Wonder Boy Asscher Could Disappoint Dutch Labor Party

Like Labor leaders before him, Lodewijk Asscher is hailed as a future prime minister. He may not live up to expectations.

Jetta Klijnsma Lodewijk Asscher, the Dutch undersecretary and minister of social affairs, listen to a debate in parliament in The Hague, December 6
Jetta Klijnsma Lodewijk Asscher, the Dutch undersecretary and minister of social affairs, listen to a debate in parliament in The Hague, December 6 (SZW/Martijn Beekman)

Dutch Labor Party members elected Social Affairs Minister Lodewijk Asscher as their leader on Friday, hoping he will be able to give the party a prime minister again.

Labor’s last prime minister was Wim Kok, who governed from 1994 to 2002.

The party has since developed a tendency to elect “wonder boys” who fail to live up to expectations.

Wouter Bos and Diederik Samsom, two of Asscher’s predecessors, were both elected in their forties. They both managed to make Labor the second-largest party and they both subsequently went into government with the center-right, to the dismay of the left.

Job Cohen, the former mayor of Amsterdam, was seen as a prime ministerial candidate in 2010. But when Labor placed second in that election too, Cohen turned out to be ill-suited for the role of opposition leader. He resigned two years later.

Articulate, yes — but what about policy?

Labor Party-friendly commentators say all the same things about Asscher as they did about Cohen and Samsom six and four years ago, respectively: that he is articulate, statesmanlike, a unifier.

Which may all be true. But that doesn’t mean he is a capable politician.

Asscher began his career in Amsterdam city politics, where he served as an alderman for financial policy from 2006 to 2010.

His three signature policies — ending abuses in legal prostitution, improving the integration of Muslims in the city and reducing bureaucracy in child services — all failed.

Red-light properties

Under Asscher’s direction, the city spent €100 million buying properties in Amsterdam’s red-light district. The goal was to shrink the area and — somehow — reduce crime in the process.

It didn’t work.

Property owners used the money to start new businesses in the same area, often “coffeeshops” (a Dutch euphemism for cafes where the sale and consumption of cannabis is allowed) and massage parlors.

It’s not at all clear human trafficking has decreased. The current city government is quietly dismantling Asscher’s program.

Plans that go nowhere

His attempts to enhance Muslim integration had little more success. The city subsidized the construction of the Western Mosque, one of the largest in the country, to be the center of a comprehensive emancipation campaign.

After the mosque took the money, though, it broke all ties with the local government. It is now run by a conservative imam from Germany. The emancipation program went nowhere. Even Asscher recognizes it was a “terrible” mistake.

As for his plan to cut red tape in children’s services, nobody’s heard of it since.

Jobs program

Asscher’s career in national government has also had its disappointments.

As social affairs minister, he launched a €600-million jobs program in 2013 that ended up protecting more jobs than it did to create any.

A new law for contractors he wrote was suspended this year. It proved so complex that employers stopped hiring freelancers altogether.

Common touch

It is true Asscher is a fine orator. He appears as comfortable addressing a gathering of industry bigwigs as he does speaking with workers on the factory floor.

Labor has long worried it is losing touch with the working class. The party believes Asscher has the common touch and can bridge the divide.

But it’s doubtful any Labor leader could lure back working voters. Many, dissatisfied with its policies on immigration and integration, have switched to the nationalist Freedom Party. To them, Labor represents an unpatriotic elite that has sold out the country. They are not coming back if all Asscher does is tinker on the edges.

The two parties that have gained the most from Labor’s collapse are the Greens, who are popular with cosmopolitan city dwellers, and the seniors party 50Plus.

The pro-European liberal Democrats may have also gained a little at Labor’s expense.

Those are higher-income and high-information voters. Labor’s competitors will make sure they learn all about Asscher’s failures in the next three months (elections are due in March).

The party may have just chosen another might-have-been who is more style than substance.