Students of the art of damning with faint praise had a field day last week when Emile Roemer announced he was stepping down as leader of the Dutch Socialist Party (SP). After eight years and three general elections of diminishing returns, Roemer said he did not want to be remembered as a leader who had left his departure too late. Yet the astonishing thing about his career is that a leader with such a mediocre track record should have held out for so long.
Opponents hinted that Roemer’s genial nature was both his blessing and his curse. Hans Wiegel, the elder statesman of the Liberal Party (VVD), said the Socialist leader was a ‘nice and decent man, but not hard enough for politics’. He would be better employed as mayor of a small town such as his native Boxmeer than in The Hague, Wiegel implied. Other party leaders, such as Alexander Pechtold (D66), Lodewijk Asscher (Labour) and Gert-Jan Segers (Christian Union) lined up to pay tribute to his collegiality and good humour. VVD parliamentary leader Klaas Dijkhoff smartly summed him up as ‘one of the nicest people I rarely agreed with’. Even Roemer’s successor, Lilian Marijnissen, called him ‘the most trustworthy politician in the Binnenhof,’ the sort of description that would have Machiavelli or Francis Urquhart spitting out their tea.
It is curious and revealing that amenability is seen in political circles as a weakness, even at a time when politicians are routinely attacked for being cynical and out of touch. Certainly neither of those two accusations could ever be levelled at Roemer, whose affability was at the core of his appeal. In the summer of 2012 he seemed to be on the brink of leading the SP to an electoral breakthrough. Mark Rutte’s centre-right minority coalition had collapsed when Geert Wilders refused to sign off an emergency package of austerity measures. The country was in the economic mire and established parties on both the left and right were wobbling: much of the Christian Democrats’ rank and file abhorred the deal with Wilders that kept them in government, while Labour was yet to recover from the damage inflicted on its poll ratings during Job Cohen’s leadership. The SP took the lead in the polls in May and over the summer, as most of the Dutch political establishment headed off on holiday, Roemer toured the country, shaking hands and taking his message to the voters in the kind of grassroots campaign rarely seen in the Netherlands. Quote magazine warned in a series of panicky editorials of the dire consequences of a Roemer administration for its blue-chip readers. It made no difference. On the eve of the campaign proper the Socialists were projected to win more than 30 seats.
And then the wheels fell off. Roemer floundered and was wrong-footed in debates, most famously by Rutte over whether the prime minister intended to increase healthcare costs. He was depicted as bumbling and unstatesmanlike. An attempt to stand up to the European Union by defying a potential fine for exceeding budget deficit limits – ‘over my dead body’ – came across as clumsy and intransigent. Most devastatingly, Roemer was outflanked on the left by a resurgent Labour Party, whose new leader, Diederik Samsom, promised voters a more progressive route out of the economic malaise. On election day Labour ran the VVD a close second while the Socialists trailed in fourth with 15 seats, less than half the number predicted just a month earlier.
A behind-the-scenes documentary revealed how the SP was woefully unprepared to realise its potential. Roemer’s chief weakness was not that he was too nice, but that he too often turned up poorly briefed for debates. As Thijs Niemantsverdriet noted in NRC, it became a running gag in Parliament to load a debate with facts and figures and wait for him to come unstuck. His status within the SP’s usually loyal ranks started to wither. After the post-budget debate of 2014, Roemer, then opposition leader, was criticised in the media by his own MPs for not finishing his alternative fiscal programme in time.
Second missed opportunity
Nobody who watched the election debates of 2012 would have predicted that Roemer would outlast Samsom as leader of his party by more than a year. And yet Roemer prevailed, partly for want of a credible alternative. Those anonymous briefings grew louder in the autumn of 2016, as another general election loomed, but a full-scale mutiny never came. Again there was an opportunity to make up ground on the left, this time by picking up the crumbling Labour vote; again, Roemer shot wide. The SP leader had a populist’s instinct for identifying the issues that resonate with ordinary voters but was unable to capitalise on them. Seeing that the cost of healthcare was cited as the the number one concern among the electorate, the Socialists launched an ambitious scheme to replace the labyrinthine Dutch health insurance market with a single funding source, the Nationaal ZorgFonds. But most voters weren’t interested in a radical overhaul of the system: they just wanted to know their own bills wouldn’t rise too drastically. Other parties were able to neutralise the SP’s campaign with straightforward promises to reduce costs such as the excess charge (eigen risico) on insurance.
After the election Roemer effectively sidelined his party from the coalition negotiations by ruling out a pact with the VVD, even though the two parties have successfully worked together at local level. His suggestion of a six-party coalition led by the Christian Democrats was mockingly dismissed by CDA leader Sybrand Buma, who preferred to be a junior partner to Rutte in a centre-right cabinet. GroenLinks’s withdrawal from the first round of coalition talks meant all three of the mainstream parties of the left ended up in opposition.
Under Roemer’s leadership the SP has matured from a protest group to a party with solid democratic foundations. At municipal level it has successfully taken on the responsibilities of government, notably in Amsterdam, where it teamed up with D66 and the VVD to end 70 years of Labour hegemony. The challenge for Marijnissen will be to establish her party as a credible standard-bearer on the left in Parliament.