The Dutch Labour Party, de Partij van de Arbeid (PvdA), exists 70 years. On the day of its anniversary, all members received a letter. It begins as follows: “For 70 years, we have worked together on a society based on social democratic ideals. We have worked on a society with enough work and good work, payable houses, and excellent healthcare. We have created a society where everyone who wants to participate can do so. We already achieved a lot, but at least as much still has to be accomplished.”
Nowadays, the PvdA is being criticized for not living up to its social democratic tradition and role in the current government. The opinion polls show a historical low ranking with only 9 seats (the PvdA has currently 38 seats). But despite the recent problems, it is true that we must not forget the party’s legendary past and its social democratic tradition. The PvdA has made a real difference for The Netherlands. The party helped with setting up one of the most reliable and strongest welfare state in Western-Europe where most citizens always had a safety net to rely upon. Legendary party leaders such as Willem Drees (1946-1958) and Joop den Uyl (1966-1986) have made The Netherlands into one of the most livable states in the world, right out the ruins of World War II.
Regardless, looking back upon this tradition, as is being done in the letter send to the members, can be problematic. The writers of the letters seem to argue that the party line, its social democratic stance, has never been changed since its foundation. According to them, the PvdA is a party defending the Dutch in exactly the same way for 70 years, even the problems and challenges are unchanged.
The opposite is true. The letter has been written and signed by its five most recent party leaders Wim Kok (1986-2001), Ad Melkert (2001-2002), Wouter Bos (2002-2010), Job Cohen (2010-2012), and Diederik Samsom (2012-….). The retrospect to traditional ideals is strange because they are the ones who have pushed the party to the right and who have broken down many of its social achievements. The problems started with the choice for the famous Third Way. Former PM Kok renounced the PvdA’s traditional social democratic politics. Together with other European and American leftwing leaders, he embraced the Third Way. This alternative explanation of social democracy aims for similar socialistic goals but this time by embracing the neoliberal position.
The party leadership started to advocate for capitalism, privatization, and budget cuts. The ideal of a social righteous Netherlands and Europe became of secondary importance to the ideal of market mechanism. This period saw ‘the European project’ being accelerated, the implementation of the Euro to more countries then originally intended, the spread of huge amounts of capital across the continent, and a lot of freedom being given to banks, public/private funds, and financial institutions. This all ended dramatically with the collapse of the American and European housing markets and financial institutions.
Nonetheless, the PvdA didn’t change its policies after the crisis of 2007/2008. The Third Way remained its central pillar with a lot of budget cuts and privatizations instead of stimulating purchasing power. The ideas of Economist John Maynard Keynes and Thomas Picketty were laughed away. Reckless bankers have not been punished but been protected by former minister of financial affairs Wouter Bos. Healthcare and education became target of structural cuts. Both sectors are problematic investments for people with less money to spend. Regardless, current party leader Diederik Samsom chose for a coalition with the VVD, the liberal party, of PM Mark Rutte.
A few examples have to be elaborated upon in more detail. The PvdA-celebrities praise in their letter the social democratic achievements and central pillars of the party over the last 70 years. But in the same period, the same party weakened one of its most essential pillars; health care. The Dutch health care system was revolutionary and always has been an example for other countries. Recents reforms have led to the rise of costs for simple treatments and a visit to the doctor has become less self-evident. The PvdA even defended a VVD-plan to attack the free choice for healthcare. When three PvdA-senators blocked the proposal, referring back to the core ideas of the party, they were portrayed as traitors.
One of the most dramatic episodes occurred when PvdA proposed a drastic reform regarding Individual Budgets (PGB). In the case of a PGB, a person receives a sum of money or a bond as a means for payment for public service. With a PGB someone opts to negotiate himself with providers about the care arrangement and the related price. This is important for people living on their own, or in groups, who need periodical help and care. The reform led by PvdA State Secretary Martin van Rijn intended to change the way PGB’s are being payed. The responsibility was being placed by the municipalities which would save the government a lot of money. A lot of municipalities were badly prepared for such a reform. Van Rijn claimed that this reform would lead to 40.000 jobs in the healthcare sector but the real results were lower salaries, less paid hours, problems with the paying of PGB’s and a lot of insecurity for health care professionals/volunteers and patients. The State Secretary had to admit that the reform was badly executed and a bad decision.
It doesn’t end with healthcare. One of its other core pillars is enough work and good work. The letter claims that the party leadership still battles for these ideals and refers to falling unemployment rates. Also here the opposite is true. Wiemer Salverda, Professor of Labour Market and Inequality, warned already a year ago that the rates for unemployment among the young are misleading. The youth are forced, due to rising costs for education and living, to take part time jobs or underpaid (or even unpaid) internships. These so-called training positions are implemented by small and large companies to prevent them from hiring someone with an expansive and fixed contract. Does this mean enough work? Does this mean good work? Does this mean that in the Netherlands everyone who wants to participate can do so?
In other words, modern party leaders such as former PM Wim Kok (1986-2001) and Wouter Bos (2002-2010) cannot be compared to Drees or Den Uyl. Doing this would be as ridiculous as calling the SGP (the Dutch ultra-conservative Protestant party) progressive. The Dutch social democratic tradition has been changed. The PvdA of 2016 has become a party wherein Den Uyl and Drees are nothing more than memories.
We can continue with this for quite a while. The PvdA exists for 70 years, but not all of them have been proud years. Kok, Melkert, Bos, Cohen, and Samsom end their letter with the wish that the party members continue battling with them. If I, as a traditional social democrat, can do a wish back, then my wish is that Samsom and his predecessors write a new letter. That they renounce the Third Way, that they admit the errors of the past, and they give the chance to a new generation of social democratic politicals who are hopefully more aware of the traditional social democracy. Yes, that is my wish for the PvdA.