Emile Roemer: Labour can’t have it both ways

Left-wing principles or right-wing pragmatism: Labour must make up its mind, writes SP leader Emile Roemer

More community spirit and organised solidarity. Access to culture and job security. In its manifesto ‘Worthwhile – Social Democracy in the 21st century’, the Wiardi Beckman foundation presents a classic social democratic programme. Labour’s think tank is tacking to the left and saying farewell to a neoliberal policy based on market forces and individual responsibility.

But there is another Labour party. It’s the one that entered into a government agreement with the VVD. In this agreement organised solidarity is undermined even further, leaving people to fend for themselves. While left-wing Labour talks, right-wing Labour governs.

This call for a more left-wing course reminded me of something Labour party chairman Hans Spekman said exactly one year ago. ‘We have to get out of this crisis via the left-wing route’, he said. Then, as now, things had to change: the crisis had shown that old politics with its lack of market supervision and privatisation of public amenities had failed.


In the run up to the elections in September, Labour wrote a left-wing programme and backed it up with a left-wing campaign. Before the elections Diederik Samsom joined me in saying that ‘healthcare should not be left to the market’. But after the elections this is exactly what happened. The right to care is being undermined and home care minimised while Samsom is standing idly by. Before the elections Samson and I argued for the continuation of sheltered workplaces. Now a Labour junior minister is abolishing them one by one.

Before the elections Labour supported our plan to invest billions in construction. Now Labour allows billions to be exacted from housing corporations. Before the elections Labour said citizens would no longer be made to pay for the failures of the financial sector. Now a Labour minister is again using tax payers’ money to buy SNS Reaal. And I haven’t even mentioned the limitation of legal recourse for citizens, the abolition of the study finance system or the failure to stimulate independent scientific research.

Shortly after the SP entered parliament in 1994 Labour suffered its first ideological anxiety attack. In December 1995 former Labour leader Wim Kok put ideology aside: ‘a definitive break with the ideological ties with other heirs to the socialist movement’, he said during a speech. Labour has been confused ever since. Every time it is in government its policies veer to the right.

During the so-called ‘purple’ cabinets of Wim Kok housing corporations, public transport and energy companies were liberalised and the care of the sick, the disabled and the unemployed was increasingly left to market forces. Former VVD leader Frits Bolkestein said it in a nutshell: ‘Their prime minister, our policies’.

After the fiasco of the purple cabinets, some Labour strategists wanted a more left-wing course. But this return to old Labour only appealed to a minority. The traditional Labour officials were not willing to let go of their neoliberal values. In ‘This country can do so much better’ (2006) Wouter Bos used such neoliberal terms as ‘individual responsibility’ and ‘considered self-interest’. And it showed: during Balkenende III (2007-2010) Labour continued to undermine social security, leaving healthcare to market forces.


Politicians who keep saying one thing and then do another do not inspire trust in politics. A party can be left-wing or right-wing but not both at the same time.  If Labour wants to identify with the right-wing policies of their government they should stop hiding behind left-wing chat. A left-wing course must be evident in left-wing policies.

Calling for more community spirit and cutting back on healthcare, praising organised solidarity and abolishing student grants, wanting people to have access to culture and cutting off subsidies for art and culture, putting job security first and then letting unemployment go through the roof… you can’t have it both ways.

Rutte II is a minority cabinet because it has no majority in parliament. This means the government has to negotiate with the opposition. If Diederik Samsom takes seriously the social democratic values of his party put forward in the new manifesto and really wants to steer a left-wing course, he is welcome to knock on the SP’s door any time. 

Emile Roemer is leader of the Socialist Party

This article appeared earlier in the Volkskrant

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