Last Friday, a senator for the Dutch Socialist Party (SP), Düzgün Yildirim, was expelled by the leadership of the SP. This was the climax of a battle that started when Yildirim, a Dutch Turk from a Kurdish background, was chosen by preference votes for a seat in the Dutch senate for the SP.
The SP is a broad, small mass party, and is partly filling the vacuum that the traditional workers’ party (the national co-governing PvdA - Dutch Labour Party) vacated when that party went to the right in the 1990s and committed itself to huge cuts and privatisations. Now, the SP, which positioned itself always to the left of the PvdA, is more akin to the formal social democracy, while the PvdA has become ’social liberal’. The SP, still in opposition, boasts 25 seats in the 150 seat parliament, and is now, both in seats and members, the third party of the Netherlands. Since the last elections, it even managed to outpoll the PvdA on some occasions.
But the SP leadership is moving to the right also. It no longer has socialist demands in its programme. On a local level, the SP co-governs in several cities and has been party to some social cuts and privatisations. What remains in the SP, however, is the structure and culture of the part. This is partly a legacy of the SP’s Maoist past. On the many issues, SP members have no real say. They are supposed to trust the chair of their respective branches to speak on their behalf at so-called ’party council’ meetings, as well as at gatherings of leading party members and of all the chairs of all the SP branches. Political debate inside the SP is often non-existent on a branch level, and the work of the hundreds of city councilors and dozens of parliamentarians is not decided upon by the rank and file party members.
When Düzgün Yildirim, with the support of his local SP members, got chosen for the Dutch senate, the SP party leadership considered this a breach of the preferred SP list of candidates for the senate, even though this was never communicated before, as such, to Yildirim. Yildirim was immediately asked to give up his senate seat, despite not having broken any law, nor holding any big political differences, nor did he know of previous arrangements he with the SP leaders he was meant to hold to. The SP leadership did not want to discuss with Yildirim to resolve the issue, and started slandering Yildirim in the media.
Several rank and file SP members supported Yildirim in a letter to the party leadership. Out of that initiative, a ’Committee for Democratisation of the SP’ arose (CDSP). The CDSP managed to get over 250 signatures for the letter of protest to the party leadership, and 175 messages of support. Many of those are from active SP members. The CDSP sent this show of support last week to the party leadership, unfortunately to no avail. Last Friday, Yildirim was expelled from the SP. This was purely on the basis of technicalities, and with no real political justification given by the SP leaders.
In the past, party democracy, or, more precisely, the lack of it, inside the SP has often been a key issue, causing many SP city councilors and even an MP to leave the party. However, it was unclear though what the political positions held by of those who left and they quickly disappeared from the political landscape.
Offensief (the CWI in the Netherlands) has been active inside the SP, a Marxist wing, for almost a decade. Our members experienced the bureaucratic measures the party leadership uses to stifle oppositional forces. For us, the question of party democracy, and the need to activate and involve the SP members, has always been pivotal. But we never disconnected this from the need for the SP to develop bold socialist demands and the need for a party rooted in the class struggle.
This is what Offensief, as active members, argue inside the CDSP. We have contributed in building the CDSP (Committee for Democratisation) inside the SP, both nationally, as well as locally, in, for instance, Amsterdam.
The coming November SP congress will be an important arena for debate on the need for genuine party democracy. Even if the opposition is not successful, it will help to raise the awareness of more critical SP members, and help to build a stronger left wing inside the SP. Many people believe the SP can become a powerful mass workers’ party. We argue that for the SP to become a mass force that truly represents the interests of the Dutch working class, the party must be organised on a grassroots basis, be open to all workers and youth, and it must have clear, socialist policies that break with the capitalist system.
However, there are also opposition members of the SP who are becoming exhausted and frustrated by the struggle against the bureaucratic leadership inside the SP. Whether they can help to develop a mass viable left alternative will depend on their policies and the role they play in mass workers’ struggles. There are certainly plenty of issues to campaign on, not least the proposal by the right dominated coalition Dutch government to make it easier for bosses to sack their employees.