Left-wing political parties and mergers: a will-they-won’t-they saga in the Netherlands
Two Dutch political parties, Partij van de Arbeid (Labour) and GroenLinks (GreenLeft), are in the process of intensifying their cooperation, and there’s even word of a merger or ‘fusion’ between the two parties. How does this rapprochement between green parties and Social Democrats compare on a European level?
Manon Heerts & Gijs Verhoeff
Two weeks ago, the Dutch government presented its annual budgetary plans. In a time of unprecedented inflation all over Europe, they attempted to soften the blow that many households will suffer as a result of rising living costs. Especially energy prices will or already have doubled or tripled for many households, pushing some into poverty, while others can barely make ends meet. Two left-wing parties, GroenLinks (GreenLeft; GL) and the Partij van de Arbeid (the Labour Party; PvdA), presented an alternative budgetary plan to protect those vulnerable households that are at a higher risk of being affected by the crisis. Their joint effort is another sign of the close connection between the two parties. Some, in fact, consider the parties so closely aligned that their proposed merger would be the only way to save the left political block in the Netherlands. In the spring of 2022, the parties were discussing the possibility of joining ranks and becoming a single left-wing progressive party. Half a year later, and with provincial elections coming up in March 2023, the idea of a far-reaching cooperation, or even a merger, seems to have taken a backseat. The initial enthusiasm has faded. The idea to campaign in the March 2023 elections with a single fraction was cast aside definitively. Whilst some argue that merging is the only way to save the left, others doubt if a cooperation will ever materialise.
Into the breach for a fusion
Advocating for the merger, a number of prominent politicians from both GL and PvdA argued that the left could no longer afford the long-lasting dominance of right-wing parties in government. A paralysed and divided left had been unsuccessful in challenging the dominance of the Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (People's Party for Freedom and Democracy; VVD), the centre-right wing party whose leader has been the prime minister of the Netherlands for the past twelve years. GL has fluctuated between 4 and 14 seats, and lost 5 seats in the most recent parliamentary elections, in 2021. The PvdA had the worst election result in its history in 2017 when it was left with a mere 9 seats of its previous 38. Many attributed the enormous loss to the party’s involvement in the coalition government with the centre-right VVD.
With the left currently at a historically low point, the argument for the merger is as follows: the division between PvdA and GL causes them to compete against each other in elections. Currently, PvdA and GL have 9 and 8 seats, respectively, out of 150 seats in the Dutch Parliament. If they united their factions, this would add up to 17 seats, making them the third largest party in the Parliament. Moreover, proponents of a fusion party argue that the merger would attract even more voters, secretly dreaming of a broad ‘people’s party’, similar to the Social Democrats after WW2 until the turn of the century. Further, when taking a closer look at the party programmes, it is easy to forget whether one is reading the programme of GL or PvdA. Both programmes propose a higher minimum wage, lower taxes for low and middle income families and higher corporate taxes, a green and sustainable energy mix to tackle the climate crisis and more investment in both healthcare and education. The resemblance based on their election programmes for the European elections of 2019 was so prominent that GL and PvdA gave the exact same answers to the questions of the StemWijzer (a popular vote compass/election advice tool in the Netherlands), which made it impossible to advise users (or rather: voters) on what the difference between the two parties was.
In the media, both central and left-oriented newspapers have given ample space to those in favour of the merger. Countless opinion pieces and analyses have been put forward, reflecting on the need for a left breakthrough: some have argued that lessons and values from the past may certainly guide future efforts to face up to the climate crisis, growing income inequality and more, but that parties clinging to nostalgia cannot look ahead to create a fairer, greener country. Other pieces have also stressed that the only way out of the nostalgia is to create a strong left block. But, of course, there wouldn’t be politics without disagreement. Whilst some cannot wait to unite offices and brainstorm about a new party programme, others are far more reluctant.
At the latest party conference of the PvdA, there were, again, members who argued that they first need to look at the values of the party before discussing a merger because they might otherwise lose both the party and its core values. Others argue that not everything needs to be set in stone before a possible merger. At the same time, one could argue that conversations about core principles and values should indeed be held before joining ranks, but that the merged party’s character also crystallises when such fundamental conversations are had after merging. Bram van Ojik, GL-politician, commented on how parties are not sandbags that move easily from one ideological position to the next, but rather that merging is a gradual, step-by-step process. Van Ojik has experience in fusion parties: in 1989, his party was one of the three that merged to create the current GroenLinks. In fact, it is not only GL that exists as a merger of former leftist parties — so does PvdA. As pointed out here, the history of left-wing parties in the Netherlands is in fact one of close cooperation and mergers. However, based on the discussion within both PvdA and GL, neither the members nor the leadership of the party feel like running head over heels into a fusion. The ‘f-word’ has now become a bit of a taboo term, either used very cautiously or not at all. Perhaps it comes down to a discussion of core ideology: how to reconcile green politics with social democracy?
Green movements have historically opposed the idea of ever increasing economic growth, which is at the expense of the environment. On the other hand, the original social democratic message is inherently materialistic, focussing not on the problems of economic growth per se but on the subsequent distribution of welfare, which it considers unfair. What is more, the original Social Democratic message is inherently materialistic, advocating for economic growth to be redistributed and shared, with economic gains for the working class: they should be able to buy a new car, live in a comfortable house, and afford a holiday too. Besides the argument that this battle against scarcity ultimately diminishes the relevance of pro-redistribution Social Democratic parties, the materialist outlook historically presents a fundamental difference between green parties and Social Democratic parties.
Suggestions for the party leader of the new left party include Frans Timmermans, PvdA-politician,
and currently the Vice President of the European Commission
What about Europe?
While the differences on the national level seem minor, they are more pronounced in the way they have organised themselves on the European level in the factions in the European Parliament. GL is part of the European Greens, whereas PvdA is part of the Socialists and Democrats (S&D Group), and it has expressed its wish that a merger party would stay part of the S&D. The leader of the GL faction in the European Parliament, Bas Eickhout, on the other hand, has spoken out against a merger because ideological differences between the parties are too big on the European level.
Putting the discussion around PvdA and GL in a broader European context provides some valuable nuance to a discussion in the Netherlands that solely focuses on the ‘f-word.’ The differences between the green parties in other EU Member States are historically much more pronounced. For example, in Germany the Alliance 90/The Greens stems from a tradition of ecological protest parties with a strong anti-nuclear energy standpoint. In the German context, the difference between the environmentalist Greens and SPD (the German PvdA) is thus much more pronounced, considering the strong, traditional union and social democrat basis of the SPD. Social-democratic parties have, together with their traditional christian democratic counterparts, lost their pivotal role in many political contexts in Europe, but have at some point been substantial opposition or government-forming parties in all current EU-member states. The green parties, however, although successful in some countries, remain marginal in other member states (such as Spain, Poland, Norway and Italy). This also partially explains the resistance of GroenLinks to align themselves politically with the S&D potentially in the future. Whereas agendas of the Greens and Social Democrats might align in the Dutch context, the Social democrats are considered a powerhouse in governance, whilst the Greens stand in a tradition of a strong opposition identity when seen from the European perspective. Both the Social Democrats and Greens are afraid to give up a significant part of their respective histories and identities.
Are there any other lessons to draw from other member states? In EU member states, such as Sweden, cooperation between Greens and Social Democrats has emerged earlier, out of a necessity to respond to the Alliance of four right-wing parties, under the banner of the Red-Greens (De rödgröna). With a confidence and supply system, this coalition has been able to form a leftist government multiple times. This electoral alliance, while still retaining autonomy as clearly separate political parties, was similarly born out of perceived necessity to unite forces for popular support. It goes to show that there are more intermediate steps between remaining independent parties, and merging altogether.
To conclude, with the political landscape in many European countries changing rapidly, with traditional parties disappearing altogether and the rapid expansion of new parties, it might also be wise for political parties to reinvent themselves before they disappear from the electoral stage altogether. Whether GroenLinks and PvdA will extend their recent burst in cooperation remains to be seen, as well as which form this will take. From the European perspective, such rapprochement between green parties and social democratic parties to this extent might seem contradictory but also shows us that the f-bomb is not the only form of feasible cooperation between marginalised leftist parties.