Dilemma for Dutch Social Democrats After Historic Defeat

Should Labor attempt to lure back working-class voters or side with the socially progressive middle class?

Dutch Labor Party leader Lodewijk Asscher makes a speech in The Hague, October 31, 2016
Dutch Labor Party leader Lodewijk Asscher makes a speech in The Hague, October 31, 2016 (SWZ)

Open Europe’s Vincenzo Scarpetta‏ has called it the PASOK-ization of the Dutch Labor Party. In an historic defeat on Wednesday, the social democrats went down from 25 to 6 percent support, reducing them from the second to the seventh largest party in parliament.

The Greens and far-left Socialists, long Labor’s smaller siblings on the left, did better, winning 9 percent support each.

The result was not unexpected. Labor’s popularity fell when it formed a coalition government with the right in 2012 and never recovered.

The choice it now faces is the same for social democrats elsewhere: either attempt to lure back traditional working-class and migrant voters with an economically more populist program or double down on center-left politics that appeal to the socially progressive middle class.

Defections

The first group of voters has largely gone to the Socialist Party on the far left and Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party on the far right. What the two have in common is that they are protective of the welfare state.

The Socialists are less welcoming of immigrants than the Greens and Labor. The Freedom Party is outright hostile to newcomers. It wants to keep out Muslims and shut down mosques.

Appalled by Wilders’ rhetoric, non-native voters in cities like Amsterdam, The Hague and Rotterdam have left Labor to support a new, pro-immigrant party called Denk.

Middle-class voters have gone to the liberal Democrats and Greens. What those two parties have in common is that they are pro-EU, pro-refugee and socially liberal.

Betrayed

The first group may be hard to win back. Working-class voters lost faith in Labor almost two decades ago, when Pim Fortuyn, Wilders’ political predecessor, first appealed to low-income voters in the major cities who had seen their jobs and neighborhoods uprooted by immigration. Those voters still feel betrayed by Labor.

The second group can be tempted to support Labor as a way to keep the right out of power. But those voters are fickle. They can just as easily support the liberal Democrats, Greens or even the Christian Democrats.

It seems likely that those three parties will into government together. That could give Labor a chance to rehabilitate itself with university-educated voters.

Low- versus high-skilled

So far, it’s done the opposite.

Lodewijk Asscher, the party leader and outgoing social affairs minister, has introduced legislation that curtails the use of short-term contracts. That protects low-skilled workers in health care and industry from abuses, but it has also made life more difficult for self-employed consultants.

Asscher has also proposed to rein in the free movement of workers in Europe in order to stop what he calls unfair labor competition from low-wage countries. Such a reform — which is now unlikely to happen — would, again, protect low-skilled workers at the expense of college graduates.

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