Campaigning on a centre-left platform amid a pandemic: lessons from the Dutch 2021 election

Online debate with Noortje Thijssen and René Cuperus

As part of year-round activities complementing the annual Progressive Governance Summit, Das Progressive Zentrum and its London-based partner organisation Policy Network invited two Dutch experts to discuss take-aways from Europe’s first key parliamentary election this year.

While political strategists in Berlin are gearing up for this year’s race to succeed Angela Merkel, their counterparts in The Hague already reached the finishing line of the Dutch election campaign on 17 March. Extended to three days in order to reduce health risks, the Dutch vote marked Europe’s first key parliamentary election this year. Above all, the country saw a striking reaffirmation of the conservative VVD-led Rutte government, bursting opposition parties’ hopes to channel public discontent over a childcare benefits scandal and executive mismanagement into an electoral shift. In addition to the VVD, the social-liberal party D66 notably improved its vote share, while both the Socialist Party and the Green Left took heavy losses. The Labor Party (PvdA) retained its 5,7 % of the vote, remaining unable to recover from the staggering loss of 29 percentage points it endured in 2017.

Eager to discuss the implications of the election outcome, as well as lessons from the campaign for progressives across the continent, Das Progressive Zentrum and Policy Network, hosted an interactive online debate with two distinguished experts from the Netherlands: Noortje Thijssen, Director of the Scientific Bureau of the Green Left (GroenLinks) and Candidate in the Dutch election, and René Cuperus, Senior Associate Research Fellow at the Clingendael International Institute (The Hague) and Visiting Fellow at the Germany Institute at the University of Amsterdam. Patrick Diamond, Chair of Policy Network, delivered a closing statement. Taking place on 22 March, the debate occurred before Rutte’s triumph surprisingly turned into a fight for his political survival

The event was part of year-round activities built around the annual Progressive Governance Digital Summit, which will convene on 9-11 June. The debate took place under Chatham House rules and was moderated by Michael Miebach, Chair and Co-Founder of Das Progressive Zentrum.

From left to right: Michael Miebach, René Cuperus, Patrick Diamond and Noortje Thijssen

Campaigning on an unlevel playing field

Analysing left-leaning parties’ poor electoral performance, participants agreed that the coronavirus pandemic severely impeded the ability to campaign on a progressive platform for two main reasons. Firstly, the advent of a “rally around the flag” effect and a resulting unlevel playing field between government and opposition made it ever more difficult to harness executive failures and build momentum for change. Learning from the Dutch case, progressives across the continent ought to be careful not to overestimate voters’ readiness to replace or even punish the incumbent leadership: despite a mediocre record of handling the crisis and indeed the entire government’s resignation over a childcare benefits scandal in January, voters still appeared “unwilling to change the crisis manager during a crisis” (René Cuperus).

Secondly, the discussants underlined that socio-economic concerns caused by the pandemic overshadowed progressive campaign priorities, making it “much harder to reach voters’ hearts and minds” with vital issues such as climate and environmental protection (Noortje Thijssen). Against this backdrop, Covid-related restrictions on campaigning were seen as particularly exacerbating the odds of left parties: assuming that those who demand change rely much more on face-to-face advocacy to convince voters, empty public spaces and the omission of door-to-door conversations proved highly detrimental. Online formats took place widely but could not compensate for personal contact. Being realistic about the limits of digital campaigning when it comes to winning voters for visions of change was therefore suggested as a learning for progressives elsewhere.

Struggling to find common ground: a crumbling left

Yet both panelists also tied the election results to factors unrelated to the coronavirus crisis. Above all, it was argued that the centre-left’s failure to collaborate within its own camp and to offer a joint, bridging perspective eroded voters’ confidence that a left vote would translate into a meaningful impact on Dutch politics after all. Given the volatile Dutch parliamentary system with little party loyalty and six progressive options on the table, many green and left voters turned to strategic voting and supported D66, the only foreseeable non-conservative member of the next government coalition.

As a consequence of these unresolved straits, Noortje Thijssen highlighted that it is currently not the centre-left but in fact the centre-right that leads the public discourse on how to shape the Netherland’s future, including the role of the welfare state. Indeed, as an overall rehabilitation of the state is currently occurring even among right-leaning and pro-business voters, Dutch conservatives are ready to take over and appropriate traditionally left tenors. VVD’s newly found affection for the notion of a strong state was discussed as a case in point. 

Searching for a way forward

Assessing the dire situation, centre-left minds in The Hague are contemplating the prospects of merging parties as an option to create a broader movement. Yet divisions between “conservatives and progressives within the left family” run deep and animosities remain a dividing force. For a new party constellation (consisting, for example, of social democrats and greens) to be successful, René Cuperus argued it would particularly need to challenge the neoliberal welfare state, which in its current shape is producing insecurity and distrust rather than protecting the vulnerable. Also, it would be vital to focus on resolving the culture clash between generations, higher and lower educated citizens, and between urban and rural parts of society.

In order to reach those who depend on the welfare state yet vote for populist parties, Cuperus suggested that progressives would need to “stop culturising politics”: be it socio-economics, family policy, or the EU, populist parties attempt to turn any political question into a cultural, migration-related issue. According to Cuperus, progressives should counter this strategy by focusing on providing credible socio-economic offers of redistribution rather than contributing to the culturalisation of politics themselves. 

In a closing statement, Patrick Diamond called on progressive minds to devote more energy on developing bridging strategies between the conservative and progressive wings of the centre-left space – both in and beyond the Dutch context. Only if common ground and concrete new programs on the welfare state, on political economy and other key realms can be found, alternatives to “relentless centre-right governance” would become viable in Europe’s capitals. To fulfill this bridging capacity, Diamond stressed the potential of climate and environmental policy as one exemplary field that combines the desire to preserve what is truly important with the progressive ambition of realising more equitable societies.

The discussion continues 

This event took place as part of year-round activities to promote cross-border exchange on common challenges and opportunities among progressives. If you want to stay up to date and receive invitations for similar events in the future, make sure to join our mailing list

To participate in future discussions, we especially invite you to take part in this year’s Progressive Governance Digital Summit on 9-11 June that brings the progressive community together with a purpose: as the political discourse shifts from crisis management to the transition of societies and systems post-pandemic, progressives must lead a new political era defined by courage and action. In preparation, this year’s summit is exploring political coalitions, new economic paradigms, and paths towards multilateralism that will help usher in a decade defined by progress. Last year, more than 2,700 political minds from 70+ countries worldwide joined along with 114 speakers and 25 partner organisations. Save the date and find more information on the official PGS website.

A joint event by


Lukas Schwemer

Policy Advisor
About Lukas Lukas Schwemer worked at Das Progressive Zentrum from 2018 to 2021, first in communications and later as a policy officer.

Further articles

Let's Talk Strategy: The Future of the Centre-Left in Germany and the UK

Posted on
What are the challenges facing progressives in Germany and the United Kingdom and what can they learn from each other? Which strategies can achieve a successful social democracy in the 2020s?

If You Really Want The ‘Zeitenwende’, Listen to the EU’s North-Eastern Flank

Posted on
Why defence isn't merely a matter of military security and the 'peace' and 'justice for Ukraine' advocates are much more similar than they'd like to admit.

How Alliances Empower Progressive Governance

Posted on
Lessons from progressives in Europe and North America