Labour Party (PvdA – a literal translation of the party’s name would ‘Party of the Labour’). The Labour Party is the largest centre-left party in the Netherlands and the country’s primary social democratic party.
The party was founded in 1946 from a merger of the pre-war Social Democratic Worker’s Party, the left-liberal Free-Thinking Democratic League, and the Protestant left Christian Democratic Union. Initially the PvdA hoped to be a cross-pillar party of the working class but it quickly became the de facto party of the Socialist pillar.
The party has historically tended to be weak compared to its social democratic cousins, winning votes in the 20s and 30s as many working class voters were pillarised in the Protestant or Catholic pillars. Hence, the PvdA was not the party of the working class, as much as the party of the secular working class.
Still, the PvdA was the only party that could challenge the religious parties and win the most seats in an election until recently. It was also the only non-religious party to hold the premiership which it did between 1948 and 1958 under the legendary William Drees, and again from 1973 until 1977 under Joop den Uyl.
Even in these coalitions the PvdA was still forced to cooperate with religious parties however. The dream of many in the PvdA has always been to lead a pure left-wing government of only left-of-centre parties, but the informal ‘left block’ of parties has never managed to win a majority, and the ‘right block’ is larger and less fragmented.
The party is haunted by the experience of the 1970s and 1980s. With the end of pillarisation, the PvdA embraced radical New Left and postmaterialist positions – for which there was substantial support in the Netherlands, and boomed electorally. In the 1977 election the PvdA won 53 of 150 seats, the largest number of seats ever won by a Dutch party, but due to its radical positions it primarily took support from its own potential allies – the parties of the so-called ‘small left’. Hence the party was left without potential coalition partners. It was thus forced to negotiate a government with the new CDA, but the party had become simply too radical for the CDA. Negotiations proceeded for a tortuous six months before the CDA broke the coalition negotiations and formed a coalition with the VVD. The negotiations lasted 208 days in all, a Dutch record. Hence the PvdA’s best ever election result ironically saw it side-lined outside government.
The PvdA hence has to maintain a careful game between a ‘seat maximisation strategy’ based on gaining the maximum number of votes within the left block and an ‘office maximisation strategy’ based on being centrist enough that it remains a viable coalition partner for other parties.
This strategy essentially means sacrificing a large number of left-of-centre voters to left-wing competitors, however, especially after the party’s eight years leading a coalition with D66 and its traditional nemesis, the conservative-liberal VVD. In doing so, the PvdA essentially broke the party system. The party saw its support halve at the end of the ‘Purple’ government, and it came fourth in the 2002 election. Many of its voters had gone to the List Pim Fortuyn, some had stayed at home but the Purple years had also seen the growth of left-wing competitors GreenLeft and the Socialist Party.
The party subsequently returned to second place in the 2003 election, and came 2 seats short of victory, though it wound up in the opposition. The party’s rapid return to second place was down to a charismatic new leader, Wouter Bos, and taking on board moderate policies regarding immigration.
The chances of a left-wing government looked good for the 2006 election, with polls in 2004-5 indicating a potential left-of-centre majority due to strong objections to the Second Balkenende government’s right-wing economic policies.
With the potential of a left-wing government clear the Socialist Party launched a campaign to ‘force’ the PvdA to bring it into government by giving it a large number of seats. The SP’s campaign was successful, and the PvdA haemorrhaged support to its smaller competitor. The haemorrhaging only stopped when the PvdA promised to include the Socialists in coalition negotiations. Nonetheless, the SP won 25 seats, beating the VVD and coming third. The PvdA actually lost seats. In the end after arduous negotiations the PvdA formed a coalition led by the CDA and with the small Christian Orthodox ChristianUnion, as the left block was too small and fragmented for a viable coalition.
In recent years the PvdA has continually seemed to be on the cusp of losing its dominance on the left. Polls continually show it losing large amounts of support between elections, only for it to surge as an election approaches.
2012 was a case in point, as the election had long been seen as a battle primarily between the Socialist Party, by now dominant on polls on the left due to its uncompromising opposition to the Rutte minority government (supported by Wilders) and to austerity in general when compared to the PvdA who had delivered the government a lifeline by providing it with support on EU bail-outs, which Wilders had refused to support.
In the Prime Ministerial debates before the election, however, the PvdA’s leader, Diederik Samson, provided a robust progressive defence of EU bail-outs when other party leaders had taken strong positions in opposition (in line with public opinion). Samson’s defensive stance was seen as demonstrating honesty and integrity, and the PvdA once again returned to dominance, winning almost a quarter of votes, 38 seats and forming a second Purple coalition with the VVD, who beat it by only 3 seats.
Yet, history shows that Purple is best for the fringes of Dutch politics, and in recent polls the PvdA has fallen to a distant fifth or sixth. In the local elections in March this year the PvdA suffered a stinging rebuke as it and lost control of many large cities, including Amsterdam, which it had been controlled by the PvdA or its predecessor, the SDAP, for 99 years.
The PvdA’s existential problem is this. Does the PvdA become more socially liberal and pro-immigration to take support from, or to stop its support drifting to, Democrats 66 and the GreenLeft? Does it instead try to keep a hold of more socially conservative working class voters with tougher positions on immigration? Does the PvdA move left to face off the challenge of the Socialists? Yet this could simply create space in the centre to be filled by the centre-right, or make the party an unattractive potential coalition partner as in the 1970s. The danger of an ideological misstep is in potentially losing its dominant position on the left, becoming a weak centre-left party surrounded by more radical competitors. Almost all Western European social democratic parties are gripped by similar questions, but perhaps none so vividly as the PvdA. As such the party is left ideologically confused, without a clear compass. It currently wins support based on a shrinking base of elderly working class voters who have always voted PvdA, and ethnic minorities, along with a reputation for stability and reasonableness. The party has also simply lucked out in recent years with strong leaders and election campaigns, but it is only a matter of time before the Socialists or D66 match it in campaigning effectiveness.
The PvdA is generally fairly pro-European. It has, like other major parties in the Netherlands, taken more critical positions towards the EU in recent years but still remains one of the more positive parties in the country.
The PvdA is a member of the Socialists and Democrats, it is one of the least loyal members of the S&D, voting alongside its group 93.5% of the time.