SP National Congress: “strengthen the foundations”
SP National Congress: “strengthen the foundations”
Socialist Party, now biggest opposition group, prepares for government
The fifteenth Congress of the SP gathered today in Rotterdam with a single aim: to strengthen the foundations of a party which has grown from the extra-parliamentary fringe (it first entered parliament only 13 years ago, with two MPs) to become the country's principal opposition group both inside and outside parliament. With one-and-a-half a million voters and more than 50,000 members, the third force in Dutch politics was looking to its Congress to prepare the party for a future in government. At the same time it was hoping to bring to a satisfying conclusion the sometimes fierce internal debate which has followed last year's extraordinary electoral success.
Strengthen the Foundations
Since September, local branches and regional conferences have been preparing the ground for the Congress, debating the aims, the approach and the organisation of the SP as the party's influence grows at every level of political life. The results were distilled into a series of proposals from the party executive, which the Congress debated along with almost three hundred amendments put forward by branches and individual members. The total membership of just over 50,000 was represented by 1,100 elected delegates who, as well as debating these proposals and amendments, re-elected Jan Marijnissen – who stood unopposed as party leader – and Hans van Heijningen - who won by an overwhelming majority - as General Secretary. The Congress also elected a number of new members of the executive.
'A step on the way'
The SP sees its present position as the Netherlands' third party – both in membership and parliamentary representation – as a step on the way, rather than an end in itself. It is determined to preserve its characteristic activism while at the same time preparing for government. The last four elections – at local and regional level, as well as for both houses of parliament - have seen remarkable successes, with a doubling of representation in local and regional authorities – where the SP was traditionally at its strongest - and a tripling of its tally of MPs and Senators. The SP is now the most popular party amongst trade unionists, young voters and Dutch citizens from ethnic minorities. It forms part of the ruling coalition in a number of local authorities, including in the major cities of Eindhoven, Groningen and Nijmegen. Kept out of government by an unholy alliance of centre right Christian Democrats (CDA) and the Labour Party (PvdA), the party's aim as the country's biggest parliamentary opposition group is to build a social alliance with other progressive forces in preparation for a left coalition capable of halting the neoliberal approach of successive coalitions and bringing about a better Netherlands.
By increasing the involvement of its members, placing greater responsibility on its branches, improving internal communication and increasing the frequency of meetings of the Party Council (the main decision-making body between Congresses), the SP hopes to strengthen its foundations for the tasks ahead. The all-important question of transparency in party finances will be addressed through publication of the annual accounts on the website and enhancement of members' supervision of branch funds. These questions have been brought into relief by blatantly party-political attempts by the Labour interior minister to undermine the system under which MPs and others elected under SP colours agree to have their salaries and allowances paid direct to the party. They then receive a salary from the party which, while it takes into account their personal circumstances, is based – in the case of full-time positions - on the average industrial wage. The SP has operated this system throughout its existence, believing that inflated salaries encourage careerism and carry the risk that MPs would lose touch with the concerns of the 'ordinary' citizens whom they represent. It is curious that only now, when the PvdA has seen its voter base leach to the main party to its left, is this clearly socialist means of conducting the SP's purely internal affairs being questioned by a Labour minister.
Congress gathered on Saturday morning, to the sound of a Brazilian-style percussion ensemble, in the former Van Nelle coffee and tobacco factory in Rotterdam, an architectural masterpiece dating from 1909.
Throughout the day debate was interrupted by events such as the presentation of the “Golden Tomato”, given for outstanding service to the SP, to Hans van Hooft, one of the party's founders. Party treasurer. Marga van Broekhoven, who is standing down after many years of service, was also presented with the Golden Tomato. A group of home helps (along with an 85-year-old client) talked of their struggle to save the service in the face of savage cuts; and delegates were entertained by rappers and folk singers and a number of videos and animations made for ongoing and coming campaigns.
The day's main business, however, was the discussion and voting of the executive proposals, and amendments from branches and individual members. This was not without controversy – a number of participants criticised the executive for rejecting a large number of amendments without giving any explanation. Amendments rejected by the executive are of course still debated and voted on, but many who had proposed them felt that they deserved an explanation as to why the executive disagreed with their position. A number of delegate were also critical of other aspects of party decision-making, though some argued that many of these criticisms seemed calculated to put the party in a bad light. It is certainly noticeable that, since the SP scored such a massive electoral success, mainstream media which had tended to ignore it in the hope that it would go away have suddenly begun to take a less-than-friendly interest in its internal affairs. One delegate commented that if the interior minister wanted to know where his salary as a member of Boxtel's local authority went, he felt he had the right to know where hers went, too! These matters – to what extent such criticisms are justified and should be addressed, and to what extent they reflect the hostility of a media and rival parties shocked by the rise of so radical a political force – formed the substance not only of much of the debate, but of many informal discussions over lunch.
The lunch break also offered delegates the opportunity to acquaint themselves with the range of organisations which had booked stalls at the conference - solidarity and development NGOs, animal welfare and environmentalist groups and the women's trade union federation all did good business, while the SP's own stalls sold books, tee shirts and other memorabilia.
Welcomed back by a short film on the situation in Afghanistan and the SP's 'Troops Out' position, delegates continued the morning's sometimes heated but generally friendly debate, with members of the executive coming forward to answer various critical points. The stress was on openness and the need to maintain the strength and autonomy of the branches, which, executive members insisted, are the source of the party's strength.
At five o'clock, after the day-long debate, votes were held. Many were close. Some amendments which had been rejected by the executive were carried nevertheless, and on others the executive had been persuaded in listening to points made during the debate to change its position. Although most of the day's business related to internal organisational matters, Congress did find time to pass a resolution condemning the recent dictatorial moves by Musharaff in Pakistan.
As ever, the Congress closed with a speech by party leader and parliamentary group chair Jan Marijnissen, summarised below.
Jan Marijnissen: We are 'idealists with ideas'
Marijnissen began by thanking delegates for renewing his mandate and for the trust they had thereby shown in his leadership. “Exactly a year ago we had a huge victory,” he continued. “One in six voters supported our party. In membership we were already the country's third party. From 22nd November 2006 we have also been the third party as far as the people's trust is concerned. The SP has become a major party, nationally and in very many towns and regions. And that has consequences. Droves of new members; new branches; large numbers of newly elected representatives at all levels, in councils, regional assemblies and both houses of parliament.
“In the vast majority of instances we have been able to handle this growth very well. In some places things have been moving a little too quickly and we have come up against problems – problems which for the most part have been resolved, but which in some cases have led to conflicts. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that – it happens to the best. But it is a shame that we have had to part company with some people.” Marijnissen was referring specifically to one or two high-profile defections, but he added that “everyone has the right at any time to come to the conclusion that on closer inspection this SP doesn't really suit them,” pointing out that since its success the party had “come under the spotlight from all sides.” This should be welcomed, “because we have after all nothing to hide. We are the most democratic party in the Netherlands, both formally and informally.”
Of course, he said, the SP made mistakes, adding that this Congress was being held in order to strengthen the party's foundations and ensure that mistakes were learnt from, and not repeated. The Party Council, the SP's “parliament” would meet six times a year instead of the present four. Branches, Marijnissen pointed out, had four times as many votes at Council as did the party executive.
Continuing his theme that “The SP has become a major party, and that has consequences” - a motif repeated several times during his speech – he reminded delegates that their purpose was to work towards the fulfilments of the party's ideals and ideas. Sometimes, he said “people ask me what is the SP's secret? I can tell these people that there is no secret.” All that was needed were clear principles, a clear philosophy, a collective vision, and clear standpoints formed on the basis of these things, a solid organisation within which everyone can participate in actions and decision-making, open debate, but also unity - and “most importantly, don't be content with fine words”, but put your words into action.
The party's ideals were those of human dignity, greater equality and more solidarity. But the SP was also a party of ideas and a party of action. “We aren't content with pious wishes. We formulate standpoints and put demands, and fight for those demands.” For maintaining health care and disability benefits, for the rights of workers for protection against dismissal, for an enquiry into the Iraq war, for aid to Afghanistan and an end to the war there, for a fair policy on incomes, for a referendum on the new European Constitution, for a 'declaration of war' on bureaucracy, against segregation and for a firm approach to the housing crisis, and for policies which would improve personal security in the neighbourhoods and town centres.
“I repeat,” Marijnissen said, “that these are no pious wishes. These are the demands that we are making on a civilised society, one which is now twice as rich as it was twenty-five years ago. Our demands are realistic, which is why our slogan is “a better Netherlands for the same money!”
Going on to criticise the government of CDA, Labour and the small Christian Union, he said that it had not succeeded in winning the confidence of the people. This was the fourth government under the premiership of Jan Peter Balkenende, and only one in three of the population expressed any faith in it. The well-paid would be protected by this cabinet, but those with high health costs would no longer be able to deduct these from their taxes. Education was getting neither the attention nor the money to which it had the right. One in ten households suffered poverty. Yet in the face of all of this, we had a “cabinet of missed opportunities” with neither vision nor energy. “CDA and PvdA are not getting along. Labour is terrified of the growth of the SP – understandably enough – while the CDA goes chasing the votes of the hard right.” And of course these could not co-exist. “Two years before the last elections I invited the PvdA to conclude a social alliance with the SP and social organisations.” But this outstretched hand had been spurned.
“An historic chance to create a more truly human and more social policy was thus lost,” he said.
“Now it's three years at most before the next elections, and I hereby invite all progressive parties in our country to work together on a 25-point plan for these elections and the government which will follow them. We need a new coalition, a coalition which would really take the reconstruction of our country in hand. People would then at last have a choice, a choice of whether to go in a free market liberal direction or a more social direction.” The legacy of years and years of neoliberal government was there for all to see, in the neglect of public transport, a stagnating housing market, the degradation of the environment, a widening social divide, the commercialisation of health care, the mean-spirited approach to education.
The SP's rise in popularity means that the party has become a real danger to its rivals. “This has led to a sharpening of the debate. Excellent.” But, Marijnissen complained, Labour's attempts to interfere with the SP's internal affairs by pushing through six laws which would make the party's means of financing itself – the so-called 'deduction regulation', which ensured that people elected on an SP ticket earned the average industrial wage, donating the rest to party funds – illegal. These laws would not mean an end to the deduction regulation, Marijnissen warned, because in fact the minister could do nothing whatsoever about that. The most important result of her action was to publicise the rule, in fact, letting the whole country know that the SP was at least not for people looking to line their own pockets.
The press had made much, Marijnissen continued, of what was in reality a barely significant decline in membership from the highpoint achieved after the election. In fact there had been a small outflow of members since the beginning of the year, so that membership was now down by a few hundred when compared to January 1st. This was the result of the party's need, faced with sudden explosive growth, for internal reflection and its consequent ability to give as much time and energy to recruitment. But the decline, such as it was, could and would be reversed. “On Monday,” Marijnissen promised, “I will be sending to all our members. a call for them to recruit, before 1st January, one new member. If 50,000 members did this we'd become the country's biggest party, in one fell swoop!” This produced laughter and applause, but Marijnissen's point was serious. “There are 1.6 million Dutch citizens who think we are the best party. So it must surely be possible for us to end the year once again with a big gain in membership.”
The SP had won a share of executive power in an increasing number of local authorities, despite the reluctance of the Christian Democrats, Labour and Liberals to enter into coalitions with the party. Yet, “the party's growth means that the powers that be – which up until now have shared jobs out amongst themselves – can at last not keep this newcomer, the SP, outside in the cold. Every opinion survey points to the fact that people want a more humane and socially-minded country. We are the only party which can ensure that this comes about. From now on we will be preparing ourselves for a new breakthrough, a breakthrough into the ivory towers of power. Not as an end in itself, but in order to break them open, to achieve things for which we have for so long fought – a truly social policy. That means that as well as seeking to grow we must also work on quality. In many areas we could do better, which is why we have agreed today to do more about internal education and training.” Quoting a well-known Dutch aphorism, Marijnissen said that “Foresight is the essence of government,” but added that “foresight is needed to be in a position to govern at all.”
Although the SP was not in the government, it was not without influence. The Labour Party's recent about-face on redundancy rights, which meant that workers would continue to enjoy reasonable protection against unfair dismissal, was attributed by almost everyone in parliament to the weight that an enlarged SP had added to one side of the scales.
Marijnissen went on to congratulate the newly elected party executive, as well as everyone responsible for the organisation of the Congress.
“The SP has become a major party,” he said in conclusion, “and that has consequences. Today's decisions bring to an end, for the time being, half a year of discussion of the ideas, the approach and the organisation of the SP. 'For the time being' because the debate will continue, it will always continue. We should not try to hang on to what is dead and gone. We must renew ourselves permanently. Not our ideals, which form our starting point, which form the essence of the party, the centre around which everything revolves, but our organisation, our approach. Whatever works we should develop further, whatever fails to work, or stops working, we much exchange for something better.
“Tony Benn once said that the powerful always want to deprive people of the hope that tomorrow will be better, and to make it clear that resistance makes no sense. He was right. And that's why there is an SP. An SP which gives people hope, confidence and the prospect of improvement. A strong SP which shows people that resistance makes a great deal of sense indeed. It has been said that the SP is a populist party. Certainly, we are a people's party and proud of it. That's why so many feel themselves drawn to us. Our approach, our aims and our words are as clear as glass – people value that. But we are no opportunists, no populists in the sense of being politicians who play up to people. We are idealists with ideas. We look to the future with an approach adapted to our own times. We are pioneers of progress and justice. The SP has become a major party, and that has consequences.”
Photography: Rob Voss