Party profiles — PvdA

There will be general elections next March, and the dozen-plus-a-few Dutch parties are preparing for them. It’s time for another series of party profiles. We’ll go in order from small to large according to the August 2020 polls.

Today we’ll continue with former left-wing leader PvdA, which is going through its worst existential crisis since the late 19th century.

Full name
Partij van de Arbeid
Translation
Labour Party
Party leader
Lodewijk Asscher, since 2016
In parliament since
1946; predecessors since 1894
Block
Left
Type
Catch-all party
Economics
Left, in theory
Current seats
9
Polls (August 2020)
14

Former leader of the left PvdA fell deep in the 2017 elections. The prospects for 2021 are better, but only when compared to the abysmal 9 seats they currently hold. The pollster prediction of 14 seats is still well below its former low point of 23 in 2002, and a far cry from even the 38 seats the party won as recently as 2012, let alone the 53 seats of 1977. In fact, in order to find a score worse than 14 (or 9) seats we have to go all the way back to 1909, when parliament had 100 seats and we still used a district system.

For more information please re-read the 2010 profile I wrote.

To me, the reason for this disaster is clear: from the late eighties on the PvdA embraced more and more free-market thinking and enthusiastically helped first CDA and then VVD in outsourcing most government functions to the free markets. Its traditionally left-wing following did not appreciate that. The Purple period (1994-2002) damaged it, but it managed to come back. After its participation in the Rutte II government (2012-2017) with the VVD, however, its voters just abandoned it. I suppose it can come back this time as well, but the polls don’t currently indicate anything of that kind.

Leadership

Apart from the party becoming a VVD light, there is a second explanation for the PvdA’s abysmal 2017 score: the very damaging and completely unnecessary party leadership elections of 2016, which pitted then-party leader Samsom against then-minister Asscher. The biggest problem was that there was very little difference between the two: both are proponents of the centrist course and supported the coalition with the VVD. In fact, nobody was even sure why the party needed this elections (apart, possibly, because of Asscher’s desire to become party leader).

This time there will be no leadership election; current party leader Asccher will lead in 2021. That is a good decision and it will help the party. For valuable lessons from damaging leadership elections we will have to turn to the CDA, which we’ll do in due course.

Leading the opposition against a centre-right government is something of an ancestral prerogative of the PvdA, but Asscher has not managed to convince here, although he didn’t do terribly either — he is in essentially the same position as GL’s Klaver. Still, that leaves the leadership of the left block undecided, which is bad for natural leader PvdA.

Like GL, the PvdA started to cooperate with government every once in a while after government lost its majority. The two parties have similar platforms and proposals, and that’s why they mostly cooperate. Also, they might be forced into the same coalition after the next election, so it’s better for both to be nice to one another. This process led to the short discussion about a party merger we already discussed in the GL entry.

Corona proposals

Still, there are differences between the parties as well. Last week GL proposed what essentially amounts to a limited-time basic income for freelancers for the duration of the Corona crisis. The PvdA disagrees: it instead wants to help people retain their jobs or find new ones, and government needs to help by offering reschooling for people from affected sectors such as tourism, and prepared a detailed plan.

Fair warning: I strongly prefer the GL proposal over the PvdA one. This will colour what is about to follow.

The parties agree that money should be redistributed to a rather larger degree than the centre-right government wants. In that sense both proposals are left-wing. Otherwise they are very different, though.

The PvdA proposal is a classic example of social-democratic government action: devise a set of rules and allow employers and employees to claim subsidies based on those, while practical matters are handled by the state bureaucracy. It is thus institutional in scope: affected companies negotiate with the bureaucracy.

In contrast, the GL proposal just gets money to the people and leaves it to them how to spend it, and what kind of job they want in order to top off their income. This is personalistic in scope: it leaves individual people free to choose.

Something that is lacking from the PvdA proposal is attention for freelancers. The preamble acknowledges they’re in big trouble as well, but the proposal leaves it at that.

The GL proposal mostly ignores employees with a permanent contract, but the architecture of the welfare state is based on getting help to employees, so they’re covered reasonably well. GL concentrates on the people who are left out of the traditional welfare state.

Also, I feel the PvdA proposal is more in line with the calvinism that permeates Dutch society. Employees and employers fulfill their divinely ordained functions by working or providing work. In contrast, if we’d just give out money to random people it could be that some unworthy ones also profit, and we can’t have that.

In some ways the PvdA proposal is something of a hand-out to large companies. Companies can get subsidies to re-school their employees or do other government-approved things, but in order to do so they have to go through an application process. Traditionally, large companies do better than small ones because large companies can afford to hire someone dedicated to running the processes for as many subsidies as possible. To my mind, this part shows why the PvdA has become a sort of VVD light: more supportive of employee rights than the conservative-liberals, but focused on measures that solve everything within the confines of the free market.

PvdA voters

Although it may sound strange, the fact that the proporsal is bureaucratic and institutional segues nicely into a discussion of the PvdA’s traditional voters.

It will surprise no one that in the past PvdA voters were mostly the working class pure and simple, employed by this company or that. However, these traditional voters are exactly the ones that have left the party for the extreme right, the SP, or other parties. From the seventies on professionals in government service also became a solid PvdA voting block, and now that the working class has moved elsewhere those professionals are the only ones that are left.

Current PvdA voters disproportionately work in the government bureaucracy, either as actual desk tigers or in executive functions such as teaching. Bureaucrats want to bureaucratise, that’s why I see the PvdA proposal partly as an attempt to appeal to its voters.

The party could find new voters among freelancers, a fast-growing group, but it does not appear to be terribly interested in doing so, as the Corona emergency proposal shows. Maybe the party is too reflexive in its care for traditional employees, I don’t know. It’s one of the many puzzling elements of the PvdA’s current position.

It is sometimes said that it was former PvdA voters who defected to Wilders and gave him his first victories. Studies of electoral movements do not bear this out, though. What is more likely to have happened is that right-wing non-voters who were unhappy with the moderate parties were activated by Wilders while at the same time loyal PvdA voters became disenchanted with their party and staid home. This may give the appearance of a massive voter movement, but the actual story is more complicated.

I blame the abysmally bad result of the combined left-wing parties in 2017 to roughly the same: defecting PvdA voters disproportionately staid home instead of voting for another left-wing party or Wilders. It is possible that this movement will be reversed in the 2021 elections, but right now the polls don’t indicate anything of that kind. This is mostly a PvdA problem; the other left-wing parties are able to better retain their voters. Still, since the PvdA is the largest potential party on the left, its voters have the largest effect on the size of the left block as a whole.

Prospects

What are the PvdA’s prospects going into the next elections? Frankly I have no idea, and I don’t think anyone has. The polls show a slight gain, and that is not surprising given how many people traditionally vote PvdA. Still, their current gains are not indicative of the PvdA returning to its former glory as leader of the left block. In fact, right now it’s unclear whether the PvdA will even beat GL or the SP.

The PvdA has one shot at serious gains: make sure that the 2021 elections become a prime-minister-race between Asscher and Rutte (assuming Rutte will again lead the VVD). In order to do so, Asscher would first have to become the leader of the left and leave Klaver in the dust. That could happen, but right now it isn’t.

If the PvdA succeeds in casting the elections as a left-right rsce, it will likely scoop up a lot of left-wing votes that would otherwise go to the other parties, and quite a few 2017 non-voters will return to the fold. It would be a repeat performance of 2012 and 2003, with the same danger: the PvdA could be forced to form a coalition with the VVD. That is not the way forward to regaining their lost voters permanently.

This problem is not new. The PvdA used to have the same complicated relation with the CDA, and before 1977 with the KVP. Every time the PvdA managed to become the largest party in the country they were still forced to cooperate with the christian-democrats because no other coalition was possible. The VVD has taken the CDA’s place in recent years, but the PvdA’s dilemma remains unchanged.

Also, the current party leadership is actually enthusiastic about a VVD coalition, while the traditional voters aren’t. This problem is being resolved by PvdA voters moving away instead of the leadership adjusting its preferences, and that is the main reason I doubt that the 2021 elections will bring a social-democratic comeback.

<— Party profiles — GL | Party profiles — PVV —>

This is the political blog of Peter-Paul Koch, mobile platform strategist, consultant, and trainer, in Amsterdam. It’s a hobby blog where he follows Dutch politics for the benefit of those twelve foreigners that are interested in such matters, as well as his Dutch readers.

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