Founded in October, 1972, the Socialist Party began life as what was apparently no more than one of a panoply of fringe left grouplets. Leaving behind its early flirtation with ‘Maoism’, however, the young SP soon became a party that was focused on the the practical struggles of workers, tenants, and victims of social injustice. All of this activity gave the party a strong local presence, especially in the Catholic south of the Netherlands. Yet its national profile remained low.
Fifteen years after the SP’s foundation the political landscape had changed considerably. The influence of the radical left had waned, both inside and outside a Labour Party which had governed on a progressive programme from 1973 to 1977, but whose defeat marked a sea-change. By 1988, the two far left parliamentary parties, the Communist CPN and the Pacifist Socialist Party, had lost support and were no longer represented in the directly-elected lower house of Parliament. The following year they merged with two small progressive Christian parties to form the Green Left, which abandoned militancy and enjoyed some electoral success, being stronger than the SP in parliamentary terms until 2002.
By 1986, the way stood open for a genuine party of working people and others committed to principles of equality, solidarity, and human dignity. In 1987 and 1991 national congresses introduced important changes which laid the ground for the SP to fill this role. A federal structure was replaced by a national organisation committed to developing a nation-wide profile, and the party was opened to everyone who could subscribe to its basic principles. “Marxism-Leninism” was officially abandoned in favour of a militant, inclusive socialism which would seek radical change through democratic means. Henceforth, whatever the party judged to be positive it would attempt to promote, while those things it saw as negative it would try to prevent or combat. And the yardstick of positive and negative would be its principles of respect for human dignity, of equality and solidarity.
A “minimum programme for a socialist Netherlands” – Manifesto 2000: a society for people – was adopted, and a breakthrough to Parliament became the SP's strategic priority. The party has never, however, given up its work in neighbourhoods and factories, or its broad-based approach to working for social progress, in favour of an exclusive focus on electoral politics. As the influence of neoliberalism grew, the SP came to focus on combating its pernicious effects: a society divided by wealth and poverty, the demolition of the public sector, of the welfare system, of health care and education, and by the withdrawal of the state from its social responsibilities as privatisation, liberalisation and deregulation became the mantra.
In 1994, under the slogan ‘Vote against, vote SP’, and with its new but now instantly recognisable symbol, the tomato, the SP returned two members to the 150-seat Parliament. The impact they made ushered in a period of spectacular growth, and a Senate seat was soon added to the two in the lower house. Within four years the party had 25,000 members, making it the country's fourth biggest. The 1998 elections yielded five parliamentary seats. The same year brought the first participation in ruling groups on local councils, and in 1999 came the first seat in in the European Parliament, completing the party's representation at all levels.
All SP employees, as well as those who represent the party in Parliament, receive a salary based on the average skilled industrial wage in the Netherlands. Surplus salary and expenses payments are handed to the party. The bigger the party grows, therefore, and the more support it receives at the ballot box, the more money it has available to finance its campaigning activities, which now employ the full range of modern technologies to get the message of 21st Century socialism across.
The 1999 Congress adopted a platform for the new century, ‘The Whole of Humanity’, uniting the SP’s local, national and internationalist approach, and emphasising anew the principles of human dignity, equality and solidarity. The general elections of 2002 turned into a voters’ rebellion against the governing ‘purple’ coalition of social democrats, centrists and ‘Thatcherite’ liberals. The coalition parties were halved, to the benefit of the far right, of the opposition Christian democrats – and of the SP, which won nine seats, under its new, positive slogan of ‘Vote for, Vote SP’. The result was a new coalition of the right, but this lasted only a few months. In the election which followed the government’s collapse the SP succeeded in increasing once more its tally of votes, but though this made it the fourth biggest party in terms of support at the ballot box, it did not result in any more seats.
In 2004 two seats were won in the European Parliament, and a year later the party took the lead in the campaign against the neoliberal European Constitution. Nearly two thirds of Dutch voters said ‘NO’ – despite the fact that all major parties were in favour of the proposed constitution – and this success was transformed into huge electoral victories for the SP in local, regional and national elections. In the national Parliament, the party now (November 2006) had twenty-five out of 150 seats.
In 2008 the SP suffered a blow when long-standing and very popular leader Jan Marijnissen was forced by ill-health to give up his leadership of the party. He was replaced by Agnes Kant, the party’s spokeswoman on health and social affairs.
Despite Agnes Kant’s able leadership, the SP approached the elections of 2010 facing the unprecedented prospect of a substantial loss of support. It had become clear that many voters amongst the almost one in six Dutch citizens who opted for the SP in 2006 had been hoping to see a progressive government of left and centre-left, with the Socialist Party ensuring that its partners did not stray too far to the right. In the event this turned out to have been unrealistic, the Labour Party preferring to govern in coalition with the two Christian parties.
It seems that many who had opted to vote SP began to question the value of this decision, asking themselves whether the Socialist Party really could make a difference. At the same time, the populist right PVV led by Geert Wilders succeeded in presenting itself as the most effective ‘anti-establishment’ party with its programme to stop ‘the process of Islamization’of the Netherlands.
Having lost support in the local election in March 2010, the SP approached the general election under its second new leader in two years, Emile Roemer. At one point early in the campaign, polls were giving the party as few as eight seats, but a vigorous campaign proved highly successful in terms of damage limitation, and in the end fifteen seats were retained, enough to ensure that the SP will remain a substantial oppositional voice in Parliament. Beyond Parliament, it continues to be, with a nationwide membership of more than 46,000 a vibrant presence in ongoing campaigns for social justice and against neoliberalism and the diktat of the market.
These two sides of the SP’s work – within and outside of elected representative bodies – are never treated as separate or seen as in conflict with each other. Elected representatives at local, regional and national level remain committed activists.
The SP recognises the special responsibilities which a role in government, of which it already has experience at local level, brings along with it. Financial management within policy frameworks which are the result of compromise with other parties, deciding when to compromise and when to stand firm, to determine whether a proposal is a step in the right direction or a purely cosmetic sop, none of this is straightforward for a party which wants to change the Netherlands and the world. Yet whether in government or opposition, the SP is committed to everyday contact with the man and woman in the street.
At the heart of the SP's approach is what is known in Dutch as the ‘actie-fractie’: ‘actie’ being ‘action’, ‘fractie’ the political group in a parliament or on a council, and the hyphenated combination of the two expressing the party’s determination to link them in an effort which joins member to branch, branch to group, and group to the individual SP members who find themselves in decision-making roles in government. This will continue to be the party’s guiding principle if and when we enter a national governing coalition.
In the final analysis the SP is a campaigning organisation capable of mobilising thousands – on occasion tens of thousands – of members and sympathisers to pursue its goals of equality, solidarity and human dignity. Campaigns express these principles in concrete ways which improve lives in the here-and-now, while the SP never takes its eyes off the prize of a better society and a better world. Dutch participation in illegal wars abroad, and the neoliberal onslaught on social rights and public property at home, have formed the focus of the party's major campaigns in recent years. With energy and militancy, but also with characteristic humour and colour, the SP has demanded the return of Dutch troops from Afghanistan, the exposure of the illegal and unconstitutional manoeuvring that led to the country's support for Bush’s war on Iraq, and an end to the presence of US nuclear bombs on Dutch soil. The party has resisted the creeping privatisation of health care privatisation and the deregulation of postal services and energy provision, defended vital social programmes, fought the raising of the pension age and the reduction of state support to students, and called for an end to the ideologically-motivated neoliberalism which prevails both at home and in Europe.
Some of these campaigns have met with success, while others continue. Each is seen as a learning experience, a way to improve the party’s analysis of events and the actions which it bases on that understanding. In opposition or government, the SP will continue to express the reason for its existence, to bring about a better world through socialism, in every vote it casts and in everything it says and does.