EU Referendum

Dutch election: lessons for Britain?


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Reviewing the German press this morning, one finds a distinctly triumphalist response to the Dutch election (an event played very low-key by the British press). Die Welt, for instance, is in no doubt that the voters took a pro-European stance, but it is Süddeutsche Zeitung which really revels in Gert Wilder's defeat.

The election in the Netherlands, it says, was a mass exodus to the centre - "a clear vote for democracy and Europe, against populism and unpredictable firebrands like Geert Wilders".

Part of the reason for his electoral disaster is attributed to his action in triggering the election in the first place. As a result, it says, the Dutch have turned away from political extremes and "fled to the middle".

They were fed up, we are told, of wobbly governments, erratic, flamboyant politicians and unsustainable promises. They no longer wanted the cabinet to be dependent on an unpredictable firebrand, with the government collapsing again after a few months.

However, a strong element of wishful thinking may be evident here, as the biggest hit proportionately was taken by the pro-Europe Green Party (results listed here). It lost seven of its ten seats, while a number of tiny parties gained seats.

Some of Wilder's grief, therefore, may be self-inflicted, resulting from his aggressive campaigning style combined with an almost complete absence of substance. And, although he chose to fight on an anti-EU ticket, his hostile rhetoric, directed mainly at Spain and Greece, was not matched by a sensible alternative to EU membership.

In displaying these failings, there are some parallels with UKIP, which is also dominated by a headstrong, flamboyant figure, in Mr Farage. It relies on aggressive rants from its leader, lacks policy depth and has consistently failed to come up with a sensible alternative to EU membership, which reflects reality rather than wishful thinking.

We know that, at a latter stage of his campaign, Geert Wilders was seeking to formulate an EU exit plan, but he had left it too late to embark on such a substantial task. At least, though, he recognised the need – which is more than UKIP has ever done.

Thus, if there are any lessons to be learned from the Dutch experience, it was not that – as the pundits would have you believe – a rush to the centre is inevitable. Campaigning style does have an effect, as does any perceived or actual lack of substance.

People in democracies around the world, it seems, have a perverse habit of casting their votes first and foremost for parties which project confidence in their abilities to govern. The "cheeky chappie" approach may be fine for a protest vote, when the result doesn't matter (such as in the euro elections), but when people are electing a government, they tend to take it seriously.

That much we are seeing in the UK, with the classic two-party squeeze emerging. The next election is shaping up to be a Tory-Labour contest and, if the result looks close, the other parties won't get a look in.

Here is possibly the real lesson. The European Movement engineered the biggest revolution in politics since the war, without ever fighting an election, or winning any seats in its name in any parliament. One wonders, therefore, whether fighting elections is the best way of changing public sentiment and achieving political change. There are other ways.