A note on the Dutch referendum

Issue: 108

Pepijn Brandon

On 1 June 2005 a large majority of the Dutch electorate rejected the proposed EU constitution. With a 62 percent ‘No’ vote on a 63 percent turnout, the Dutch ‘No’ was even more pronounced than the French ‘No’ two days previously. However, the Dutch referendum also gave rise to a battle over interpretation. Was the result primarily a victory of the anti-neoliberal left, as it had been in France,1 or was it an expression of the advent of the populist and xenophobic right, following the breakthrough of the late Pim Fortuyn and his political heirs in the spring of 2002? This question is of some importance to the international, and especially the European, left.

Over the last few years the Netherlands have turned from a hallmark of political stability into its exact opposite. This ‘Dutch trajectory’ comprised a number of major events, shaking up the political landscape in the Netherlands: the breakthrough of the right wing populist List Pim Fortuyn after the murder of its political leader in the run-up to the elections of 2002; the coming to power of a right wing government that collapsed within 100 days because of the implosion of the same List Pim Fortuyn; the advent of an even more right wing government in the wake of new elections; the introduction of the largest cuts package since 1945; and an explosion of class struggle mainly focused around the issue of pensions, resulting in the 300,000-strong trade union demonstration on 2 October 2004 (one of the biggest trade union demonstrations in Dutch history).

All of those events formed the political background to the vote on the EU constitution. The rapid succession of sharp shifts to the right and left listed above makes it clear that we cannot judge the result of the referendum simply by its surface appearance. Moreover, the absence of a ‘French’ campaign, increasing the visibility of the left wing by street demonstrations and mass meetings, made it easier to portray the ‘No’ vote as one politically undifferentiated mass.

To gain a more thorough understanding of the political meaning of the referendum, three factors have to be taken into account: (1) the class composition of the ‘No’ vote; (2) the changing balance of forces between left and right; (3) the political differentiation inside the left between the ‘social liberals’ on the one hand and the anti-neoliberal left led by the Socialist Party on the other. A working class vote In terms of social composition, the Dutch ‘No’ vote was entirely of the same character as the French ‘No’. Voter research by a renowned polling agency concluded that in the lower income category 68 percent voted no, against only 51 percent of people with a higher income. Other indicators affirm a strong correlation between class and voting behaviour. Among people who enjoyed only lower-level education 82 percent voted no, while 51 percent of people who enjoyed higher (post-FE) education voted yes.

Exceptionally large majorities for the ‘No’ vote, sometimes exceeding 80 percent, were found in working class areas like the surroundings of Rotterdam and the poorer north eastern part of the country. As opposed to this, the only constituencies where the yes vote gained a majority were the 20 or so most popular hideouts for the ultra-rich.

A left wing vote?

‘On the left, the Socialist Party was the clear winner of the campaign on the European constitution. The right wing parties calling for a “No” vote were rather invisible.’ This was the conclusion of De Volkskrant, the Dutch equivalent of the Guardian, on 2 June.2 The leadership that the Socialist Party gained during the campaign is an important indicator of the balance of forces between right and left in the ‘No’ camp. The Socialist Party is rightly considered as the far left of Dutch politics. Over the last decade it has gained increasing popularity on the basis of anti-neoliberalism, its high profile local campaigns against social cuts, and its opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Of course, the far right, led by Geert Wilders, tried to use the referendum to advance nationalist and xenophobic arguments. Wilders led a right wing breakaway from the Tory Freedom and Democracy Party (VVD) over the issue of Turkish admission to the EU, and made this the centre of his campaign. However, this turned out to be a huge failure. At a book signing event in Amsterdam organised at the height of the campaign only 20 supporters showed up-outnumbered by the activists protesting outside the event. The right wing of the ‘No’ campaign was not alone in playing the nationalist card. The government, renowned for its severe anti-immigrant policies, threatened that a ‘No’ vote would harm Dutch influence inside the EU. Prime minister Balkenende himself, after the French referendum, argued that the Dutch should not let the French ‘dictate’ how to vote.

Unfortunately the Socialist Party did not challenge the nationalism of the right-both of the yes and no campaign. Instead it collapsed itself into chauvinist slogans about losing our Dutch identity to a ‘European superstate’.

Of course, this failure to challenge nationalism had an impact on the campaign. Many of the arguments used to justify a ‘No’ vote were muddled, and anti-neoliberalism was less pronounced in the Netherlands than it was in France. Nevertheless, the anti-neoliberal sentiment was the powerful undercurrent driving the ‘No’ vote. Significantly, as 1 June drew nearer, the right became more isolated within the ‘No’ camp, and the Socialist Party shifted its emphasis away from its earlier, more provincial outlook towards arguments against privatisation and militarisation of Europe. This was a clear response to the mood expressed in the many meetings up and down the country, where concern over the rising costs of living since the introduction of the euro, the undemocratic character of the EU, and the arrogant way the Dutch government itself handled opposition to the new constitution were by far the most important issues.3

It was also a reflection of a more general shift in the balance of forces between right and left in Dutch politics. The experience of the right in power has brought back social resistance on a mass scale. The wave of trade union protests last year was the most important expression of this fact. But even after a meagre deal was struck between the government and the union leadership, levels of class struggle have remained very high, with a combination of smaller local strikes against factory closures, and national strikes of groups as diverse as civil servants and doctors. Just one week after the referendum 20,000 firefighters, public transport workers and others demonstrated in Amsterdam for better wages and the right to early retirement.

In this climate, the massive ‘No’ vote in the referendum was a serious blow for the government. A poll conducted in early June showed that approval rates for the government had dropped to 19 percent-an all time low point. The unpopularity of the government was itself an important factor in its defeat in the referendum. Every time prime minister Balkenende went on national television to call for a ‘Yes’ vote, the ‘No’ camp went up in the polls. The unpopularity of the mainstream right also had an impact on the way people viewed the right wing populist parties inside the ‘No’ camp. One study showed that ‘having a right wing image’ is a serious hindrance to the growth of one of the post-Fortuyn formations. Wilders’ party did worse in the polls after the referendum than before.

Differentiation inside the left The referendum did more than just highlight the weakness of the government and the right. It also exposed the faultlines inside the left. Of the three left wing parties in parliament, only the Socialist Party campaigned for a ‘No’ vote. The Labour Party and Green Left were both at the forefront of the ‘Yes’ campaign. In fact, once it became clear that there would be a majority voting ‘No’, those parties jumped in to try and save the day for the government. They were joined in this attempt by the trade union leadership.

The enthusiasm with which both the Labour Party and Green Left tied themselves to a sinking ship shows how far they have shifted towards accepting social liberalism. The fact that they did so while in opposition, without any of the constraints normally put on reformist parties in government by the ruling class, proves this is as much an ideological as a pragmatic conversion. The essence of their argument was their belief that there is no alternative to the current neo-liberal trajectory of the EU. If this is the case, then even the smallest clause about social rights or protection of the environment, however much it is framed inside a further advance of market forces, becomes a gain.

In taking this approach, the leaders of the Labour Party and Green Left merely managed to further alienate their traditional supporters: 48 percent of Green Left supporters ignored their party’s arguments and voted no. Among supporters of the Labour Party, a 55 percent majority went against the wishes of the party leadership. This also resulted in a loss of support for the Labour Party in general. The Labour Party polled 50 seats (out of 150) before the campaign, but sank to 41 seats after 1 June. The Socialist Party gained eight seats over the same period.

Chances for our movement

The Dutch referendum was a massive defeat for one of the most right wing governments in Europe. The main benefactor was the left inside the left. That this was the case in a country that over recent years mainly attracted attention from the international media, through the breakthrough of Pim Fortuyn’s party, the series of attacks on Muslims after the murder of the racist film-maker Van Gogh, and the general advent of Islamophobia, is a sign for optimism.

For the left inside the Netherlands, 1 June has posed a number of challenges. On the one hand we should keep on increasing the pressure on the government and the right. On the other hand, in order to build on the momentum created by the explosion of trade union struggle last autumn and the referendum, we have to engage with the many thousands of working class people who during the referendum campaign started shifting away from the established parties of the left like the Labour Party. The first test in this respect will be the coming local elections next spring. Notwithstanding its own specifics, the development of the Dutch left is marching in step with recent developments in the surrounding countries.

An internationalist approach, building on the successes of the movements against neo-liberalism and war throughout the world, and taking on the lessons of the recent successes of parties like Respect and the German Linkspartei, offers the best chances in our urgent tasks for the coming period.


1: J Wolfreys, ‘How France’s Referendum Caught Fire’, International Socialism 107 (Summer 2005).

2: ‘SP grote winnaar referendumcampagne’ (SP big winner of referendum campaign), De Volkskrant, 2 June 2005.

3: The tory VVD went as far as claiming that a ‘No’ vote would increase the chances of a repetition of the Holocaust.