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.