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Brief history of the Dutch Socialist Party

[taken from its website]

Having started as a leftist fledgling in 1972, the SP has, at the beginning of the 21st century, become a factor in Dutch politics and society that is impossible to ignore. We will briefly sketch this eventful history.

Workers march for better wages, 1973How it started

The foundation of the SP on Sunday 22 October 1972 wasn’t really that special. After all, these were the times when many political parties were formed, transformed and deformed. Especially on the left wing of the political spectrum it was a busy time. Inspired by the Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan and flower power mainly young people in Western Europe and North America had attacked the sacred cows of the post war era. “Social change” was high on the agenda of everyone on the left. Those were the days of big ideals. The Netherlands must be turned upside down, capitalism must disappear, and socialism would soon reign on earth, starting in the Netherlands. In 1972 that didn’t sound exaggerated. Society seemed adrift.

From socialism to a 'social ism'

In its first years, the SP was called a “Maoist” party. That is to say that beside the traditional Marxist criticism of capitalism it was the political views of the Chinese rebel leader and statesman that served as a guideline. Wasn't it the great Mao Tsetung who had made sure that one-fourth of the world population was no longer hungry and suppressed by bosses – while elsewhere suppression and exploitation were of the order of the day? Fine lines about nice ideals, but for the SP members it was only hearsay. The more they learned about China, the more reality appeared to differ from illusion. The “Chinese love affair” came to an end. The young SP distanced itself from teachers from faraway lands and became a party that was focused on the Netherlands. A very practical SOCIAL ism took the place of theoretical socialism. Everywhere in the country the SP lent a helping hand to residents, tenants, consumers, employees. They even ran their own medical centres, employing their own doctors, and demonstrating in a very practical way how they wanted to shape the public health sector. Thus the SP became a special party: strong and successful at the base, but without a national presence or views on national issues. The need for that was lacking. Everything took place locally. The SP may have been registered as a national political party, but in practice it operated as a “federation of local branches”.

Fifteen years later

Fifteen years after the foundation of the SP the political landscape looked completely different.
In 1977 the experimental government of left PvdA (Labour Party) leader Joop den Uyl which had come to power in 1973 had to go. The popularity of radical left wing parties was waning. Most had gone or lingered on in a weakened condition. The Communist CPN disappeared from Parliament, and the Pacifist PSP was no longer attractive. A few years later they, together with the PPR, merged into GroenLinks (Green Left). But the SP is quite a different story. Its goal was to “go to the people”. The members, initially many of them from universities and polytechnics, worked in the neighbourhoods and factories, increasing the number of members. In municipal elections those who had got to know them showed their appreciation. In 1986 the SP had some 40 council members. But in national elections other things count for voters, and the party's attempts to get into Parliament repeatedly failed.

Windows open

In 1987 the national party congress concluded that it was high time to modernize its “socialist” message: people should feel that SP was an attractive organisation in which they could recognize themselves. After some difficulties the “federation of branches” was transformed into a national party which began to develop its own views on important issues, and which was doing its best to achieve a national image. The 1991 Congress opened up the party to everyone who could subscribe to its basic principles. The old deadwood, impeding the party's development, was cast off. “Marxism-Leninism” was officially abandoned. From now on, the predicate “socialist” would suffice as the party's political compass.

A “minimum programme for a socialist Netherlands” was drafted. It was called Manifesto 2000, with “a society for people” as the subtitle. In the short term, the party congress made a breakthrough to Parliament its strategic priority.

Tomatoes and Oppositional Voices

In 1993, in order to achieve the parliamentary breakthrough, the party leadership made its most daring decision ever. Instead of telling the electorate to vote SP for a better society – worthy ideals for a distant future – the party chose a more rational and better thought out position: that of radical and effective opposition. “Vote against, vote SP” became the provocative slogan. The message being: if you don't agree with current politics, vote for us. Then we can voice your dissent in Parliament. You don't need a majority for that, even one person would do. The new strategy is symbolized by a tomato. Full of healthy vitamins, but also a feared weapon against bad political theatre.

The new approach finally caught on. Twenty years after its foundation the SP was seen by others as something new. After the municipal elections of March 1994 the party grew from 70 to 126 councillors. And on 3 May 1994 the SP won its first two seats in the Lower House, Parliament's main legislative chamber. This parliamentary breakthrough was the start of a period of spectacular growth for the party as a whole. In the first place the number of members, which for some time had been around 15,000, expanded tumultuously. Within four years it had increased to over 25,000, making the party the fourth biggest in members. This growth came from various sides. The SP “new style” became attractive for former voters and members of PvdA and GroenLinks, who found their parties surrendering to the advance of neo-liberal politics and who would rather hear the “red answer to (the) Purple (Government)” – as the coalition of right-wing liberal VVD, centrist D66 and Labour was known. 1995 brought the first seat in the Senate, after successful provincial elections, members of the Upper House or Senate being elected by provincial councillors. Outside parliament people made headway as well. Key issues, like the fight against the growing social divide, were tackled in original ways. The 1998 elections yielded five parliamentary seats and thanks to successful provincial elections (19 seats) the party won two seats in the Senate. The party appointed 'wethouders' – local councillors occupying positions analogous to ministers in a national government – in a number of towns in the southern province of Brabant. In June 1999 came the first seat in the European Parliament. The SP was now represented on all parliamentary levels.

The fees that SP representatives receive are handed over to the party (under the agreement that noone should profit from such a position), so the increase in MPs and other elected representatives also led to a substantial expansion of the party's financial resources. This money was partly used to develop a professional organisation that supported the work of the party and its MPs, as well as numerous campaigns and activities.

There was also an increase in quality, especially in the way the MPs operated. In a short time the previously unknown party leader Jan Marijnissen became one of the country's most renowned politicians. At the end of 1996 he gave a “Red answer to Purple” in "Tegenstemmen" (Oppositional Voices, available in English under the title Enough!), articulating the SP's modern vision of politics and society. "Tegenstemmen" was a clear criticism of the advance of neoliberalism, the erosion of the social democratic PvdA (since 1994 governing the country together with liberal VVD and D66 in the ‘purple’ coalition) and the implications for society of “every man for himself”. But it was also a book without dogmas, another development in the SP philosophy.

SP 2000 and after

Sometimes new ideas are spread faster horizontally than vertically. This shows when the spectacular increase is accompanied by growing pains. More than once, new SP-councillors didn’t appear to fit in with the traditional frameworks, or hadn’t settled in yet; some resigned after a short career. Clashes occurred between old staff and new members and the media didn’t fail to notice this. Quantitative growth threatened to result in loss of quality. With two congresses in the final year of the 20th century the party put its ideological and organizational affairs in order. Now that the national breakthrough had taken place the party congress of 1999 decided to prioritize what the SP had always done best: working at a local level. At the congress of 18 December the party laid down a new manifesto, The Whole of Humanity, in which the basic idea of society was formulated and the party's alternatives were outlined.

The general elections of 2002 turned out into a real voters rebellion against the governing ‘purple’ coalition of social democrats and liberals. The coalition parties were halved, to the benefit of the spectacular new populist party of Pim Fortuyn (murdered ten days before the elections), the oppositional Christian democrats – and the Socialist Party. The results proved that the SP had become a factor in Dutch politics and society. Nearly 600,000 voted for the SP (whose slogan had now changed to “Vote for, vote SP”), thus giving it an additional four seats. And at the same time the party passed the mark of 30,000 members. Just a few months later the new right wing coalition of CDA, VVD and Fortuynists had already collapsed, and new elections took place. The SP succeeded in increasing once more its number of votes but this did not result in more seats, despite the party having received a more sympathetic response than ever during the election campaign. Unfortunately, many citizens were influenced by the neck-and-neck race between social democrats and Christian democrats and in spite of their sympathy for the SP gave their vote to the PvdA. The SP did nevertheless become the fourth party in Parliament and one of the major opponents of the right wing government of CDA, VVD and D66. The provincial elections of 2003 resulted in seats in eleven out of twelve provinces, doubling the two seats in the Upper House.

The 12th party congress laid down new tasks for the future, with enhanced activities at all levels as a recurring theme.

In 2004 two seats were won in the European Parliament, and the SP also won its first representative in the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe. Together with the trade unions and other left parties the SP organised the biggest demonstration ever in the Netherlands, against the government’s social policy. In 2005 the party played a very important role in the campaign against the neoliberal European Constitution. Nearly two thirds of the Dutch voters reacted positively and said ‘NO’ – despite the fact that all major parties were in favour of the proposed constitution. Thanks to successful local elections, the SP doubled its seats in local councils in 2006. National elections in November 2006 resulted in massive gains for the SP. The party almost tripled its number of seats in the Lower House, Parliament’s main legislative chamber, to twenty-five and is now the third party of the Netherlands, both in seats and membership. Total membership rose to over 50,000

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