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What “Dutch Justin Trudeau” Jesse Klaver can teach the British left

The young Dutch politician is organised, photogenic - and optimistic. 

The first surprising thing about Jesse Klaver, is how in one night he overtook the established left to become the leader of the biggest left-wing party in the Netherlands. The second is that few in the UK’s green and alternative left scene seem to have previously heard of him (When I phoned round to ask the response was a combination of “Not very much”, “Only what I read in the headlines", “I’m really not the best person to ask.”)

With floppy black curls and a sideways smile, international election spectators quickly dubbed their progressive hero “the Dutch Justin Trudeau”. Asked about the comparison with the photogenic Canadian Prime Minister, the 30-year-old Klaver quipped: “I’m very jealous of Trudeau’s muscles.”

But when it comes to the heavy lifting of party politics, Klaver has already revealed a hidden strength. The party he leads, GroenLinks (GreenLeft), was formidable in the 1990s and mid noughties, but spent the rest of the decade on the ropes. (One such low point was the resignation of GreenLeft politician Wijnand Duyvendak in 2008, after it emerged he had burgled the Ministry of Economic Affairs in 1985 to steal documents on nuclear power).

Amid this political gloom, Klaver was a rare rising star. In 2009, at just 23, he was leading a trade unionist youth organisation. The following year, he stood for election to the House of Representatives as a GreenLeft candidate and won. There, his attacks on bank bonus culture led one journalist to dismiss him as “snot”.

Within two years, though, Klaver would earn a new nickname – the Jessiah. After becoming leader of the GreenLeft in 2015, he looked westward across the Atlantic at the groundbreaking electoral tactics of Barack Obama, and hired the services of the company founded by the former US President’s digital strategist, Blue State Digital. His pledges include investing in renewable energy, sustainable agriculture and an embrace of international co-operation. 

The party soon was holding meet ups, attracting donations and recruiting new members – roughly 27 per cent of the party joined under Klaver’s leadership. His Facebook page has 110,256 Likes.

In embracing these tactics, of course, Klaver is not alone among Europeans on the left. More than 800,000 people like Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s page, while his grassroots group Momentum has more than 150 local groups. Unfortunately for Corbyn, this impressive 21st century organising has not delivered electorally (ask the Labour candidates in Copeland and Richmond Park).

The obvious difference between Klaver and the beleaguered Labour leader is the electoral system. Proportional representation allows smaller parties far greater clout in parliament, not to mention the flexibility to remake themselves. Indeed, Klaver's parliamentary haul was bittersweet for the left as a whole, as the Dutch Labour party had a catastrophic night. (In First Past The Post Canada, Trudeau heads up the established Liberal party).

But there is something more. In Scotland, where there is a form of proportional representation, the “green left” vote is split between a pro-independence Green party, the Scottish National Party, and a beaten down Labour party. In England, Labour is desperately trying to straddle the Leave and Remain camps after the EU referendum.

Klaver, on the other hand, has managed to roll up his shirt sleeves and deliver a credible, positive message without pandering to the far-right populist instincts embodied by Geert Wilders. A millennial whose ancestry includes Moroccan and Indonesian descent, he is unashamed about his embrace of the 21st century at a time when the older generations are doggedly nostalgic.

Now, as Dutch parties enter talks to form a government, he could be in reach of real power. Progressives on this side of the Channel may still be catching up with him but, as with Trudeau, in the absence of a UK figurehead, he will no doubt soon command a faithful British following. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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