Peter Noordhoek: Building on solid foundations - a Dutch perspective
Peter Noordhoek is a member of the Dutch Christian-democratic party
(CDA). He is a member of the board of the scientific institute of the
party and has several other functions within the party to keep the
information flowing. At the moment he is preparing for the next
campaign. Here he reflects on a recent visit to Britain and recommends that Conservatives embrace a serious programme of decentralisation.
Recently I had the privilege of leading a small delegation of the Dutch Christian Democratic Party (CDA) to Britain. Our purpose was to visit a number of Conservative MPs and compare notes on policy. Now I know these sort of visits take place all the time, but perhaps some feedback would be worthwhile.
As a party we had a journey through the desert of opposition from 1994 to 2001, made a spectacular comeback, and are now in the painful process of discovering that not everyone is welcoming the change agenda that got us elected. After a number of great results, we just lost our local elections and will have to work hard to win the next general election. I have seen you struggle during all those years and it is wonderful to see that you finally have got it right. In the conversations we had with your MPs and some other Conservatives, I sort of heard a constant 'click', 'click' sound. It all came together. Well, almost. Very different personalities told us the same kind of things. There were also the little tell-tale signs of people speaking with confidence in the future. Of course there will be all kind of difficulties to overcome. Still, I trust that you will enjoy the success that is coming your way.
To get there, it may help to learn from the things we did right and avoid the mistakes we have been making. I believe you still have some homework to do and better be aware of certain pitfalls and blind spots.
As far as homework is concerned, it seems to me that you have got one half of the equation about right: the way you are re-inventing yourself. You are getting back to your roots and discovering new things about your own message. For us, getting back to our roots was the first step back to recovery. There is no way that an outside think-tank, let alone an advertising agency, can do this for you. Your homework is obvious: turning the rebranding into something more than a new image. It has to be a true story that is appealing to an audience of one and many. I recommend (re)reading Peter Franklin’s comment on the ‘and-theory’. You must find in your message that which appeals both to the young single City-analyst and the Northern family man. The one thing I think you cannot afford is the feeling that this is just some small band of Londoners talking, while the rest of the party is going its usual way. Therefore I compliment you on the way your policy groups are set up, and the fact that they do not necessarily include only party members. We have been doing that too, and are still doing that (up to the point that the committee that writes the first draft of our electoral platform includes someone from abroad). As much as I like the way David Cameron is operating; he should not be the only one sending out a message of change.
In our conversations with you, we discovered you still have something of a blind spot when it comes to transferring responsibilities outside central government. Everyone we met thought that Britain is an over-centralised country. The effect is that changes formulated at the top do not reach the bottom, or if they do, they are made obsolete by the next changes formulated at the top. It simply takes too long to implement the changes you want. The MPs we spoke with realise this is a problem, but have not progressed much beyond that point. A case in point is the opening hours of shops on Sunday. In our time opposition we could not stop the government from introducing a law to augment the numbers of opening hours. We did manage to give local government authority to set some limits. The result is that opening hours remain constricted in many areas. Sunday rest still exists. Still this is just one point. What are you really going to do when you start a movement towards decentralisation?
We had the same problem of centralisation in the Netherlands. At the start of our period in Cabinet more than 1 million people out of a workforce of 7 million were receiving a permanent disability benefit. Thousands and thousands of other people were receiving some form of benefit. Though not as much as in your country, the costs of healthcare were spiralling out of control. All kind of proposed changes led to nothing.
What to do? One of the things we did was to make people more responsible for their own fate, while strengthening the role of the state as a ‘trampoline’. For this we are making a distinction in time. Since the first months are often crucial in getting back in a job after getting sick or being made redundant, that is where we laid the incentive for all directly involved. At the same time we looked at the buying power of people, especially for those with low incomes. So now people have to build up their own insurance policy for healthcare and other issues. They can choose their own insurance-company and their own level of risk. Each and every one of the permanent disabled people get a medical re-examination, aimed at checking what they still can do, not at what they are unable to do. Employers are made responsible for a year for the return and re-integration of people that are sick. The unions have to play their part. And local government is made more responsible for the actual delivery of re-integration services and benefits. They are forbidden by law to formulate general compensation measures; they have to judge each individual case. In return the local government can keep the money that is saved by a successful re-integration for other purposes. The taxman no longer only takes money from you; if your combination of premiums and expenses gets your income below a certain level you get paid by the tax office to compensate for that.
The results are more than promising. From a million permanently disabled people we are back down to about 300,000. Employers are taking on their responsibilities. Local government manages to save millions and millions because of the new policy. The tax office spends less than predicted. As a result the social consequences of the economic downturn are objectively speaking far less than the last time.
But what does the term ‘objectively’ mean in politics? Not much. To paraphrase O’Neil: all politics is subjective. The changes could not be done without making people insecure and sometimes less well off. When changes like these also come at a time of an economic and social crisis, as evident from dreadful events like those concerning Pim Fortuyn, Theo van Gogh and Ayaan Hirshi Ali, the image is not positive at all. So our party lost the local elections last March.
We are working very hard to get back in the game. It is not going to be easy. But in two respects we should do alright. First of all, the results of our changes are becoming more evident with each passing month. We are proud of our agenda and our success. Secondly, there is no need to discuss the fundamentals. The execution and communication of our policies is the problem, not the policies themselves. So – in contrast to the past – our house is in order, the heart of our message is sound. How is yours? How is yours compared to Labour?
When I try to compare the situation of the Labour Party and your party in Great Britain, I am reminded a bit of some houses in my neighbourhood. Please bear with me while I make this analogy... I live in the town of Gouda (yes, the cheese), close to one of the lowest part of Holland, more than six yards below sea level. The ground can be really wet. Part of it is sinking more than an inch each year. Our houses are built on long wooden poles. Two things can happen with a house that is built on less than solid ground. One of the problems can be that the house starts to list because not enough poles have been used or because they are not evenly distributed. If you find out soon enough, this can be helped with a new technique that hammers in new poles sideways. The other scenario is more dire. The condition of the wooden poles depends on the condition of the ground. Paradoxically, the poles need to stay wet in order to stay in shape. However, that creates a risk, because usually the ground sinks faster than the house itself, exposing the top of the poles and drying them. The house still looks alright, but underneath the rot sets in and then the house starts to list in earnest. Because no one knows how far the rot has set in, the best thing to do may be to bring the house down, replace the poles and rebuild the house.
Dutchmen are supposed to be blunt. So let me tell it like I see it. It seems to me the poles are rotting under the house of Labour. It also seems to me that the conservatives do not have enough poles and those that are there, are too much to one side. I guess you could say that Mr. Cameron is using the technique of bringing in new poles sideways. But I wonder whether that is enough. Sooner rather than later the house of Labour will be dismantled by the owners. They will do it themselves. So you, as Conservatives, can wait for that moment and try to let the voters come into your house. Well, they may just do that. But will they stay there?
I think you should rethink the distribution of responsibilities in your country. Not just by giving more opportunity to business and not just by giving more room for the voluntary sector. Neither is enough. Please trust those who are there the moment it counts. So employers, local councils, decentralised offices of agencies, even unions when they are working for their members, should get the freedom and the incentives to do their utmost before central government comes in. That is, if you want to build to last.