Early-morning bike commuter in Amsterdam
Early-morning bike commuter in Amsterdam © Charlie Bibby/FT

Since January, three European elections have produced results that have upended conventional wisdom and defied expectations. Why did this happen and are there links between them? In the latest update to our Europopulists series, we visit three places — north Amsterdam, Garges-lès-Gonesse in the Paris suburbs and Colne Valley in the north of England — to find out how the political ground is shifting 

North Amsterdam

‘It’s a totally different political landscape. People voted to be heard’

Alphons Muurlink, an otherwise modest man, could not conceal his pride as he showed off the tidy brick houses a short walk from the water’s edge in North Amsterdam.

They were built under the Labour government in 1926 to house workers who had come to this aloof and cut-off part of the city, many to work in the shipyards. And they were still standing.

This was not by accident. Even North Amsterdam is now succumbing to the gentrification and building boom that has overtaken the rest of the city. A café and ferry terminal stand on the ground where locals once hanged criminals as a warning to newcomers from the mainland. Next year, a new metro stop will formally link the borough to the rest of the city.

As more affluent residents flooded in, there was a plan to demolish the old houses. But Mr Muurlink, the Labour party’s leader on the local council, helped defeat it.

Alphons Muurlink, Labour councillor in North Amsterdam: ‘It’s a totally different political landscape’ he says – people were not voting for economic reasons, but ‘to be heard’
Alphons Muurlink, Labour councillor in North Amsterdam: ‘It’s a totally different political landscape’ he says – people do not vote for economic reasons, but ‘to be heard’ © Charlie Bibby/FT

“That’s one of the reasons I’m in politics,” he said. “If the Labour party isn’t here in Amsterdam . . . there will be gentrification of the whole city.”

Voters, it seems, either do not agree — or do not care. In the March election, Labour was shredded in North Amsterdam, an area that has for decades been a stronghold. Its share of the vote plummeted from 36.8 five years ago, more than twice that of the next largest party, to a mere 8.2 per cent.

The biggest party, with 16.4 per cent of the vote, is now the GreenLeft, an amalgam of environmentalists, socialists and communists. Just behind them was the Freedom party of Geert Wilders, the anti-Islam, anti-immigration populist, with 15.1 per cent.

Other top performers were D66 — a socially progressive and economically liberal party that one observer has described as a collection of “affluent urban professors” — and Denk, a new Muslim identity party, which has sprung up in reaction to Mr Wilders. There is also a budding movement in North Amsterdam for “Noxit” — a northern separation from the rest of the city.

Kajsa Ollongren of D66, now deputy mayor of Amsterdam: ‘It’s very important to keep in touch [with voters] – especially the young ones’
Kajsa Ollongren of D66, now deputy mayor of Amsterdam: ‘It’s very important to keep in touch [with voters] – especially the young ones’

“It’s a totally different political landscape,” Mr Muurlink observed. People were no longer voting for economic reasons, he argued. Instead, they were voting “to belong to a certain group . . . to be heard.”

Once, Dutch voters were among the most loyal and stable in Europe, voting for the same parties again and again. They congregated around Christian and Social Democrat parties, such as Labour, which built and maintained the welfare system that has been the scaffolding of Dutch postwar life.

That began to change 20 years ago, when populists came on the scene. They unleashed polarising debates about immigration, multiculturalism and the EU that have hollowed out the middle ground of Dutch politics.

amsterdam map
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There are no longer big parties in the Netherlands, just a collection of medium ones — of which Mr Wilders’ is one. In addition to the growing fish such as GreenLeft and D66 there is a school of minnows focused on narrow issues and nibbling away at the electorate. Worried about animals? Join the Animal Welfare party. Feeling middle age? Try the 50+ party.

One obvious consequence of the country’s splintering electorate is that it is more difficult to form a government. Four disparate parties, led by the liberal VVD — now the country’s largest — have been trying since March. No one expects them to finish until September — at the earliest. It is a Belgian state of disarray, which does not necessarily sit well with the more orderly Dutch.

But are there worse consequences — or is this shift merely the natural order, like all-in-one department stores giving way to the Apple store and online shopping?

André Krouwel, a political scientist at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, who specialises in the transformation of political parties, is fearful. He worries that Dutch governments will no longer be able to muster the wherewithal to tackle big challenges, be it tax reform or climate change.

Political scientist André Krouwel, in his home in west Amsterdam: ‘I don’t see the traditional parties coming back. I see them fragmenting and collapsing ...Then we’re in interesting times’
Political scientist André Krouwel, in his home in west Amsterdam: ‘I don’t see the traditional parties coming back. I see them fragmenting and collapsing . . . Then we’re in interesting times’ © Charlie Bibby/FT

“We have a political system that is devoid of parties that can carry a political project to its end,” Mr Krouwel said.

He has a unique view of the country’s increasingly fickle electorate: in 2006 he developed a website that asks voters to respond to 30 questions and then matches them up with a political party. Nearly a quarter of Dutch voters used the site this year. Often their positions were incoherent — viewing the Netherlands as a great trading nation but demanding protectionism, for example.

Mr Krouwel sees himself not only as a student of Dutch politics but very much a product of its policies. He grew up in a village near Utrecht in the 1970s. His mother was a cleaner and his father worked at Rotterdam port, until he lost his job in the downturn in the 1980s. The family was poor but poverty did not dent Mr Krouwel’s prospects. He was bright and attended a good religious school supported by the Dutch government. Then he was able to afford university with generous student grants, also underwritten by the government.

Today, he lives in an elegant flat in a part of west Amsterdam that, like its owner, has come up in the world: Once working class, the neighbourhood is now yuppie terrain, with trendy furniture stores, sushi, and a cycle shop that offers a particular racing bike for almost €10,000. In appreciation — and out of respect for his parents — Mr Krouwel votes Labour, even though his website would probably suggest otherwise.

On a recent afternoon, he gazed out of his window at an idyllic northern European cityscape — a manicured circular green, whizzing cyclists, a gliding tram — and wondered why Dutch voters had turned so angry. Why were they abandoning the political parties that built one of Europe’s happiest, most innovative, most successful societies to embrace, as he put it, “mobilisers of discontent”?

“It’s crazy, right?” he asked. “They think everything’s gone to pieces and it hasn’t.”

In Amsterdam, at least, part of the story is about gentrification. As professionals moved in to what were once working-class neighbourhoods, the old ties frayed. Mr Krouwel bought his 1920s-era apartment from the original owner in the 1990s. At the time, the butcher across the street was the local head of the Christian Democrats and still organised voters from his shop. The new arrivals are more likely to tilt towards D66 and the Greens, and connect with them on the internet.

Commuters travel by ferry from the centre of Amsterdam to Amsterdam North: next year a new metro stop will link the borough to the rest of the city
Commuters travel by ferry from the centre of Amsterdam to Amsterdam North. Next year a new metro stop will link the borough to the rest of the city © Charlie Bibby/FT

Mr Krouwel is convinced most Dutch still desire the things the traditional parties delivered — the things that benefited him: a market economy with soft edges, a social safety net that guaranteed the dignity of the poor, and a reasonably equitable society. Many were even willing to pay higher taxes for it. It’s just that they no longer believe those parties can deliver it.

“I don’t see the traditional parties coming back,” he concluded. “I see them fragmenting and collapsing in the next 20 to 30 years. And then we’re in interesting times.”

The Netherlands has a long tradition of “boutique” political parties that tend to come and go. That is a consequence of an electoral system that has no minimum threshold to enter parliament.

That helps explain the sudden rise of Pim Fortuyn in the late 1990s. The Dutch civil servant’s critique of Islam and multiculturalism quickly grew into a movement that spread far beyond his native Rotterdam.

In 2002, the year Mr Fortuyn was assassinated, an offshoot of his party captured five seats on the local council in North Amsterdam, nearly beating Labour. “They came from nowhere,” Mr Muurlink recalled.

They eventually receded, but the shock Mr Fortuyn applied to the political system is still being felt, and being reapplied by Mr Wilders. Focusing on issues like the EU, immigration and Islam has torn apart the broad coalitions that underpinned the big parties. It has forced their remnants to twist themselves in awkward ways.

In the most recent election, for example, the VVD and prime minister Mark Rutte bent to the right, with uncharacteristically harsh rhetoric on immigration and the EU, to try to blunt the threat from Mr Wilders. In so doing, they appear to have opened the door for D66 and the Greens.

Political columnist for the Volkskrant newspaper, René Cuperus: ‘The price to beat Wilders was fragmentation of the centre. That’s the price we had to pay’
Political columnist René Cuperus: ‘The price to beat Wilders was fragmentation of the centre. That’s the price we had to pay’ © Charlie Bibby/FT

On election night, René Cuperus, a leading Labour party thinker and columnist for the Volkskrant newspaper, was in a television studio in The Hague, talking to foreign media. But they lost interest when they saw that Mr Wilders, who had led opinion polls for much of the campaign, fell to second place behind the VVD.

“It was an anticlimax for them,” he recalled — except the outsiders had failed to appreciate the populists’ deeper impact. 

“The price to beat Wilders was the polarisation and fragmentation of the centre,” Mr Cuperus explained. “That’s the price we had to pay.”

He will soon be leaving his post overseeing Labour’s internal think-tank because the party’s election performance means it will be losing funding — in part to younger, more web-savvy Wilders-style upstart, Thierry Baudet, who managed to snag two seats in parliament.

“I’m a victim of populism!” Mr Cuperus joked, sitting outside an old weighing house that is now a café in Nieuwmarkt, a square in central Amsterdam.

“In a more positive mood, I say: It’s just history. Why should people vote for the party of their grandparents?” he asked. Why should voters look to Labour in a post-industrial era or the Christian Democrats in a country where many no longer believe in religion — or are Muslim?

His “apocalyptic view,” said Mr Cuperus, is that “these parties are the pillar of the European model” and “I don’t see any substitutes.”

Across Europe, he saw similar forces tearing at the middle. In France, the traditional centre-right and centre-left parties did not even make the final round of the elections. In the UK, Labour and the Conservatives are at war with themselves as much as each other — over Brexit and immigration, urban and rural voters, the educated and the less so.

The difference, Mr Cuperus noted, is that the UK — unlike the Netherlands — has a first-past-the-post electoral system. So new parties cannot easily gain traction. Instead, it is more viable to take over an established one and remake it from within, as Jeremy Corbyn is doing with Labour.

“The forces are everywhere the same,” he observed. Traditional parties were “put under pressure by populism and they were not strong enough to fight back.”

A contradiction of Dutch politics is that while it is possible for even tiny parties to enter parliament, these days few will ever come close to actual power. In some cases they may not even want it.

The result for voters is that they may have the satisfaction of registering their passion — for animals, the environment, pensioners — without the power or responsibility of government. It is an almost narcissistic form of politics. (The title of one of Mr Cuperus’ columns: “Every Dutchman wants to have their own political party.”)

The bustle of Amsterdam’s Nieuwmarkt square
The bustle of Amsterdam’s Nieuwmarkt square © Charlie Bibby/FT

That is the plight of the Greens and their young leader, Jesse Klaver, who were the star performers in March, gaining 10 seats to 14, but then decided not to join the coalition. They did not approve of the other parties’ pledges to control immigration, and they saw the way Labour was punished by voters for going along with the VVD’s austerity policies in the last government.

“We were really disappointed,” said Kajsa Ollongren, a member of D66, who is now the deputy mayor of Amsterdam. “If they consider it too big a risk to be in government . . . that’s not good for the country.”

Others were more critical. (“What a baby!” Mr Krouwel said of Mr Klaver, whom he blasted for refusing to dirty his hands in government).

D66 has taken the gamble. The party, whose popularity has ebbed and flowed over the past 50 years, won seven seats in March, bringing it to 19 — one shy of Mr Wilders. “People who are confident in the future, who are looking for new ways to deal with issues,” is how Mrs Ollongren described its membership. She saw them as part of a wider battle: “It’s really conservative populists against progressive politics . . . That is the bigger picture you see across Europe.”

Fragmenting politics, she concluded, was simply a fact of Dutch life, and not necessarily a bad one. In Amsterdam, voters had become tired of Labour’s long dominance of city politics and wanted an alternative.

Already, she argued, D66 was moving away from a top-down approach in areas such as education and giving schools more authority to decide how they spend money. “They are best equipped,” she said.

Unlike traditional parties, that tended to call on voters’ loyalty a month before an election, D66 strived to nurture a more passionate relationship. “It’s very important to keep in touch,” she explained. “You have to find new ways to reach out to voters, especially young ones.”

Still, Mrs Ollongren acknowledged: “I don’t think we will ever be in the numbers that VVD or Labour were in the past.”

In North Amsterdam, Mr Muurlink is not ready yet to give up on the old days. Like a fever, this bout of populism will eventually pass, he argued, and voters will again seek practical solutions that parties like Labour are best equipped to supply.

“Yes, there’s a future for the Labour party. More than that, there’s a need for it,” Mr Muurlink said.

He is betting that affordable housing, in particular, will be the big issue in the next election, just as many UK voters seemed to ignore Brexit in their June ballot to focus instead on healthcare. Meanwhile, he is determined to move Labour closer to the voters.

“You are not only a Muslim — you are more than that,” he said, dismissing Denk, the Muslim party that has made inroads in the neighbourhood. “They are not supplying your healthcare or affordable housing!”

For now, Labour won’t be either.

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