Emile Roemer (left) and former leader Jan Marijnissen. SP’s tomato symbol comes from when they threw them at opponents

Against coalitionism

Jos Alembic reflects on the progress of the Socialist Party during the recent provincial elections and looks ahead to the party’s congress in November

“This is a historic moment. We are now the biggest party on the left. The SP has become a factor of importance in the Senate. An ideal starting point for the left in the Netherlands to vote SP into the coalition at the next elections.”

These are the euphoric words of Socialist Party leader Emile Roemer. On March 18 the SP increased its representation from 56 to 70 seats combined in the diverse provincial parliaments. In the provinces of Friesland, Groningen, Overijssel and South-Holland there is a serious attempt to get into the ruling coalition. The delegation in Gelderland is already “disappointed” to have been rejected and in Zeeland the SP is not very happy about having been “ignored”.

The SP appears to be gradually overhauling the Labour Party (PvdA) as the strongest working class party.1 However, in the March elections, that resulted more from the fact that the PvdA lost support so dramatically (down from 17.3% in 2011 to 10.0% now) than there was a marginal growth of the SP vote (up from 10.2% to 11.6%), which will translate into one extra seat in the Senate.2 But the question of the SP being finally accepted as part of a coalition is becoming more relevant. In all ranks of the party you will hear the logic that Roemer is boasting about: in the next elections, it’ll be our time ...

The question that gets raised then should be what exactly the SP is going to achieve in such a coalition. Is it really going to be a reflection of the party’s core principles of ‘human dignity, equality and solidarity’? I very much doubt it. To give but one example, last February SP councillor Maureen van der Pligt resigned from her position on Amsterdam council in protest against the policy of forcing people to work for their benefits, a policy that the SP has inherited now that it is in the ruling coalition and which is set to continue. And the party is prepared to enter coalitions with all the pro-capitalist parties: Greens (GroenLinks), Liberals (D’66), Christian Democrats (CDA), Conservatives (VVD) ...

And how could you expect otherwise? After all, in the Netherlands there is a very low threshold of votes which parties have to cross to be elected, and because of this there is a strong incentive for parties to form coalitions. This is relatively unique in an international context where there is a higher electoral threshold, resulting in fewer parties getting elected (as in Germany), or where there is a constituency-based system and smaller parties are often excluded (as in the UK). Then there is the famed ‘Polder model’, according to which the Dutch are reasonable people who talk things through and resolve issues through ‘give and take’. A notable cultural difference, in comparison with the UK, is that class is barely a factor in the minds of most people or in political discourse.

The SP nationally has come out with a few ideas to mark its ‘radicalism’ - like the idea for a tax system that is both ‘social’ and ‘green’, or the idea that there should be public healthcare insurance (as opposed to the current system of a ‘free market’) or the idea that the ABN Amro bank should not be privatised, but remodelled as a ‘people’s bank’ that should set the moral standard. I am calling them ideas, not proposals, because they simply lack the content to be a worked out proposal. They are little more than nice pictures, which do well on social media, but mean little more than that. Programmatically, it is true, they go back to the vision of a welfare state, as in the 70s, but in the current international context of neoliberalism, these ideas are not just vague, but wholly utopian.

The lack of a spelled-out contemporary programme (the current one dates from 1999, when the party was still much smaller) is now a real hindrance for the leadership. It is therefore to be expected that the SP’s November congress will discuss a new programme.3 As the party leadership wishes to be taken seriously as a future coalition partner, with the idyllic wish of carrying out ‘human’ policies, we can expect a further shift towards Realpolitik. But, if we are destined to overtake the PvdA, does that mean we should be prepared to sell our soul?

For communist members of the SP it is our duty to warn against this shift to the right and be ready to oppose it. For that we need to organise ourselves. Currently, the SP lacks any oppositional faction of any magnitude. In this we differ a lot from parties like Die Linke, where a formal right to form platforms exists. In the SP, we need to work at a much lower level and start bringing together critical individuals in the various branches. For that we will first need a common platform as a starting point for the exchange of ideas and experiences. We will certainly not convince everyone of our point of view, but without a coming together of oppositional forces we are destined to be the bystander shouting left while the party apparatchiks safely ignore us. Things are moving slowly, but this is what the Communist Platform4 is currently trying to achieve.

Meanwhile, the far left outside the SP offers barely any alternative.5 The Dutch affiliate of the Committee for a Workers’ International, Socialist Alternative, simply repeats its usual economistic call for ‘action’ based on a wage demand of €12.50 an hour, and the International Socialists duly note the marginal growth of the SP and point to ‘struggle’ as the way forward. As I write, the Stalinoid New Communist Party of the Netherlands has not yet published the April issue of its paper, and has made no mention of the elections (or anything else) on its website, while the Mandelite Grenzeloos (‘Borderless’) and Doorbraak (‘Breakthrough’) also completely ignore the elections. If you have nothing to say, best keep quiet.

But communists do have something to say about all of this. The SP is, with all its contradictions, a proletarian party. It is up to the left within it to fight to make it a socialist party. And for that we need political answers. In the run-up to the congress we need to discuss what kind of programme the party needs. If we can win the argument for a socialist programme, based on the political hegemony of the working class, the question of when we will finally be accepted into a coalition by the other pro-capitalist parties will finally wither away. It will be replaced by an awareness that we need a party that aims to achieve an absolute majority for an alternative society.


1. See ‘Overcoming a false dichotomy’ (Weekly Worker September 27 2012) if you want a refresher on the Dutch parties of importance.

2. The bicameral system in the Netherlands consists of parliament and the Senate, which will be elected by the provincial parliaments on May 26. Once the provincial parliaments results are known, it is fairly easy to predict the outcome in the Senate.

3. I do not know for sure though. The only thing that is certain to be discussed at this congress is the election of a new party leadership. Given that elections for parliament are due in 2017, it would be good time to set some programmatic standards too.

4. Not to be confused, of course, with the Communist Platform in Left Unity in the UK, or the Communist Platform in Die Linke ... It is apparently not a very original name. Although we do draw a lot of inspiration from what the CPGB is trying to achieve and could adopt very much the same type of strategy.

5. The far left in the Netherlands is tiny even by international standards. We are talking about a few hundred comrades spread across the diverse grouplets, with the International Socialists (Dutch franchise of the SWP) being the biggest with around 150 members. The reason is mostly the existence of the SP, which has a strong activist tradition and draws away a lot of potential members from the other grouplets. Size does matter.