broker and architect of a progressive answer to 17 years of cagy, reactive politics, dictated by fear of the likes of Fortuyn and Wilders.

The lure of governing, of delivering the Prime Minister, has always made the social democrats averse to entering into alliances with other, smaller, forces on the left. Now that the 2017 general election has decisively freed it from those shackles, and with no other progressive party naturally dominating the pack, it’s time for the PvdA (and indeed others on the left) to give serious thought to a common agenda that is brave and robust in its ambition, and firm in its rejection of the reactive right narrative. It would require progressive parties to agree and communicate the political direction before an election, then set the policy accents on the basis of the result.

If successful, such a ‘progressive rainbow pact’ could change politics for generations to come. Firstly, its success would demonstrate that right-wing populism can be beaten in a proportional system without pandering to its agenda of identity politics and fear. Secondly, it would show that a highly diverse political landscape, nurtured by the mechanics of proportional representation, can produce not only a stable governing force, but one that delivers bold progressive change, encompassing the priorities of a diverse electorate. This should be the destiny of social democracy in the Netherlands – and arguably across Europe.

This article was written for Compass and originally appeared here.

 

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Leaders’ debate bingo (advanced)

Here are ten words that I predict will receive very few mentions in this evening’s leaders’ debate on ITV – the only scheduled televised confrontation in the run-up to the UK general elections on 7 May.

Not random words of course, but things that you might reasonably expect the parties represented to care and differ about. Things that voters ought to know in order to make up their mind.

I suggest using them for election debate bingo this evening. In some circles this has become a popular game: listing words or terms that participants are likely to use, and crossing them off as they are said. I thought we could make that game a little bit more interesting for this evening by suggesting ten words that, despite their political relevance, are likely to remain in the margins. Write them onto your bingo form and there will be suspense until the end of the debate – can one of them please mention…?

Screen shot 2015-04-02 at 16.47.441. Food. The horse meat scandal was only a short while ago and that is just one of many aspects of food security and regulation that need to be addressed.

2. Drugs. Past governments have wilfully ignored evidence that the UK policy on drugs is ineffective.

3. Ukraine. Escalation of this conflict will have repercussions all over Europe and the UK cannot afford to remain a bystander.

4. TTIP. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – this deal between the US and the EU would see corporations getting much greater power to get around national legislation.

5. Gender pay gap. The most prominent of a range of gender equality issues that have the UK trailing other European countries.

6. Mental health. The achilles heel of the NHS.

7. Palestine. The re-election of Netanyahu in Israel implies that the road to peace remains long, while the wounds of the latest Gaza war haven’t healed at all.

8. Cycling. Prevention is the easiest way to reduce the cost of the NHS and the public health benefits of cycling are uncontested.

9. Flooding. A constant risk to many areas of the UK with far-reaching economic (as well as human) consequences.

10. Airport expansion. The grotesque PR war between Heathrow and Gatwick distracts from greater strategic questions about the north-south divide and climate change.

Crossed them all? Tweet BINGO to @DialoguebyRemco to claim your prize.

A most curious election result

Something extraordinary happened in yesterday’s provincial elections in the Netherlands. It wasn’t a landslide of any sort; in fact the right-wing liberals of the VVD held on to their lead. Neither was there a new populist movement – and the Netherlands have seen rather a few over the past 15 years – that took the provincial parliaments by storm. What was remarkable, and I believe unprecedented, is that none of the parties secured more than one-sixth of the vote.

That’s right. Overall the VVD secured the biggest number of seats in these elections with just shy of 16 percent of the vote. Five other parties each polled between 10 and 15 percent nationally. The combined vote share of the three most successful parties in these elections fails to even hit 45 percent. Indeed in ten of the Netherlands’ 12 provinces, a minimum of four parties are needed to form a majority government.

The fragmentation of the political landscape in the Netherlands has been a gradual process, punctured by various shock results. The country’s undiluted proportional representation system has accommodated a tradition of political diversity, with new parties finding few obstacles on their way into parliaments. Often the political lifespan of such new parties has been short, particularly if they ran on a single-issue ticket. Having said that, some parties that made their entry into politics in my lifetime have become part of the fabric of Dutch politics with representation at all levels.

While the rise of new political parties is one aspect of a two-sided story, the decimation of formerly dominant parties is the other. In the general election of 1989, the christian-democrats (CDA) and social-democrats (PvdA) together obtained more than two-thirds of the vote. Yesterday’s result puts them on less than 25 percent combined. Oddly, this has not forced these former giants into the political margins. It would still only take a minor swing one way or the other for CDA or PvdA to be the Dutch voters’ top choice again – for what that is worth of course.

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The 75 seats in the Dutch senate, which will be allocated on the basis of yesterday’s election results, will be divided between 12 political parties. Progressive liberals (D66), socialists (SP) and anti-immigration populists (PVV) will be present in similar numbers to VVD, CDA and PvdA. Other groups will include the animal rights party, the 50-plus party for senior citizens and two religiously-guided parties of protestant signature.

It will be worth keeping an eye on Dutch politics in the next few years. While the Netherlands have a long history of multi-party democracy, the balance of power has never been as delicate as it is now. Could this fragmentation be a blessing in disguise and result in greater representation of the electorate’s diverse priorities in decision-making, or will it expose the limitations of proportional representation?

Should the political parties fail to devise a credible way of working together constructively, how will voters respond: what would a vote against fragmentation look like?

What drives Frank and Claire Underwood?

This Friday, 27 February, marks the release of the third season of the Netflix drama series House of Cards, in which Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright star as a power hungry couple willing to make all kinds of sacrifices on order to tighten their grip on Washington DC’s political landscape.house-of-cards


I have only recently watched, binge style, the first and second season of the series, that see Spacey’s character Frank Underwood progress from an influential politician to a very influential politician, to a very very influential politician. His path to greater power is, to put it mildly, not without collateral damage: the ever growing pile of crimes, lies and scandals are a constant threat to his position, requiring him and his entourage to keep everything in check, by whatever means necessary.

To the viewer all of this is highly attractive. While Underwood keeps pushing the limit, committing acts that we are unlikely to sympathise with or forgive, he retains our loyalty by addressing us directly, putting us in a position of complicity. We too become obsessed with power, Frank Underwood’s struggle for power, and despite everything we want him to succeed.

While the machiavellian scenes in the Capitol and the White House are utterly entertaining, to me the real power of House of Cards lies in the dynamic between Frank and his wife Claire, played by Robin Wright. My favourite scenes are those where the two of them sit in the window of their Washington town house, late at night, smoking or not smoking, and take stock of where their project is at.

Claire Underwood is her husband’s equal, and beyond a doubt the only person in the world that he respects as such; indeed, she may be the only person with lasting power over him. Their marriage is indestructible, because it has become amalgamated with their project. It allows for infidelity on the physical side; fidelity to the project seems to matter a great deal more. The understanding that Claire and Frank have on this is beautifully portrayed, conversations between them often condensed into a few ambiguous phrases accompanied by meaningful regards.

Twenty-six episodes in and I still haven’t caught a glimpse of the Underwoods’ political substance. 

The question that seasons one and two left unanswered, I feel, is the big why? Twenty-six episodes in and I still haven’t caught a glimpse of the Underwoods’ political substance. Where they do take a stance it always seems to be on the grounds of pragmatic opportunism, granting them the easiest path to greater power. While Claire’s efforts for clean water and the persecution of sexual offenders may appear sincere, each time she proved quite ready to let go of her principles if that would give her the upper hand. Frank, meanwhile, only seems to engage in responding to urgent political problems, making him the master plumber of Washington DC.

There have been a few hints with regard to the why-question. Frank Underwood told us why he holds power over money, implying that money doesn’t last, while power “is the old stone building that stands for centuries”. Is that to say that greatness, being remembered as a historical figure, is what drives Frank? What is that worth if not associated with actual accomplishments? Alternatively, could he have become obsessed with power just ‘because he can’?

In another episode, during one of their window scenes of course, Claire wonders what it all is for and the couple seem to contemplate, ever so briefly, whether their quest for power needs deeper justification, with an implicit suggestion that they might consider having a child. Claire’s question, as well as her flirt with procreation, are swiftly brushed aside, like any other obstacle the Underwoods encountered on the way.

I sincerely hope that the third season will at least begin to answer this question by giving us greater insight in Frank and Claire’s pasts, which will no doubt contain some clues as to the origins of their hunger. Similarly, it should be revealing to see how they will deploy the power they currently hold – apart from keeping at bay the enemies they made on the way.

Submission – an almost perfect storm

Michel Houellebecq is an author with the capacity to alter, if not enhance, the way I see the world.

When, in his previous novel The Map and the Territory he had the character named Michel Houellebecq brutally murdered, I took that to imply that he was burying the author Michel Houellebecq too. The publication of his latest novel Submission, last month, was therefore a very welcome surprise.

The novel has had its dose of pre-publication controversy, owing to its theme: a France that elects a muslim president in the year 2022. It appears all the more sensitive in the light of the recent assault on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, which ironically coincided with the book’s release in France.

Soumission CoverA perfect storm

I found Submission to be a typical Houellebecq novel: exposing and exploring the instabilities of our civilisation, and using these observations to make a scenario that at first sight seems far-fetched (almost) credible. The author masters the art of creating a perfect storm out of several minor depressions, building up so seamlessly that the reader is bound to get sucked in.

The result of this perfect storm is, of course, the eventual inauguration of an extremely capable muslim politician as the president of France. But the new president is not at the centre of the story: we only become aware of the political changes through the observations of the novel’s narrator: an academic named François.

A turn to religion

With François we are in familiar Houellebecq-territory: an unpretentious lonesome Parisian man of a certain age with a modest appetite for socialising – more spectator than actor. François’ career is built around the work of 19th-century author Huysmans, whose quest for happiness eventually saw him becoming a devout catholic.

François’ observations of Huysmans are craftily intertwined with the changes to the world around him, allowing Houellebecq to portray France’s new regime not as a turn to islam, but much more as a turn to religion, complete with the re-valuation of the family as its cornerstone.

Europe’s suicide

Throughout the story François has a number of chance encounters with colourful characters, all of them male and capable of long monologues, who in turn contribute to an intricate analysis of modern-day Europe, thereby setting the scene for the extraordinary revolution that takes place while François eats his ready meals and undertakes his haphazard trips.

One of these characters brings up a parallel with the demise of the Roman Empire, quoting philosopher Arnold J. Toynbee who said that societies usually die of suicide, not assassination. The suggestion is that 21st-century Europe is worn and weak, and void of ideas as well as leadership, making it fragile enough to submit itself to an alternative ideology – that of islam.

Submission of woman to man

Submission wouldn’t be a Houellebecq novel if there wasn’t a constant lingering of François’ sexual desires, and many of his reflections on the changing society outside his apartment seem to centre on how they might affect his access to pleasure. While he quietly deplores the disappearance of the miniskirt from Paris’ streets, he develops a fascination for polygamy.

While on the surface the novel may emphasise the submission of man to religion, the implied submission of woman to man is as important a strand, and a more troublesome one to swallow. Houellebecq chose to circumnavigate any female perspectives in Submission, perhaps because that was convenient for his plot, but hopefully also to make a point to his audience – that even a moderate islamic rule would greatly affect gender equality. The same Houellebecq, after all, gave us the unforgettable motto “DEMAIN SERA FEMININ” in one of the early chapters of Atomised.

In all, Houellebecq once again fascinated me with his big observations, his diagnosis of present-day Europe, and his well-underpinned speculations on the next crossroads that our society may stumble upon. Recent events continue to vindicate his remarks on the volatility of the European electorate and the inadequacy of mainstream parties. However, his perfect storm is too engineered and will no doubt be tempered by the reality that women make up half of the electorate as well as an increasing proportion of the leadership.

We now own another bit of you: Agree or Cancel

The question how modern technology affects modern democracy has always been a popular one among writers of fiction, and the answer usually has a hint of dystopia to it. To me there is something irresistible about these ominous scenarios, probably because they speak to my fears about our inability to control what we create.

The_Circle_(Dave_Eggers_novel_-_cover_art) The latest bit of doom fiction I devoured was Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle (2013). It pictures a social media company – The Circle – that has superseded and incorporated all the current Internet giants and their services, most notably Google, Facebook and Twitter. As it grows, it inevitably turns its interest to politics, and soon enough politicians are coerced into needing The Circle to assert their credibility. The novel cleverly depicts this as a step-by-step process, where it is difficult to determine which of these steps might raise sufficient alarm for an independent authority to intervene. By the end of the story, it is all but inevitable that signing up to The Circle becomes mandatory for all citizens, and that their democratic participation will be channelled through the social network.

All the while The Circle profiles itself, very successfully, as a benign enterprise, a movement that changes the world for the better by making all information available, phasing out uncertainty – or in the lingo of The Circle, ‘secrets’. Full and total transparency, according to the company’s philosophy, will benefit every citizen, facilitating decision-making and exposing risks. In return for all this help, citizens only need to open themselves up to The Circle, sharing all that can be known about them so that the network can provide them with tailored services, offers and suggestions, resulting in better and more efficient lives.

This, of course, is the crux of the power relationship: in the end The Circle, just as its likes in the real world, provides programmes and algorithms – its users provide the data that enables it to dominate the Internet. The more information people supply – by posting on a social network, making an online purchase, or sending an email – the greater The Circle’s ability to aggregate relevant information, and the greater the draw to others to join the network. And true enough, virtually everyone will at some point succumb, as the vastness of the information and services offered will seem worth giving up a bit of one’s privacy.

“…today most of us are already citizens of the Internet as much as we are citizens of our countries or cities.”

Of the many thoughts provoked by The Circle, the most salient one to me is the question how our existing democratic mechanisms will fare as the digital symbiosis of Internet companies and citizens continues to thrive. While society moves in a direction that sees us rely ever more on Google, Facebook and others, we have little or no formal ways to influence their behaviour, with the only alternative to ‘Agree’ usually being ‘Cancel’.

I would argue that today most of us are already citizens of the Internet as much as we are citizens of our countries or cities. Such a dual citizenship indeed suggests that the significance of our offline citizenship is eroding, and that the democratic control that we have over our decision-makers covers only part of our existence. With the balance shifting towards online life, and with politicians gratefully embracing social media to comment, engage and campaign, I wonder how long it will take for elections to be replaced by a pop-up asking us whether we agree with the proposals or choose to be excluded.