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Gordon Campbell on Dutch lessons for Labour

Gordon Campbell on Dutch lessons for Labour

First published on Werewolf

Do yesterday’s election results in the Netherlands have any lessons for our own election campaign this year ? So far, the headline stories have been about (a) the failure of the populist ultra-right to make significant gains, partly because the ruling party successfully co-opted most of its anti-migrant messages during the run-up to election day and (b) the collapse of the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA), which plummeted from 38 to nine seats, as the centre-left vote streamed out to the Greens, and other “soft liberal’ options like D66. Overall, the left made no inroads whatsoever into the right-of-centre vote.

Why did the Dutch Labour Party collapse? Its demise was hardly a surprise. Last time around, its previous leader Diederik Samson had promised to be a kinder, more socially aware force for unity within a coalition government led by centre-right Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his Liberals (VVD). Instead, while Labour may have criticized the excesses of neo-liberalism, it accepted its premises and colluded in their enactment. Does this description below sound familiar?

The leitmotiv of Rutte’s second cabinet has been to shift the focus of accountability from the state to the individual. The welfare state was repackaged as a ‘participation society’ in which everyone, including the elderly, disabled and sick, was expected to do more for themselves on fewer resources. Responsibility for administering these services was transferred from central government to the municipalities, fulfilling the small-state dream of the fiscally conservative VVD. Funding for the arts was slashed. The increase in the pension age, one of the last acts of Rutte’s first Cabinet, was confirmed and extended.

The ambitious plan to put the Netherlands in the vanguard of renewable energy is being bankrolled not by central government, but by consumers through their power bills… Samsom had promised a ‘social way’ out of the recession; in practice the economy recovered, but society became more polarised and fragmented. And the voters who had rallied behind the party in the summer of 2012 simply drifted away.

Some voters went to the right, wooed by the populist anti-immigrant rationale for their problems. With catastrophe looming, Labour’s Samson quit Parliament just before Christmas. His successor made token attempts to claw back support – Labour took a 60% wealth tax on high earners into yesterday’s election, but it was too little, too late. Many centre-left votes went to the Greens, which more than trebled its seats from four to 14 yesterday.

That may prove to be a mixed blessing for the Greens.
Why so? Given the fragmentation of Dutch politics - Rutte “won” yesterday by getting 33 seats in a 150 seat Parliament, a loss of 8 seats on his 2012 result – he will need to form a coalition that goes beyond his comfort zone of the Christian Democrats and the liberal progressive D66, both of whom won 19 seats yesterday. That total still gets Rutte only to 71, five shy of a parliamentary majority. It's unclear who else will join him, and this may take months to resolve.

In the coming months, the Greens in the Netherlands will face the same dilemma that confronted the Dutch Labour Party – do they join the government and hope to affect its course and thus risk being seen as collaborators in a process that’s opposed to everything in which they claim to believe? Or do they try to (somehow) keep up their momentum from outside government?

It's a familiar dilemma. So far, Labour in New Zealand has given centre-left voters few positive reasons to support it. (Promoting Jacinda Ardern can take you only so far.) It has selected centre-right candidates in electorates, dumped its former capital gains tax policy, scrapped the New Zealand Power policy created to reduce power bills, and chosen Winston Peters over the Greens on security and intelligence issues.

Not surprisingly, Labour has been winning brownie points from the centre-right for its ‘credibility’ and ‘pragmatism’ in doing so. In a further air kiss to Winston Peters and to New Zealand First voters, Labour has dropped its former strong advocacy for raising the entitlement age for national superannuation. So far, the Greens have gone along with helping to elect a centre-left government that seems all but bereft of new and positive centre-left policies.

Presumably – like the doomed Labour Party in the Netherlands – the Greens will retain some of the tokenism, like a higher tax rate for the ultra-wealthy. It may not be enough. At best, and as in the Netherlands, this approach may only result in the cannibalizing of the core centre-left vote, and a continued drift to the centre-right among everyone else.

Trump Watch

Every day, each week, the Trump Presidency throws up further examples of outrage and weirdness. Easy to surrender to this as the new normal. Yet here are a few recent standouts. Remember the firestorm of faux outrage from Republicans last year about Hillary Clinton using her private email account for State Department business? Subsequently, we learned that vice-President Mike Pence routinely did the same, on Indiana state governor business. And then there was this email, on the top of the White House documentation for Trump’s appointee to the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, the cashing up of the US Presidency is coming along nicely. A few days ago, evidence emerged of Trump’s renting of a mega-expensive penthouse to a businesswoman connected to Chinese intelligence agencies.

Just in case anyone might want to check the extent to which the US President is in hock to foreign powers or to his domestic cronies, Trump continues to refuse to release his tax returns, which left MSNBC trying to beat up a story based on an incomplete account of Trump’s 2005 tax return.

Meanwhile… last year on the campaign trail, Trump had promised voters that scrapping Obamacare would not affect their coverage, or premiums. Now it transpires that 14 million Americans will lose their health coverage immediately under the replacement plan and 24 million overall over the next ten years.

That’s only a partial list, from the past week. Oh, and look at the dismal pint of Guinness that Paul Ryan is raising to toast St Patrick’s Day. Can’t these guys do anything right?

Food for Thought

At last, a track by Macka B – it has him freestyling about the virtues of the cucumber – has gone viral. No-one combines warmth, wit and social commentary quite like this guy, and he’s been doing it for decades. “Maccabee” BTW, is Hebrew for “ hammer”…

The first Macka B track I came across was “Bible Reader” in the mid 1990s. After a slow start, he name-checks every single book in the Bible – Old and New Testament inclusive – and also runs through most of the Bible’s greatest hits, all in about two minutes, twenty seconds.

Macka B hasn’t been the first reggae musician to trace the links between food intake and spiritual health. Niney’s 1972 “Ital Correction” is a good example of the same thing. But its worth checking out the link below to Macka B’s hymn to being a vegan. (Click the subtitle button if you need help with the lyrics.) En route, Macka B lists all the fine things you can still eat, as a vegan. He also reminds us about the need to keep up our Omega 3 fatty acids intake. Not many songs remember to do that.

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