'Human beings and hard work' - the secret of Europe's most successful left party


January 3, 2007 10:29 | by Steve McGiffen

As delegates to the Socialist Party's 'Party Council' gathered in Utrecht in mid-December, there was little to show that this was an organisation which has just seen its place in Dutch politics and society transformed. True, the atmosphere was buoyant and most people were smiling, but as the SP is a party which has, in its 35 years of existence, increased its vote at every election it has fought, this is not unusual.

The SP is, moreover, a lot more than a vote-winning machine, increasingly impressive though its electoral performances may be. Current high-profile national campaigns cover issues as varied as liberalisation in public transport and health care, conservation of areas of natural beauty, the transport of nuclear fuel and dangerous chemicals through populated areas, hunting, and compensation for asbestos victims. Whoever you speak to in the SP, the message is always the same: the SP is successful because it goes out to the people.

"Human capital is our most important capital"

National Secretary Hans van Heiningen said that "local activism gave us the spur. Parties from the left which scorn activism amongst the people lose contact with real people and become a parody of themselves. You need a good party organisation, internal education to make sure you can fill positions with suitable people. Human capital is our most important capital."

Some of that hard work was in evidence at the Party Council, which consists of the chair of every branch (or a substitute) plus a few ex-officios. MPs, MEPs and one or two foreign guests (including myself) were also present.

I had been promised that the atmosphere would be as much 'partying' as 'Party', and when all the business was done, that proved to be the case. During the day, however, a tangible exuberance and a great deal of laughter did not disguise the fact that this was a group of people less interested in slapping each other on the back than in girding up their loins for the next battle. Rather than basking in the glow of success, in his opening address Hans van Heiningen urged delegates to pay attention to "what went badly in the campaign as well as what went well." There is very little breathing space before the next round of ballot-box challenge. Provincial elections, which determine not only the composition of the country's rather weak regional councils but of its indirectly-elected Senate, are due in March.

Problems of success

Rosita van Gijswijk, the party's education officer, had the immediate task of organising the regional conferences which will be needed to nominate candidates and decide on a manifesto tailored to address local problems. Ms van Gijswijk sees the SP's success as being based on "effective, stable organisation" and a sustained programme of internal education and training to ensure a high quality of candidate.

These qualities are of particular important in Provincial elections. Marked by low turn-outs, the problem they present will be getting out as high a proportion as possible of the 1.6 million people who voted SP in November. With twenty-five of its best people in Parliament, moreover, and twice as many local councillors as it had before March, the party's concern is now to find people with the ability and integrity required.

An important factor is the requirement that elected representatives hand their salaries over to the party, being paid a wage based on that of an average industrial worker. Councillors and MPs must also deduct only receipted out-of-pocket expenses from the generous daily rates paid by the state, giving the rest to the SP. Over the years, several councillors and one MP have decided, after being elected on an SP ticket, that they prefer to line their own pockets, so for this reason alone the party has to be very careful who it nominates.

While this system might be unique to the SP, another recent difficulty will be all too familiar to its opponents. Frantic digging by certain sections of the media as it became clear that the party was headed for a breakthrough managed to uncover the SP's first embarrassing scandal. Two of the SP's councillors in Amsterdam were accused of having - though some years ago - sublet their own rented apartment to students, and at a handsome profit, a racket against which the party has long campaigned in a city where accommodation is at a premium. The SP now has 139 branches, and while it is probably impossible for such a big organisation to eliminate such things, it will be a priority for the party to do all it can to ensure that its elected representatives cannot be accused of hypocrisy or corruption. This is especially true because one reason for its broadening appeal has undoubtedly been the electorate's weariness with declining standards of honesty and openness in public life.

As Jan Marijnissen says, "The result brings with it a certain responsibility. We have to try at all levels to become more professional, to be worthy of that responsibility and to reward people's confidence in us. It's taken us over thirty years to get here but we could quickly lose what we have gained if we are not conscious, and at every level, of this responsibility."

Optimism, organisation, education

Of course, a winning record breeds both enthusiasm and optimism. When Hans van Heiningen asked delegates how many of them thought that "we would double or more than double our vote" nearly every hand was raised, though I suspect few could have honestly claimed to have predicted that nine MPs would become twenty-five.

This enthusiasm was perhaps most evident in the afternoon, when delegates broke into six workshops to discuss how SP branches could build on the success of the national campaign. At the session I attended, most attention was given to the treatment of new members, how to make them feel welcome, adapting to the individual and to circumstances, educating without patronising, and involving people in action.

Former Senator and now an MP, Ronald van Raak said that it was important to get down to basics. "Training workshops should look at such basic matters as how to get a letter or opinion article into the local press, how to organise a street demonstration or a door-to-door promotion."

Another newly-elected MP, Sadet Karabulut emphasised the importance of "distinguishing between new members and party cadre. "If you're preparing an experienced person to run for the council, that's different to giving new members a political base."

The SP is acutely aware that many of the thousands of people now flooding into the party have little or no political experience. In many cases. they are just men and women who want a fairer society and are disappointed by the Labour Party's abandonment of socialist principles. "We need to tell these new members what the SP stands for, to discuss specific policy issues with them," Ms Karabalut added.

Delegates responded with examples of what had been done in their branches.

"We had an influx of new members not long ago so we organised three evening sessions, two on 'what is the SP?' and a final one in which we divided into groups. Each group came up with a proposed action relating to some problem in the area, and then discussed what form the action should take. This both educated new members and generated some useful practical suggestions."

As former long-standing national secretary and current Senate leader for the SP, Tiny Kox is used to being asked by activists from other countries about whether any general lessons can be drawn from his party's extraordinary success story. "First of all it's very important to be undogmatic," he says. "You have to question everything, including your own ideas and practices. You must always adapt to changing circumstances. Just as importantly, however, you have to decide on your core beliefs and make these an anchor for your party and its work. The three basic principles in our party constitution and programme are clear: equality, solidarity, and respect for human dignity, indeed respect for all that lives. Secondly, you must always remember that you are a union of people, a movement, not just a parliamentary or media machine. And finally, pay attention to the quality of your campaigns."

Euro-MP Kartika Liotard added that, in her experience, what the SP demonstrated most starkly was the need "to build from the bottom up, getting out into the streets and workplaces and asking people about their grievances, explaining what socialism is and how it can address these grievances, helping people to organise, standing with them in a spirit of solidarity."

In the end, however, people will only vote for a party if they agree with the bulk of its policies. The SP has tapped into deep discontent amongst the Dutch population by offering policies which make sense. Some have tried to portray the party's success as merely the latest symptom of the malaise which would almost certainly have brought right-wing populist maverick Pim Fortuyn into the very centre of the country's political life had he not been murdered during the election campaign of 2002. The problem for such an argument is that only 15% of those who voted for Fortuyn's party have switched to the SP. The huge bulk of its new voters have come from either Labour or the Green Left, or from people who did not vote last time, either because they were too young or through disillusionment or indifference.

The party came second amongst voters under 24, and won the support of far more women than men and of a greatly increased proportion of immigrants, nailing the long-standing myth (which, like most myths, had once grown from a grain of truth) that the SP was a party of the white, male working class.

Socialism for the 21st century

The SP presented a truly socialist programme for the 21st Century. And, in one of Europe's most developed countries, one in six voters liked what they saw.

Euro-MP Kartika Liotard puts this down to her party's "resistance to the liberalisation of the healthcare system, the fight against bureaucracy in the public sector, more money for education, care for those elderly people who need it, and the fight against poverty, especially among children." In addition, she said, while the European Constitution "was not a very prominent issue in the media, it cannot be a coincidence that those parties which have gained in this election were all against the constitution."

During the lunch-time break Jan Marijnissen was interviewed live by the national public radio station whose listeners had voted him 'Politician of the Year'. He answered the sometimes hostile questioning that accompanied this award with good humour, but also in a way which turned every question into simply another opportunity to present the SP in the best possible light, and to state quite clearly what the party stood for, what it hoped to see, where it hoped to go from here.

Is then the secret of the SP's success simply a gifted leader? Dedicated activists? An immersion in the population which makes it seem to have a sixth sense about the way opinion is shifting and what needs to be done about it?

The last word should go to Jan Marijnissen: "There is no secret," he told me. "It's just about human beings and hard work."

Steve McGiffen is spectrezine's editor and the English-language translator for the SP. He wrote this report for the Morning Star

See Also:

Forming a government in the Netherlands, or why, weeks after the election, the losers are still in power

Notes on the Dutch electoral system