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Dutch Politics PvdA CDA

Horse-trading and trench warfare

   Fri 30/11/2007

"I am in politics, not in the business of horse-trading", said Labour Finance Minister Wouter Bos, after agreeing to let the richest Dutch keep their tax break for pensions. The fact that coalition partner CDA had just agreed to Labour's demand to freeze plans to make it easier to fire people, was a mere coincidence.

Naturally, no one believed him and Bos made matters worse by coming up with that "horse-trading" line. Defining what you are not is of course a classic mistake in political framing, right up there with Richard Nixon's "I am not a crook". Ever since Bos introduced the word "horse-trading" (cow-trading in Dutch) into the debate, it has been in all the headlines and repeated over and over by the opposition. No matter what else Bos has been trying to say, it is the horse traders label that sticks.

Mostly it sticks because it confirms what we have suspected about this cabinet. It is becoming clear that the coalition deal is to avoid trouble because neither party can afford an election right now. This means that either party can veto the other's proposals. Behind the scenes deals are made along the lines of "if you take your idea of the table, we'll do the same with ours".

The result has been a wide collection of things that will NOT happen: there will be no enquiry into Netherlands participation in the Iraq war; there will be no referendum on Europe, there will be no reform of firing laws and there will be no cutting back tax breaks for the rich. Though it ignores the reality of the changing world, is does not need to be a negative strategy from a political point of view. Especially for a cabinet with three conservative (in the sense of opposed to change) parties. But then they should learn to contain their mutual irritation and stop leaking their frustration to the press.

A colleague commented that Prime Minister Balkenende was "taking care of the shop". He meant it as a compliment. My feeling is that we can't afford to just manage the shop right now, when the rest of the world is racing by at breath-taking speeds: the climate is in distress, China and India are taking over economically, our population is greying and there are waiting lists for schools and hospitals in our country. I want a visionary Prime Minister who'll take us forward, not lean back and take care of the store. And I want a non-partisan PM who will intervene when the two coalition partners squabble, not someone who'll always choose his own party's side.

For the time being it seems we are stuck with a deadlocked cabinet, agreeing above all not to do anything controversial. History buffs will see a parallel with the First World War. Both sides were down in their trenches, taking occasional pot-shots at each other. Sometimes there was a bit of movement forward or back, but at the end of four bitter, embattled years little had been accomplished. And much was lost. Let's hope these are just the growing pains of a new coalition, because we really cannot afford a second year of stagnation.