Dutch Socialist Party: the reasons for their success

24 November 2006

Dutch Socialist Party: the reasons for their success

Elections: An anti-neoliberal party which last year brought about the failure of the European Constitution, the SP knows how to defend clear alternative proposals in the face of a consensus of left and right.

by Paul Falzon, translated from l'Humanité, November 24, 2006

At a time when anti-neoliberals in France are attempting to define a common strategy for the elections due to take place in 2007, the Dutch legislative elections last Wednesday saw the success of a formation clearly committed to the struggle against neoliberalism, the Socialist Party (SP). The SP has quite simply tripled its representation, from nine to twenty-six MPs (from a total of 150), establishing itself as the country's third political force, after the Labour Party (PvdA, 32 MPs) and the Christian Democrats (CDA, 41). If this result, given the polls, was no surprise, it nevertheless marks the calling into question of the policies followed for the last twenty years. "The Netherlands has voted and shown that it wants a country which is more human, and more 'social'", was how SP leader Jan Marijnissen summed things up, emphasising that, for the first time, "the socialists have overtaken the liberals" of the VVD, a party allied to the CDA in the outgoing government, and one which eulogises ultraliberalism both in its own country and in the EU. Ex-Commissioner Frits Bolkestein numbers amongst its members. The SP is also hot on the heels of Labour, which in recent times has had no serious competition to its left.

A clear 'no' to liberalisation
The SP's strength resides primarily in its capacity to resist the spirit of consensus which often deprives the Dutch electorate of a political alternative. This is true of social questions, such as immigration, where they lately proposed a generous right of asylum in the face of the restrictive plans of the right and Labour, and above all on economic questions. Arriving at the front of the political stage at the time of the referendum on the European constitution, where they were the only ones on the left to campaign for a 'no' against the consensus of the right and Labour, the SP was able to set in motion a debate on the dangers of liberalisation and the weakening of social protection. Their reward was a huge victory for the 'no' (61,6 %), three days after the treaty's rejection in France.

During the parliamentary election campaign, the SP was able to draw a link between European issues and Dutch realities. "I live in a working class neighbourhood in Amsterdam, and when you talk about everyday problems such as unemployment benefit or assistance to families and show how the direction these were going in were laid down by the European Union, people understand," explains Hans van Heijningen, who was in charge of the SP's parliamentary election campaign.

In the last few years, the government of Jan Peter Balkenende (CDA) has charged ahead with a series of extremely harsh reforms which have pushed to the limits of neoliberalism the consensus-based social system established in 1982 – the famous "polder model". The invalidity benefit system, which deals not only with the sick and disabled but with thousands of people who have taken early retirement, as well as victims of social developments, has been tightened up in an attempt to reduce by two-thirds the number of new claimants, while pensions have been shaved. Unemployment benefits have also been reduced, and the retirement age put back to sixty-five. At the same time, privatisation has multiplied, affecting the energy sector, health care and transport.

The Labour Party shoots itself in the foot
For trade unionists the pill has been hard to swallow, all the more so when they have accepted within the 'polder model', that part-time and insecure employment, as the pay-off for safeguarding the welfare state, has incessantly increased until it affects a third of the workforce, in particular women. The country's main trade union federation, the FNV (closely linked to the Labour Party), considers that Wednesday's parliamentary elections have sent a "clear message" to politicians that they must conduct "a different social policy".

FNV president Agnes Jongerius says that "The continuation of the policies of the last few years is not an option for the future government... The employers have had free rein, while the workers have lost one form of social protection after another."

If the SP has been able to make itself "the close friend of social discontent", to quote the business daily Het Financieele Dagblad, Labour has paid the price of its lack of alternative proposals. Party leader Wouter Bos said yesterday that he had "understood the message. The Dutch people want to see the gap between rich and poor reduced.". The PvdA's separation from less favoured social layers was already making itself felt at the time of the constitutional referendum; now we see the party in free fall, with ten fewer MPs, unable to form a coalition of the left. The right being incapable of forming a majority after having lost a dozen or so seats, the Netherlands is moving towards a "grand coalition" on the German model, uniting Christian Democrats and Labour, "a situation" fears Hans van Heijningen, speaking for the SP, "which risks provoking again the feeling that right and left conduct the same neoliberal policies.".

Paul Falzon

Original text: Socialistes néerlandais, les raisons d’un succès

Jan Marijnissen, figurehead of the SP

His face could be found yesterday on the front of any one of several Dutch daily newspapers: at fifty-four, Jan Marijnissen has led the Socialist Party to the biggest electoral victory in its history. At the heart of a formation that does not particularly cultivate stardom, Marijnissen has become a figure known and appreciated by public opinion: at the close of the final debate between the leaders of each party list, a panel of viewers judged his contributions to have been the most convincing. His charisma is also due to his humorous side, which sees him regularly invited to participate in television panels.

Marijnissen's career also sums up the story of the SP. He joined the party at the end of the seventies, when the small Maoist-inspired organisation born in the universities moved into the milieu of workers. Jan Marijnissen was at that time a welder. He became leader of the SP in 1989, contributing to the decision to abandon, two years later, the reference to "Marxism-Leninism". Paradoxically, these years of transition for the parties of the world's Communist left were those which saw the emergence of the SP, which until that time had been almost absent from elected assemblies, including on a local level. The first two MPs, one of whom was Marijnissen, were elected in 1994. The SP leader backed the shock slogan "Vote against, Vote SP" which mischievously became "Vote for, Vote SP" in the next elections. Communications are one of the Socialists' strong points: as a symbol they adopted a bright red tomato, and don't hold back from making their meetings into real political shows.

But the SP also reinvented a form of campaigning on the ground which stands out in a country where political debate is primarily conducted through the media. Like many socialist militants, Jan Marijnissen gets out into the streets of working class neighbourhoods and into the factories, and not only on the eve of an election. This personal investment has contributed to the building of an image of a man sincerely attached to the cause of social justice, and which has gone alongside the growth of SP membership, which today stands at 50000 (out of a total population of 15m.) "We face enormous responsibilities before the whole country," Marijnissen recognised after Wednesday's antineoliberal success, before indicating that his party would accept a coalition with the centre-left – which today seems improbable – but not at any price.

Original text: Jan Marijnissen, figure de proue du SP

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