D66: the road to recovery
Here, translated into English for the first time, is the account published in Dutch magazine Vrij Nederland by Max van Weezel and Thijs Broerof in 2014 of the Dutch liberal party D66’s recovery from election disaster. What particularly caught my interest is the way in which D66’s recovery involved a mix of measures, some of which would be widely welcomed in the Liberal Democrats but many of which would be highly controversial.
This piece appears with the kind permission of the authors and thanks to the kind help of Krijn van Eeden who both suggested republishing it in English and translated it. I’ve edited it slightly since, so any errors and omissions are mine. For more on how the lessons apply to the UK, see my pamphlet with David Howarth.
How D66 became a company
A few years ago D66 still consisted of well-intentioned amateurs, who let power slip out of their hands again and again. That time is over.
Just over a week after the municipality elections, the Van Mierlo Symposium 2014 took place in the Beelaerts van Bloklandzaal in Pashuize, “Utrecht’s most beautiful location for private gatherings”. Around one hundred and sixty D66 party members gathered to discuss the highly relevant topic, “Reform through ideals”.
At the coffee stand, attendants were congratulating each other enthusiastically on a wonderful election victory. D66 had, for the first time in its history, become the most popular party nationwide. In Amsterdam, Utrecht, The Hague, Groningen and even in former industrial bulwarks such as Enschede, Tilburg, en Zaanstad, D66 had come first. At the symposium not only the usual party veterans had showed up. It was striking how many people in their twenties and thirties were attending, all wearing suits.
As the spring sunshine scattered through the high windows into the room, former Social Cultural Planning Bureau (SCP) director Paul Schnabel and MP Wouter Koolmees spoke about the need to reform social security, the job market and the housing market. The last speech came from Joris Backer, D66 Senator and president of the Mr. Hans Van Mierlo foundation. The old Vice President of Shell Russia and former Director (Corporate Legal) at Schiphol, as well as author of D66’s 2006 and 2010 election manifestos stated: “In the private sector I learned that if you want to grow an organisation faster than is likely to happen organically, a strategic merger is commendable”. He followed this remark by the assertion that a merger of the Democrats with anyone is no longer necessary: “In these restless times the party has gained a solid position in Dutch Politics. D66 has become a mature party.”
The decisive moment
The mood during the disastrous year of 2006, when D66 was projected to return zero seats at the national elections, could not have been more different. Alexander Pechtold, the new leader, only just manage to win three seats.
It should therefore be called a surprise that D66 became the biggest party locally eight years later. In the opinion polls, it is true, this had seemed likely before, such as late in 2011 when the Democrats were awarded 25 virtual seats by pollsters Ipsos. But this time, in 2014, something happened that even the biggest optimists had not expected. Even in the red bastion of Amsterdam the Democrats managed to break the Labour party’s power.
How to explain this success? The unpopularity of the current Rutte Government is often mentioned (a VVD (classical liberal) – PvdA (Labour) coalition government). Disappointed Labour voters deserted to the Socialist Party or D66 or stayed at home. Angry liberals (VVD) either voted D66 out of frustration with the redistribution agenda of Labour’s leader Diederik Samsom, or did not vote at all. Also, surprisingly many Moroccan and Turkish Dutch supported D66: the only party who had consequently attacked Geert Wilders (of PVV, roughly speaking the Dutch UKIP).
However, little attention has been given until now to the fact that D66 has also been working quietly to professionalise itself for years. For decades D66 was famous for being a club of well-intentioned amateurs who would let power slip through their fingers at the every decisive moment. But this, influential Democrats all say, is not likely to happen again very soon. It has gone unnoticed, that the party changed itself into a smoothly run business.
According to Alexander Pechtold, the changes started in the early spring of 2006, during a closed meeting in the Hague town house of Carla Pauw, who had been a loyal advisor of Hans van Mierlo, Jan Terlouw and Els Borst for years. At that time Pechtold had to decide if he would run for the party leadership in the upcoming election. Also present were then Senator and current MP Gerard Schouw, the future party president Ingrid van Engelshoven, the current MEP Gerben Jan Gerbrandy and former treasurer Frans van Drimmelen, who would become Pechtold’s campaign manager. “It was then that we decided that not only our policies needed to be entirely reworked, the party’s organisation needed a complete overhaul as well,” says Pechtold. “I made it clear that I would not to put myself forward if this wasn’t agreed. At Carla’s we laid the foundation for the party’s future course.”
At the time of the meeting, the party was in tatters. D66 was junior partner of CDA (Christian Democrats) and VVD in the second Balkenende (Prime Minister 2002-10) government. Thom de Graaf, D66 minister for administrative reform, had resigned after the demise of the bill to introduce elected mayors in the senate. Alexander Pechtold, his successor in the cabinet, failed to achieve much as well. The parliamentary party, led by Boris Dittrich, was continually bickering with D66 ministers. After a violent row about the military mission to Uruzgan in Afghanistan, Dittrich had to resign. Not long after the closed session at Carla Pauw’s the D66 parliamentary party, by then led by Loesewies van der Laan, ended the coalition. According to the polls, the electorate did not thank the party for this. In all seriousness the dissolution of D66 was being considered.
But during the 2006 election, Pechtold did manage to hold on to three seats. On election night the new leader sat with his close circle watching TV on the edge of the bed in a hotel room near the Amsterdam zoo, when Hans van Mierlo called. “Alexander,” said the D66-founder, “you haven’t lost three seats, you have won three.”
But it remained the worst result at a general election since the birth of the party in 1966. “For D66 it was Zero Hour,” says Alexander Pechtold. “When we were part of the cabinet, we were constantly making trouble, we were only concerned with ourselves. Voters don’t like that. Our message wasn’t clear. The organisation was in a chaos. The membership administration was wrong, the wrong people were mailed to request membership renewal and letters from the party bureau were full of spelling mistakes. Local parties used flags and campaign material with different logos. I was horrified when became aware of all this.”
What particularly struck Pechtold, was that he, as the new party leader, did not have anything to say about the make-up of his own parliamentary candidate lists. Before the 2006 elections he was invited to a gathering of the party selection board in Holstellerie Schudebeurs on Schouwen-Duiveland: “a warm welcome in a unique ambiance”. There they told him matter-of-factly who would be on the party’s candidate lists. “They treated me like a kind of spectator instead of as the party leader,” he said.
With difficulty he managed to secure a place for Ageeth Telleman from Amsterdam and senior civil servant Kasja Ollongren. But the subsequent postal vote among D66 party members changed the order of the list so that both of his dream candidates managed to drop off. “After that I said: give the leader a mandate so that he can at least give a voting suggestion to the members. I felt like a plumber who was crouched underneath the sink to fix a leaking drain. When I asked for an adjustable spanner, I was given a hammer.” The conclusion he reached after this: “No more Schuddebeurs”.
Under that motto Pechtold decided to professionalise the entire party. How important that is in every organisation, he already learned from his father. “He was a contractor. When I started in politics, he said: I sell bricks, you sell ideas. In both cases it is important to provide your customers with a good service.” His experiences as an auctioneer at Van Stockum also proved useful. “As a small auction house we had to compete relentlessly with big guys like Christie’s and Sotheby’s. In order to do that, you have to have your business in very good order.”
D66 business was completely out of order, so he thought.
A ‘vibrant party of ideas’
Pechtold was not the only one who was irritated by the unprofessional character of the party. Gerard Schouw was a D66 senator during the disastrous year of 2006. The former Dordrecht councillor had been Pechtold’s predecessor as party president from 1999 until 2002. Schouw gained experience outside of politics as project leader at Boer & Croon – “high end services in consulting, corporate finance and management” – and as president of the board of directors of Nicis, the Centre of Excellence for Cities. Currently he is part of Pechtold’s inner circle in the parliamentary party.
“As senators we were pretty fed up with the amateurism in the party,” Schouw says. “We felt it could not continue this way. We had an emotional discussion about it, and afterwards I wrote a piece in which said either we will reorganise D66, or we’ll pull the plug. That was rather bluntly put, but sometimes you have to scare people to get them moving.” The senators also decided that the leadership candidate who embraces their warning would receive their support. Schouw says: “Alexander said that he thought we had a point”.
After the elections, Pechtold withdrew his support for the then party president Frank Dales, because he did not feel supported by him. Gerard Schouw was willing to return temporarily as president. A confidential memo from the party’s executive committee with the hesitant title “Carrying on with D66?” was rewritten by Schouw, resulting in the uplifting report “Ready for the Climb”. It was full of statistics and graphs with rising lines, ready for PowerPoint presentations. Schouw says: “You shouldn’t make such a plan too thick, and not too vague. I learned that in the reorganisation world”.
The essence of Ready for the Climb was that D66 should become a “vibrant party of ideas” again. For that purpose the party organisation needed to be reworked. With expert panels which aimed to encourage the involvement of people from the business world and civil society, and a talent head-hunting committee which would be looking for high quality potential recruits, who would then be mentored and trained in a ‘talent class’ for careers in council cabinets and the parliamentary party. Furthermore, D66 would need to grow from ten thousand to at least fifteen thousand paying members. “These were concrete goals that the party could get their teeth into,” Schouw says. “Such a campaign to gain members is manageable, and it earns us money to boot.”
Living room gatherings only
At D66 conference in Rotterdam, which embraced Ready for the Climb, Ingrid van Engelshoven was elected as Schouw’s successor as party president.
At the time she was still in her thirties, but had already gained a broad experience within D66 as local party board member in Nijmegen during her student times, as staff member of the parliamentary party under Hans van Mierlo and Gerrit Jan Wolffensperger, and as member of the party executive. In 2006 she was – as was Gerard Schouw – part of Pechtold’s campaign team. Two years before she had become the CEO of the Trust for Responsible Alcohol Use, which was set up by the alcohol industry to lobby in The Hauge against too draconian anti-alcohol legislation. In 2009 she became partner at Dröge and Van Drimmelen, the lobbying company of Frans van Drimmelen, the old treasurer of the party, who was also present at the brainstorming session at Carla Pauw’s which proved crucial for Pechtold’s future. As lead candidate in The Hague municipality, she led D66 to a landslide victory at the last municipality elections.
From May 2007 van Engelshoven toured the country to inspect what was left of the D66 local parties. She too was shocked. “In many municipalities we had become so small that we only ever held living room gatherings. We had been losing elections for twelve years in a row. We had become a party of losers.” One local party would use posters and leaflets from the time that D66 was still written with an apostrophe, at others faded green flags from the eighties were still on the walls. “I have confiscated one once, because you really couldn’t present yourself with those.”
D66 HQ got a new, effective chief executive, Robert Strijk, who started his career at Deloitte & Thouche. Pechtold knew him from Leiden, where he had revitalised the centre of town. The national executive introduced a new house style for design, which had to be used by all local parties. A commission headed by Ingrid van Engelshoven made sure that Pechtold would have more say over the make-up of the list of parliamentary candidates. Members retained the right to decide on the order of the candidate list, but the party selection board was replaced by a group consisting of the party leader, the party president and one independent member.
From now on, council candidates were no longer selected at random. As was proposed in Ready for the Climb, a professional selection system was set up by Rudi Nieuwenhoven, former HR Director at KPN (the Dutch equivalent of BT) and former Director of Social Affairs at the employers’ federation VNO-NCW.
To these new recruitment and selection processes, D66 owes successful MPs such as Wouter Koolmees, the maths genius of the Ministry of Finance, and Kees Verhoeven, CEO of MKB (Federation of Small and Medium Businesses) Amsterdam. In order to finance professional scouting and coaching, Business Club D66 was created at a later stage, where entrepreneurs and leaders of businesses could become members for a minimum of 366 Euros a year in order to gain “direct and honest” contact with national politicians and their advisors.
In the meantime, there was a crackdown on local parties that failed to get their organisation in order, or that were blighted by infighting, such as the notorious local party Rosendaal. “I let them know: you are not allowed to take part in the local elections under the D66 name,” says Van Engelshoven. “No one thought I would have dared to do that, but it had to be done.”
The organisational structure of the party had always been a weak spot. “That was our traditional weakness. Hans van Mierlo would start to look very bored if you would talk about it, and he was not the only one. We changed that culture.”
During the spring of 2009 Van Engelshoven, Pechtold and Schouw stayed at a B&B near the Gravensteen in Gent. The reorganisation was going well so far. The membership campaign was starting to show results. The target of fifteen thousand members had almost been reached. D66’s message had been changed too. The party of doubt was learning to take clear positions.
As president of the Permanent Programme Commission – also a new invention – Joris Backer had devised five principles which were supposed to guide the direction in which party policy was being developed, such as: “rely on the personal strength of people” and “think and act internationally”. But that still sounded a bit abstract.
In Gent, D66’s super trio – the party leader, the leader in the Senate and the party president – concerned themselves with the question of how these route signs could be translated into concrete politics. What were the unique selling points of the party? Together they wrote a reform agenda to be propagated at all levels, from the parliamentary party to the councils. Investing in education, and labour and housing market reform were at its core.
Pechtold says, “Boris Dittrich and Lousiewies van der Laan wanted to get rid of the constitutional reform agenda from Hans van Mierlo’s time. We did hold on to that, but as part of a broader package that also consisted of socio-economic reform. We were going to communicate this in the most appealing way possible.” Van Engelshoven adds, “D66 members have always had difficulties with dropping the line after the comma. In Gent we decided to make our position clear.”
The decision making power of a CEO
In the entrance of party HQ at the Hoge Nieuwstraat, close to the Binnenhof (Dutch parliament), stands a bronze bust of Hans van Mierlo. On the tasteful grey walls some of the principles from the Permanent Programme Commision are displayed: “Reward achievement and share prosperity” and “Cherish our fundamental rights and shared values”. In the meeting room a collage of newspaper articles about the glorious victory of Mach 19th is hanging on the wall.
Three generations of D66ers are sitting around the table. Joris Backer (61), chairman of the Hans van Mierlo Foundation, Marty Smits (41), vice president of the party executive and Backer’s successor as president of the Permanent Programme Commission, and Jieskje Hollander (30), staff member with a PhD on European integration from the University of Groningen. Together with Hans Wijers, former minister and former CEO of AkzoNobel, Smits wrote the last general election manifesto, “And Now Forwards”. Professionally, he is partner at Boston Consulting Group, where Wijers was senior vice president before his transfer to Akzo. Together they signify the renewal of the party.
Backer says, “At Shell and Schiphol I learned the value of organisational principles such as think strategically, put the right man in the right post and make sure your finances are in order. D66 has denied the importance of these kinds of things for too long. Our political leader still doesn’t have the decision making power of a CEO in the corporate world, but it’s heading in the right direction. The party has a tighter structure, there is more trust in its political leadership and the time that we continually discussed everything has passed.”
Smits adds, “The key to success is professionality. We worked hard on that. We got rid of a culture of non-committance”, to which Backer responds, “Well, at D66 non-committance can never be banished completely, but it can be reduced.”
Smits: “When you had delivered leaflets for fifteen years, we used to say: now you’re entitled to council cabinet membership or a council seat. Now quality comes first. We now dare to say: no not you, this is a bit too big for you.”
Backer: “We lived for too long in the aftermath of the sixties and seventies, when everyone was worth as much as anyone. We now pay more attention to the opinion of experts.”
Smits: “You can keep claiming that all opinions are equal, but that is just not the case.”
Backer: “Meritocracy has gained more importance.”
Hollander: “I joined D66 because I thought: those people are sound. For my generation it is completely normal that there are scouting processes, and that you are judged by your talent.”
Smits: “What we experience now is D66 becoming mature.”
The Bottom Drawer
Thinking strategically, having your finances in order, not putting unfit people in important functions. They all seem obvious things to do for a political party. Why didn’t D66 think of this much sooner?
The answer: it has been considered before, but it just did not happen. Frans van Drimmelen was treasurer of D66 from 1999 until 2004. His professional credentials included staff member at the employers’ federation VNO-NCW, general secretary at Jong Management and senior advisor at Bikker Communication. His business card reads: “Dröge & Van Drimmelen corporate communication & public affairs”.
As a member of the party executive he proposed a ‘strategy team’ as early as 2003, which should have been tasked with making D66 ready for the future. Alexander Pechtold, who was party president at the time, was so preoccupied by solving rows within the party that he left the job to the treasurer (“devising a new party course just wasn’t my thing at that time”). With a few party members Van Drimmelen wrote the memo “Social-Liberal Strategy Towards 2010”. In it there was already a proposal to start with a talent headhunting committee and a training/mentoring programme.
The plan encountered strong resistance from the parliamentary party, at that time lead by Boris Dittrich, who, according to D66’s own historian Menno van der Land, remarked light-heartedly: “It is nice that people in the party want to help us with these things, but they don’t always know how things function in politics”.
Van Drimmelen recollects, “The parliamentary party said to us: you shouldn’t try to conduct politics, keep yourselves out of it.” Things were done to restructure party HQ, but the strategy memo disappeared in the bottom drawer. “A large part of the party did not feel any urgency to combat the amateurism within the party”, he says. The party still had six seats in parliament and hundreds of council members – and members on the provincial level. “The situation wasn’t bad enough. Only in 2006 the issue became so urgent that no one could deny it any longer.”
Pechtold, according to Van Drimmelen a “very good marketing man”, agrees with that judgement: “Actually, it was an advantage that there was almost nothing left of D66 in 2006. Because of that we could make a new start”.
Young Turkish Entrepreneurs
On June 4th 2009 an exuberant atmosphere permeated salsa club Havannah at the The Hague Binnenhof. D66 celebrated its first election victory in nearly fifteen years. With a clear position – ‘Europe? Yes!’ – the Democrats didn’t just managed to get two, but three seats. Ingrid van Engelshoven still remembers the euphoria as if it was yesterday: “I thought – this is the turning point we hoped for for so long”.
Since then D66’s graphs and PowerPoint presentations only show rising lines. Ten seats at the general elections of 2010, twelve seats two years later. From less than three to eight percent at the Provincial elections of 2011, from eight to twelve percent at the municipality elections of March 19, 2014. D66 conquered almost all big cities. Membership has now passed 24.000.
At the municipality elections, D66 profited from two developments. In cities with universities, population growth is mainly caused by young urban professionals who stay after their studies. They feel particularly attracted by the first Permanent Programme Commission principles: trust in the power of individuals, think and act internationally, and reward achievement. In that demographic this chimes better than the PvdA (Labour) with its paternalist pleas for redistribution.
Principle number two – think and act internationally – also ensured a surprisingly good result among voters from Turkish and Moroccan decent, the two largest ethnic minority groups in the Netherlands. While VVD (classical liberals), CDA (Christian Democrats) and PvdA were preoccupied for years with trying not to estrange Wilders (Ukip-like) voters too much, ethnic minority Dutch only saw one politician taking on the bleached-haired PVV leader: Alexander Pechtold. Young Turkish entrepreneurs, who felt the VVD was too Wilders-light, voted for D66 en masse. Among Moroccan Dutch too, who had previously been loyal to Labour, a surprising number of votes were cast for the Democrats.
Above all, D66 managed better than ever to organise a professional campaign. Leaflets and folders were ready on time, the campaign bus arrived at the right time, and a record number of volunteers were on the move to reach deep into city neighbourhoods. This happened not only in affluent areas such as Amsterdam South and the Benoordenhout in The Hague, but also in working class neighbourhoods such as Slotervaart and Transvaal.
The biggest in Amsterdam
Seated outside at a café at the Amstel River is Jan Paternotte, D66’s council leader in Amsterdam. At twenty-two he was already a councillor. As president of D66’s youth wing, Jonge Democraten, he made a name through playful and spontaneous campaigns, such as the occupation of the head office of the union FNV. He disagreed with the union campaigns against the abolishment of a scheme for early retirement, carrying in a chair for young people at the Socio Economic Council (SER) building – an advisory council where unions and corporate parties discuss socio-economic issues – to protest the dominance of grey man in the negotiation between employers and employees. He also stalked Geert Wilders for weeks during the constitutional campaign of 2005.
Political advisor Carla Pauw introduced him to the inner circle around Alexander Pechtold. The high achiever from Amsterdam also contributed to Joris Backer’s set of principles. Now, at thirty, he has managed to knock Labour off the throne in the capital. When we speak he is right in the middle of negotiations about a new council cabinet. One candidate cabinet member he had already managed to present via Twitter: secretary-general of the Ministry of General Affairs (PM’s office), Kajsa Ollongren.
Paternotte knew that he could get electoral support from highly educated young parents, who were fed up with the PvdA-dominated town hall that tried to decide for them which school they had to send their children to. The support of students was also pretty certain. But the big surprise came when political scientist André Krouwel pointed out a few weeks before the elections that D66 was enjoying sudden support from Turkish and Moroccan Dutch. “From that moment onward I thought, we can become the biggest in Amsterdam.”
He explains how a business-like and goal-oriented D66 worked on the preparations of the municipality elections. For years previously, the candidate list and manifesto had been scrambled together during the last months. Now they were ready in September 2013. The main theme of the election would be education. Experts like Thom de Graaf, currently president of the Council of Polytechnics, were being asked for advice. An education team visited all schools, even in problem areas such as Amsterdam North and New-West. In May last year Paternotte already had a list of possible cabinet members. “You can see that attention paid to scouting and coaching pays itself off now. I have the feeling that I belong to a professional club.”
A year before his death in 2010 D66 founder Hans van Mierlo gave his last interview to Vrij Nederland (available to read in Dutch here). It was about the many electoral peaks and valleys that the party had experienced since 1966. Van Mierlo compared the election results of the Democrats to the flight of a Wagtail: a bird which keeps gliding down and then climbs up again. “The disadvantage of a party which flies low, is that it can hit the bottom. With a small party such as D66 that is always a possibility.”
Did D66 improve its flying skills? Are the higher parts of the sky finally reached? Gerard Schouw is not so sure about that yet. “We have been performing above expectations for the last seven years,” says the author of Ready for the Climb. “If you make a plan together, and it actually comes true, then that is amazing. But it has only really succeeded if we carry on like this for another ten years.”
Alexander Pechtold adds, “If we manage that, then we have transformed from a Wagtail into a migrant bird”.
Van Mierlo’s 1967 campaign video
The most famous clip of Hans van Mierlo is undoubtedly the 1967 campaign video, in which the D66 founder walks along a canal in a long rain coat, addressing the viewer via the voice-over. On arriving at a broadcasting studio, he takes his place in front of the camera: “I have to try and explain it well”. In the clip Van Mierlo doesn’t only speak about his belief in political reform, he also confesses how chaotic the founding of the young party had been: “Don’t ask me how, and with which concerns, and how quickly it had to happen”.’The lack of a professional party structure would haunt D66 for decades after.