Opinion: Lessons from the Netherlands on Lib Dem strategy

Netherlands-4778 - Wooden GrondzeilerA few months after the UK Coalition Government formed in 2010, the Dutch Christian Democrats (CDA) formed a minority government with our sister party, the liberal VVD. To get a majority agreement, the VVD-CDA coalition made a confidence and supply agreement with right-wing Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party (PVV), which set out a number of policy concession to Wilders, e.g. on immigration. That was a decision with huge impact: the PVV was about as toxic as it could get for many CDA and VVD supporters. The fall-out of that decision has some interesting lessons for the Lib Dems.

CDA justified the agreement with the PVV as being necessary for the good of the country. But for its supporters it was difficult to see a proponent of religious freedom and a compassionate society together with the Islamophobic, right-wing PVV. The party conference endorsing the agreement saw many prominent members denouncing the leadership for helping to implement Wilders’ agenda. To many liberals seeing the VVD govern together with illiberal PVV was anathema too and prominent members left the party. Both saw their opinion poll ratings drop.

So when the PVV withdrew its support in April 2012 and an election was called for September, the frazzled CDA caretaker ministers and Parliamentarians saw it as an opportunity to regain lost support. They elected a new political leader, cancelled planned PVV-tinged decisions, denounced everything they had done in government that had been related to the PVV.

What did the voters think? CDA ended up with fewer votes than the polls had suggested they could count on before the PVV had withdrawn support. That was simply because the voters weren’t fooled by this about-face. And the ones who had thought CDA principled for putting country before party were left disappointed. CDA did not appear to be a party of conviction anymore, just cynically trying to get votes.

Meanwhile, confident VVD steamed ahead to win the elections with a record share of the vote. They did so talking about their record, while showing how things would’ve been different if they had been a bigger party in 2010, and setting out a vision for the future.

The lesson then for those calling for a leadership contest is that trying to fool voters is not going to work. As a party, we need stand up and proudly set out where we have made a difference. We need to set out where we would have done things differently, respectfully and clearly. We need to have a vision for what happens to the UK after 2015.

Unless we do that, our voters will think we are an unprincipled bunch for trying to wipe the slate clean. The voters that are wavering will see it as of confirmation what they maybe thought already: that we care more about power and keeping ourselves in jobs than about standing up for what we believe in. Our talk to the contrary won’t convince them: they see the evidence of our actions.

Funnily enough, this is exactly the strategy that Clegg and his team are pursuing – because they know it is the only right one. They are focusing on our key areas, demonstrating how we are making a positive impact on people’s lives and setting out differences with the Tories. They are setting out how we can do more of that, in Government and in our manifesto. In Cheltenham, Sutton, Eastleigh, Hull, Birmingham, Gateshead, Southport, South Lakeland and other areas that paid off last week.

In other areas, for example in my own area of Lambeth, it didn’t – yet. That’s very tough. But we Liberal Democrats are fighters. I could have done more in London to help our target areas win and I will do more. I hope I will see you out there, setting out why we are a party that is proud of what we have achieved and ambitious about what we can achieve in the future.

* Henk van Klaveren is a public affairs consultant at and a former Liberal Democrat press officer.

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53 Comments

  • Roxanna Arif 29th May '14 - 9:40am

    This is very well said- my only problem is that Holland and The Netherlands aren’t the same thing. How disrespectful!

  • Meanwhile, the problem in the UK is that the voters aren’t listening to the Liberal Democrats any more or at least not bothering to turn out to vote for them. They prefer the Labour message that we can have unfunded extra spending and the government can guarantee higher living standards, the UKIP message that it’ll all be alright if we kick the foreigners out and leave the EU, or the Tory message that the economic recovery is all due to them and no-one else. Unless we can change our strategy so we can have some kind of a dialogue with the voters, which requires us somehow to persuade them to start listening to us again, we are doomed.

  • Peter Watson 29th May '14 - 10:08am

    Sadly, I think we can see Lib Dem strategy with depressing predictability.
    The current furore will be dismissed as the result of one Lord’s discontent. Humiliation in Newark will be dismissed as a result of the current debates. Phrases like “mid-term blues”, “minority coalition partner”, “get the message across”, give the impression that it’s all inevitable and nothing to with any particular actions or individuals. In 2015 some tactical voters will return and the results will be better than current elections or polling, and that will be billed as a turnaround and credited to the success of the party’s strategy. Meanwhile the party will be relying on first-past-the-post (incumbency and “where we fight we win”) to retain some MPs and elevation to the Lords as a reward / compensation for others, benefiting from the electoral and parliamentary reform we failed to achieve.

  • But a big part of the problem is that the leadership is NOT setting out “where we would have done things differently, respectfully and clearly” and having “a vision for what happens to the UK after 2015.”

    The sole discussion of the coalition’s achievements are framed in terms of ‘what we’ve got and what we’ve stopped’ – and never any sense that we’re dissatisfied and what we would want to do if we had more support. In effect, we defend the status quo “because it’s the best possible deal in the circumstances” – but almost never go on to say what we would want to do if we weren’t held back by the Conservatives.

    We saw this most clearly in the EU elections where, amazingly, we also managed to end up defending the status quo. In vs Out wasn’t inherently a bad idea – but it became an incredibly bad idea when we allowed it to morph into “In – with no change of any kind whatsoever”. Once again, defending the status quo.

    It’s ironic that the most successful ‘parties of government’ always sound most dissatisfied with how things are (Thatcher being the classic example) – and that, as a party, we’ve always been our most successful when we’ve clearly stood with the people against the establishment and the status quo – and not been the voice of the Town Hall or Whitehall.

    We’ve got to get back to that – and if the leadership can’t or won’t do it, then we need new leadership.

  • Many years ago, as a Young Liberal with an interest in international politics and The Netherlands, the key lesson I learned from VVD was that, were I living in The Netherlands, I would be a member of Democraten 66 (D66) and certainly not VVD. Frankly, for a liberal, that is still the only lesson worth learning from a good hard look at VVD.

    Partly as a result of it’s electoral system, party politics in The Netherlands are both more complicated and more nuanced than here in the UK. Like Denmark, each political philosophy tends to have more than one party with elected representatives. So, learning lessons applicable to the UK can be very tricky.

  • Bill Le Breton 29th May '14 - 10:28am

    Martin T once again speaks for sense and sensibility .

    Rose garden politics was a huge strategic error. Deputising for Cameron another compounding it. There was never a lib dem position statement before each cabinet meeting and a report back on progress, linkages and compromises. There was never a stance where our leader said, ” I will need to consult my party on that.” Nor and this could have been the case, ” I need to consult the leader of the Labour Party on this. I am determined to arrive at an all party consensus on this important matter for our country.”

    We jumped enthusiastically into yah-boo politics and appeared pale Tories and easily misrepresented as opportunistic and self satisfied.

  • Jayne Mansfield 29th May '14 - 10:49am

    @ Martin Tod,
    I don’t think that you are defending the status quo, your leadership is defending making life immeasurably worse for the most vulnerable members of society.

    I don’t listen to politicians any more, but I do listen to what the charities I support say, and Save the Children state that children in this country have paid the highest price of the recession. The triple whammy of flat wages, cuts to benefits and rise in cost of living is leading to greater levels of child poverty.

    I have reached the stage where I leave the room if a Liberal Democrat comes on the television to crow about what the party has achieved in government.

  • Jayne Mansfield – “I have reached the stage where I leave the room if a Liberal Democrat comes on the television to crow about what the party has achieved in government.”

    In which case my I ask why you spend such an inordinate amount of time commenting on the discussion website of a party you quite clearly despise? It seems a very strange, nay, masochistic, thing to do.

  • “We jumped enthusiastically into yah-boo politics and appeared pale Tories and easily misrepresented as opportunistic and self satisfied.”

    This has been one of the most disappointing things for me, that the ‘new kind of politics’ never materialised. I don’t think it had to be this way.

  • John Critchley 29th May '14 - 11:21am

    Is there nervousness about ‘the message’ because there’s confusion in the Party and outside about whether the LibDems are now a Liberal party or still one of the left?
    For me the coalition has been good but the messages often blurred, and I agree with Martin Todd about the way we implied that everything in the EU is wonderful – it isn’t, and needs to change.

  • Bill Le Breton 29th May '14 - 11:24am

    Tabman, does not Jayne bring a certain glamour to our drab conversations here at the Forum at the Edge of the Universe. Her and your fancy dress certainly bring smiles to my face.

  • Jayne Mansfield 29th May '14 - 11:28am

    @ Tabman,
    I first commented on here to express my anger as a Lib Dem voter after the betrayal over the Student Tuition fees and the NHS reforms. ( I was first drawn to the Lib Dems because I was an admirer of the Young Liberals and their stand against apartheid), I continued because there are Liberal democrats of long standing on here who have helped build the party up and who I felt were still worthy of my support at the ballot box.

    I voted Lib Dem last week out of respect for them and the fight they are putting up to return the party to a party of principle. I wish them well and I am interested in what they have to say, but as you say, why bother, you are a lost cause and I have plenty of other things to do. Thanks for making my mind up for me. Bye Bye.

  • Jayne Mansfield 29th May '14 - 11:34am

    @ Bill Le Breton,
    Fear not. I have an old school friend called Jean Harlow, I’ll check whether she would care to become a visitor to Lib Dem Voice.

  • Henk writes —
    “….Unless we do that, our voters will think we are an unprincipled bunch for trying to wipe the slate clean..”
    Which sums up last Thursday’s disaster neatly.
    Henk goes on to say —
    “…Funnily enough, this is exactly the strategy that Clegg and his team are pursuing……”

    Unfortunately our party campaigning has been entirely centred around the quasi-presidential style of the Deputy Prime Minister, who does not have a vision for the future only that things in ten years will be “about the same as they are now”.

    The author of this quote died yesterday —
    “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

    She did not have Nick Clegg in mind when she first said this.
    But when it comes to the coalition of the last four years. people may have forgotten what Clegg said and what Clegg did, but they sure as hell remember how bad he made them feel.

  • Bill Le Bretton, I’m going to take that comment at face value 🙂

    It is funny what a distorting lens our own perception can be. Perhaps Jayne views herself as athe figurehead of a beleaguered vessel, tossed around on the ldv of orange.

    Whereas the contrarian side of me is looking to prick the balloon of the dour self-righteousness, lack of humility, and illiberal group-think I perceive in some of the posters (which most definitely don’t include yourself). Sometimes, dare I say it, I even advance arguments I don’t necessarily hold to for that end.

  • Jayne Mansfield 29th May ’14 – 11:34am
    @ Bill Le Breton,
    Fear not. I have an old school friend called Jean Harlow, I

    We’re any of the Monroe girls at school with you Jayne. ???

  • Helen Tedcastle – ” Ignore Tabman – there are plenty of us on here who disagree with him. ”

    Which is exactly why I need to be here.

  • “Tabman 29th May ’14 – 11:48am
    Helen Tedcastle – ” Ignore Tabman – there are plenty of us on here who disagree with him. ”

    Which is exactly why I need to be here.”

    Always good to have a plurality of voices. And Jayne – stay and bring your friend too.

  • Tabman 29th May ’14 – 11:47am
    “…… the contrarian side of me is looking to prick the balloon of the dour self-righteousness, lack of humility, and illiberal group-think …”

    I thought you were just here to promote the interests of Big Tobacco. Or am I confusing you with someone else?

  • daft ha'p'orth 29th May '14 - 12:02pm

    @Tabman
    “Which is exactly why I need to be here.”
    Said the guy who wants to prick the balloon of ‘dour self-righteousness and lack of humility.’

  • Bill Le Breton 29th May '14 - 12:03pm

    Yes Tabman, I have good friend called Mary, Mary who is quite contrary.

  • “@ Phyllis: See above. Tabman is free to do as he wishes but I didn’t want to see our voters not welcomed on the site.”

    Yes I agree with you Helen and I was about to write to say something in support of Jayne when I saw your message. Sorry my message was meant ‘ironically’ at Tabman but obviously too subtle!

    Do stay Jayne and bring other women 🙂

  • Malcolm Todd 29th May '14 - 12:28pm

    Oh, do please all calm down. Nobody demanded that anyone leave, shut up, or whatever. The closest anyone came was Tabman’s commenting that Jayne’s continued involvement with the site, given her feelings about the party, “seems a very strange, nay, masochistic, thing to do”, which is fair comment. I certainly feel it must be something like masochism that keeps me coming back here…

  • John Tilley “But when it comes to the coalition of the last four years. people may have forgotten what Clegg said and what Clegg did, but they sure as hell remember how bad he made them feel.”

    I feel that this is the very nub of the problem the Party faces. The sense of Betrayal is a very powerful emotion, and it’s going to be very hard for the Party to overcome this. To Federal Committee or whoever is carrying out the Review, I do think it would be a good idea to make this the No 1 Challenge which needs to be addressed. Until the ‘Trust’ issue is confronted nothing else (EU Referendum, etc) will suffice as people will simply not trust that you will do anything you come up with. It’s not an easy task, that’s for sure and it’s certainly an important test for the Leadership.

  • Malcolm Todd

    Jayne has made it clear that it’s not the Party she has a problem with, in fact she voted Lib Dem, but the people who pop up on TV bragging about how much they have achieved in government. That’s a perfectly valid view and many people feel that way, members and non-members alike. The Party should listen to these people if it is serious about wanting to increase the LibDem vote from the abysmally low figures we saw last weekend.

  • The VVD is an economic liberal party and campaigned as such and governed as such. The Lib Dems are a pan-liberal party (something I’m increasingly seeing as a weakness rather than a strength) and campaigned as a social liberal party and then governed as an economic liberal party. This is the difference. Had the VVD campaigned on a D66-like platform and acted the same the story would not have been so happy for them, comparisons internationally in politics are extremely valuable but the comparison must be apt.

    This is not.

  • Malcolm – thank you. That was exactly what I meant. I can understand why you come back, as you like the cut and thrust if savage. Jayne doesn’t seem to enjoy that. Which is why, Helen, I was wondering why she chose to inflict it on herself. She’s prefer free to undertake activities from which she gains no pleasure (as a liberal how could I think.otherwise? ) and I most certainly was not telling her to leave the site – again, as a liberal she can do.as she chooses.

    Daft – I poked the hornets nest and look what flew out.

    John Tilley – “here to promote the interests of big tobacco.” That’s the best laugh I’ve had in ages, thsnks! I did once ask.Ken Clarke to defect.to us, though 🙂

  • Geoffrey Payne 29th May '14 - 2:01pm

    I was hoping this article would be about the success of D66 in the recent Euro elections. Hopefully they will now become the more influential liberal party in the Netherlands these days

  • Nick Barlow 29th May '14 - 3:19pm

    Geoffrey – yes, it seemed odd to me to talk about liberalism in the Netherlands and not mention D66.

  • daft ha'p'orth 29th May '14 - 3:27pm

    @Tabman
    Gnothi seauton 🙂

  • Daniel Henry 29th May '14 - 4:08pm

    Martin Tod said everything that I’d like to say on this thread.

  • Reading the above maybe we can see some hope in moving the debate onto the important changes in messages and use of the media that need to be made as well as how to refresh the “face ” of our party without ditching an admirable leader. Every election is an opportunity to review our strategy and tactics, to draw lessons and to improve our performance next time. The centre needs to listen more to activists for the emotional roots of our appeal and look more to them than the voters for inspiration when it comes to our messages. And more than ever we all need to remember that politics is a team game – the bigger and more united the team – the better it does. Simples!

  • Johan Zegstroo 30th May '14 - 12:26am

    As a Dutchman living in the UK for over 20 years I have to laugh how often people mixing Holland and The Netherlands up. As a LibDem Councillor I wouldn’t mind giving some advise on Dutch issues in future publications. The PVV in The Netherlands has gone down in the latest European election and in the UK the parties could learn of that.

  • Eddie Sammon 30th May '14 - 5:03am

    I largely agree, Henk. Changing principles because it is where votes are will damage the party. It has to be about the heart.

  • Phil Rimmer 30th May '14 - 8:19am

    @Johan Zegstroo
    To be fair to my English friends who do still confuse Holland with De Nederlands, they aren’t exactly helped by the followers of it’s football team chanting “Hup Holland Hup”.

  • SIMON BANKS 30th May '14 - 9:15am

    There’s just one problem about the line proposed in this post. What if you are not trying to fool the electorate by making a cosmetic change, but actually think the party, despite some good points, is going in the wrong direction and the leader, for all his qualities, lacks some vital qualities essential in a really good leader? Then to campaign enthusiastically on our record is hypocrisy.

    I am also not able to dismiss the devastation of our local government base in Liverpool, Manchester, Islington, Southwark, Waltham Forest and most other inner-city areas with “tough luck, won’t be so bad next time and never mind because we’re holding local council seats where we have the MP.”

  • daft ha'p'orth 30th May '14 - 9:56am

    @Eddie Sammon
    “Changing principles because it is where votes are will damage the party. It has to be about the heart.”
    Right idea, wrong tense. Has damaged

  • Henk is Dutch, I believe, so those laughing at his ‘knowledge’ of the Netherlands and Holland should possibly be careful – he probably knows more than you realise.

  • Calling The Netherlands “Holland” is rather like calling the United Kingdom “England.”

  • Philip Rimmer makes a good point.
    But the chanting of the Dutch football fans is highly entertaining sometimes.
    I was in Delft some years ago. (with Mary Reid of LDV fame). and had one of their songs put into English for me by one of our hosts.
    I cannot remember all the detail but I found it hugely funny at the time — it involves bicycles and asking “politely” if they can have their stolen bicycles back. They sing it when their national team play Germany. 🙂

  • “Joe Otten 30th May ’14 – 7:03pm
    daft, we’re often accused (wrongly) of abandoning principles in order to do what’s right for the country (expressed differently), but abandoning principles to chase votes? When did that happen? Where are these votes?”

    Joe, in September 2009 Nick Clegg made it clear that he did not think the Country could afford to abolish tuition fees but a few weeks later he still signed a personal Pledge, to great publicity and fanfare, in order to chase the student vote.

    http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2009/sep/20/nick-clegg-tuition-fees-education

  • daft ha'p'orth 30th May '14 - 7:24pm

    @Joe
    If one subscribes to the Phyllis school of thought on the fees issue then the description is clearly applicable. More broadly/forgivingly, one could take the view that the public’s perception of what they were voting for, at the time of voting, simply didn’t match what they actually were voting for on a number of issues. Hence the perception that voters had fallen victim of false advertising, when in fact the voters simply hadn’t read the most recent LD policy memos in the necessary depth, but it’s their own fault if they don’t bother reading the small print…

    Dunno about abandoning principles to ‘do what’s right for the country’. I think what’s right for the country also includes multiple strong political parties, notably a strong Liberal party with a unique and well-defined identity. But it’s just a point of view.

  • Actually, my point was not so much to correct the confusion (which had already been done) but to point out that it’s an explicable and somewhat justifiable pars pro toto synecdoche. Countries that historically had had relations with the Kingdom of England before 1707 kept on referring to it as England (Angleterre, etc.) even after it became part of the kingdom of Great Britain and then the United Kingdom. Likewise, to lots of people around the world, anybody from the UK is “English” (Angrezi, Mwingereza, etc.) even if they’re Scots or Welsh.
    And, in parallel, to many nations, The Netherlands is Holland, Hollandia, Ollandia, Holandia, Holandsko, etc. And so it was in English, and still would be if we hadn’t decided to conform more to native than to English usage (as we have in other instances, e.g. “Iran” for Persia). In other words, using “Holland” for The Netherlands is not so much wrong as it is old-fashioned and out of date.

  • David, you can add Oranda (Japanese) and Helan (Standard Chinese) to your list for the Netherlands. Britain in Chinese is generally Ying-guo (English County) and Igirisu in Japanese. Igirisu is a phonically translation of England.

    It is interesting how slow languages are at catching up with social developments.

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