In from the Margins: The Dutch Socialist Party Sends an Earthquake through the Netherlands

By Bryan Evans
This is such an interesting & inspiring article about the potential of left regroupment that I wanted to share it -- DR
We have all been closely following the dramatic and significant political events in Latin America for good reason, but on November 22, 2006 the voters of the Netherlands gave the anti-neoliberal Left of the Global North what may be the most significant electoral breakthrough in thirty years. On that day Dutch voters sent a rather unambiguous signal, just as they did in voting down the European Union Constitution the year before with a 61.6% No vote, by nearly tripling the votes and seats of the equally unambiguous anti-neoliberal Socialist Party (SP). The precise meaning of this result will unfold over the next few years as the SP will be pushed, pulled and subjected to hitherto unknown scrutiny.

A Mass Party Rooted in the Working Class

In 1994 the SP’s membership stood at 15,000. Twelve years later it stands at over 50,000 rank and file members. Remember, this is in the context of a national population of some 17 million. In terms of social and economic background, 49% of party members are workers, 17% are unemployed, and 5% are students. One third of party members belong to trade unions. This too must be considered in the context that trade union density in the Netherlands is very low, where only 13% of all employees are union members.Women compose 40% of the membership and 13% are under the age of thirty. Obviously the SP is a mass party clearly based in the Dutch working class. And this has presented the party with enviable opportunities but such success also presents real issues as to the SP’s political objectives.

Background to the SP: Political and Ideological Developments

The SP was founded in 1972 as a Maoist party composed of federated branches and more or less remained so until the 1987 to 1991 period whereupon it set out on a process of re-evaluating its official ‘Marxism-Leninism’. Its political approach and tactics were very much based in local, grass-roots issues and activism. It focussed on concrete issues such as tenets rights and working on organizing the unemployed or more marginal workers. It even went so far as to establish its own medical clinics and hire its own doctors to provide local services if none were to be found.

By its 1991 party congress the SP had determined to move beyond the pockets of support it had established and attempt to become a significant force on the national stage. A ‘minimum programme for a socialist Netherlands’ was adopted and in the 1994 parliamentary elections the party, now with 15,000 rank and file members, entered parliament with two seats. The 1999 congress adopted a new program that stated the party’s essential political and ideological orientation:

“We are determined to break the tightening grip of ‘capital’ over society. We refuse to hand society’s management over to the free play of market forces. We do not accept that capitalist economic laws determine the margins within which politics can operate. For these reasons we are striving to break the current neoliberal trend. This means working inside and outside parliament to improve the representation of the people and our contacts with the population as a whole” (1999 Manifesto: The Whole of Humanity).

The general elections of 2002 turned into a real voters rebellion against the governing ‘purple’ coalition of social democrats and market libertarians. The governing coalition parties were halved, to the benefit of the new populist party of Pym Fortuyn (murdered ten days before the elections), the opposition Christian democrats and the Socialist Party. The results proved that the SP had become a factor in Dutch politics in winning nearly 600,000 votes thus giving it an additional four seats for a total of six. And at the same time the party membership passed the 30,000 SP leader Jan Marijnissen mark. Just a few months later the new right wing coalition of Christian Democrats, libertarians and Fortuynists collapsed and new elections ensued.

Again the SP succeeded in increasing once more its number of votes but this did not result in more seats. Nevertheless the SP became the fourth party in Parliament, overtaking the Green Left which had been constructed out of the remnants of the old Communist party, and became one of the major opponents of the right wing government.

In 2005, together with the trade unions and other Left parties, the SP organized the biggest demonstration ever in the Netherlands, against the government’s policy of social retrenchment. In addition, the party played a very important role in the campaign against the neoliberal European Constitution. All the major parties – Labour, Christian Democrat, libertarians, and Green Left – supported the Constitution with only the SP campaigning for a No vote. In the end, nearly two thirds of Dutch voters said ‘No’. This was followed with the huge success of the SP in local elections in 2006 where it doubled its seats on local councils.

The 2006 Elections

The SP programme called for rolling back the government’s proposal to ‘reform’ health care, renationalizing the railway system, raising taxes on the wealthy and withdrawing Dutch troops from Afghanistan. On Nov. 22 2006, the party almost tripled its number of seats in the Lower House, Parliament’s main legislative chamber, to twenty-five and overtook the historic libertarians (Party for Freedom and Democracy) as the third party of the Netherlands, both in seats and membership. In the country’s two largest cities, Amsterdam and Rotterdam, the party came second overall winning 18.4% and 17.6% respectively. In the industrial centre of Eindhoven the vote share totaled 23.8%.

While the broad Left – social democrats, SP, Green left and Animal Rights – together won the largest vote for the Left in Dutch history they still lacked sufficient numbers for a majority. Similarly, the right failed to win enough to form a clear majority. The only immediately obvious solution was a coalition of social democrats and christian democrats together with the SP. The SP, after initial discussions, walked away from an invitation to join the government stating it had nothing in common with the christian democrats. In early February, the social democrats agreed to participate in a christian democrat led government.

Explaining the SP’s Success

Perhaps more than anything the policies of the government led by Christian Democrat Jan Peter Balkenende gave the SP an opening. His government had sought to reduce claims on social benefits by two thirds and in the process disentitled the sick and disabled, the unemployed, and cut pensions while raising the retirement age from 62 to 65. In addition, his government sought to expand privatizations in the energy, health care and transportation sectors. Second, the social democratic Labour party proved incapable of offering opposition to these policies as some had in fact been initiated by its own previous government in the early 1990s and it refused to rule out working with the Christian Democrats in the future. The SP thus became, as the Dutch business press expressed, the “close friend of social discontent”. In addition, drawing on the lessons and success of the ‘No’ vote in the EU Constitution referendum, the SP was able to draw the links
between the policies of the EU emanating from Brussels and the economic and social realities of life in the Netherlands. Liberalization and marketization were translated directly into a weakening of social protections, expanding insecurity, and declining living standards. Even the European Monetary Union was called into question – as one worker said “The Euro is killing us!!”

And From Here, Where?

The Dutch SP is in an enviable and yet at the same time precarious political position. In 1991 the party began a turn toward a more ‘pragmatic’ political approach. It remained the most resolved and single voice of opposition to neoliberalism in the Netherlands. At the same time, while the critique of neoliberalism deepened and was popularized, the nature of the alternative became fuzzier. The party came to speak not of ‘socialism’ but rather ‘social ism’ – that is an emphasis on a more humane, perhaps humanist, perspective and political approach rather than class analysis and struggle. The SP no longer calls for significant nationalization of strategic sectors and no longer demands that the Netherlands withdraw from NATO. Even its symbolic demand that the quaint Dutch monarchy be abolished has disappeared. It may well and fairly be argued that the SP may well be contending to replace the discredited (for now) Labour party as the authentic voice of social democracy given that Labour has embraced neoliberal policy nostrums with enthusiasm when given the opportunity.

None of this should detract from what is a remarkable case study in successful strategies combining local organizing, mass struggle, and electoral. Whether the SP’s attempts to become the authentic voice of social democracy or seeks to deepen a very deep resistance to neoliberalism in the Netherlands remains to be seen.

Bryan Evans teaches public administration at Ryerson University, Toronto The article is taken from: The Socialist Project / Relay.