Storming the castles: Dutch youth take on political establishment

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In Greece and Italy, young people take to the streets to make a political point. Here in the Netherlands, 1,000 youngsters are hoping to challenge the political establishment too. The new group calls itself G500, the G standing for generational and the 500 the initial goal for participants. More than one thousand young people have signed up, and 100 of them attended their first party convention this weekend.

The free-market VVD party welcomed the G500 members at their convention in The Hague. The youth movement proposed changing VVD’s support for a mortgage interest tax write-off, long a taboo in the party. While the proposal did not pass, G500 member Bart Voorn was pleased with the reaction.

“I’m very pleased with how it went today. We presented lots of good, concrete examples of how we can get the housing market moving again.”

Change from within
The VVD convention was the first test of the G500 strategy. One of the group’s founders is Sywert van Lienden, just 21 years old but already a familiar face on the talk show circuit. “The Dutch political system is showing signs of decay. We need to change the way politics works,” said van Lienden on the TV news magazine Brandpunt. But in contrast to the youth movements of the 1960s and 70s, the G500 is not calling for revolution. Rather, they want to bring about change by working within the current political system.

The G500 aims to “infiltrate” the three parties who have taken turns calling the shots in The Hague since World War II – the Christian Democrats, the Labour Party and the free-market VVD. Anyone who signs up for the G500 agrees to join all three of these parties and, more importantly, attend their party conventions where policy is decided.

How it works
Why does this matter? A focused effort by a relatively small number of people can make a big difference. Political parties refine their policies at their conventions, where members can propose changes and get to vote. But conventions typically attract at most a few thousand members. So a few hundred new members showing up can have an influence.

Whether the G500 succeeds is another matter. They have published ten policy points that they want to get each party to adopt, including more money for education, more flexibility in employment sector, and changing the way people pay for health care and pensions.

Won’t be easy
Sceptics say the group is too loosely organised to be effective, and showing up at a convention is just the beginning. Parties have myriad rules and regulations that even old hands can find cumbersome. The G500 will have to do its homework very carefully to have any chance of getting its motions adopted.

Party establishments may also try to disarm the young upstarts – not by excluding them, but by co-opting them, drawing them into the morass of party bureaucracy. G500 members will need to be on their guard against such proposals as forming committees to study their ideas.

Youth in trouble
Looking beyond the borders, the Netherlands can consider itself lucky. Youth unemployment here is an estimated 12 percent, while the EU average stands at 18 percent. Nearly half of adults under 25 in Spain and Greece are unemployed, according to Newsweek magazine. Many young people feel their governments don’t take them into account when making policy. The US government spends 2.4 times more on the elderly than on children, according to a recent survey by Brookings. Esquire magazine recently ran a cover story called The War on Youth, saying “The recession didn’t gut the prospects of American young people. The Baby Boomers took care of that.”

Dutch reforms
The outlook for young Dutch people may be less sombre, but a number of reforms proposed recently are seen as benefiting the ageing baby-boomers at the expense of young people. The G500 says the proposed raising of the retirement age to 67 does not go far enough, and that young people will bear the burden of the baby boom retirements, with little prospect of enjoying the same benefits themselves. The G500 also wants the job market opened up more aggressively, since those who benefit from stringent workers’ protection are those usually older workers who have permanent contracts.

The G500 has been getting mixed reviews for its performance at the VVD conference on Saturday. The number of young people “storming the gates” was not overwhelming, but it was the beginning of a campaign to change Dutch politics.