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Alumni About alumni In the footsteps of Aletta Jacobs

'It seemed only logical to me that people should be equal'

Renske Leijten, member of the House of Representatives for the Socialistische Partij (SP)
Renske Leijten
Renske Leijten

Text: Sara Plat, translation: UVC

You had to laugh when you got the request for this interview.
‘Yes, I had to chuckle a bit. Back then, I wasn’t allowed to graduate, and now the University wants to brag about me.’ Leijten earned a Bachelor’s degree in Dutch at the University of Groningen, but she has yet to complete the Master’s programme. ‘I finished my thesis twice and, twice, it didn’t quite make it. The second time, I had already moved house to the western part of the country, where I was working as Jan Marijnissen’s go-to person. I got stranded at the finish, and not a metre before. It was a real shame. I often think: I'll start over, I'll go back a few weeks, write a thesis and finish it. But once you get out of the scientific world, that's really complicated. As if language and content no longer are related to each other. I no longer have any connection with the scientific language. Politics is normal human language, I have now taken a step towards that.'

How were your student days in Groningen?
‘It was a good time. I lived in an upstairs flat on Parkweg: a small room just under the roof on the side facing the street. I was active in all kinds of circles, but not necessarily in student circles. I had a part-time job at the post office, surrounded by true Groningers. When I went home for the weekend, my mother would say, “You can stop swallowing your en’s for a while”. Before I went to Groningen, I had already studied political science in Amsterdam for a year. But I couldn't break free from my home life at home, and I was really ready for that. In Groningen it worked out.'

You had the ambition to study journalism, a major at the UG, and Dutch, but ultimately you pursued only Dutch. Why?
’ I discovered a passion for language. Language is always associated with culture, with things that have happened. I was also fascinated by language skills and the development of language. One of the greatest insights that I gained through my study of Dutch is that form and content should be one and the same, whether it’s about a film, a book, or a political text. It should make sense, be true, and be credible.’

Why did you join the youth movement of the Socialist Party (SP) in Groningen during your studies?
‘I had no affinity with municipal politics. That wasn’t my motivation, but I am an activist. It seemed only logical to me that people should be equal. I can’t stand injustice. It sets off a great deal of energy in me. We went after the landlords, the University administrators. We filled buses headed for the protests against the war in Iraq, that sort of thing. The willingness of people to take action on behalf of others and to take a stand against injustice, be it major or minor, is quite strong. In the end, it often turns out that people share the same interest. I really enjoy the element of connecting and organizing. It takes time, and it takes effort. If it becomes apparent that you’re pursuing a dead end, you should stop immediately. I also had to learn how to let go, including in politics. I have a hard time stepping aside when I think I’m right.’

Was it a logical next step to ge t a job as a member of the House of Representatives ?
'Eventualy Yes. I decided to become a member of the SP on my own initiative, but then I was asked to participate in an action, and then another. Later, Jan Marijnissen asked me if I’d like to come to The Hague. I recently attended a reunion at my secondary school. No one was surprised about what I was doing, and particularly not about my party. Although the environment I came from was not explicitly leftist, it was very socially committed. My parents worked for the Child Protection Council and operated a family care home. It was firmly impressed upon me that the government should also act as a shield for the weakest members of society, to put it in high-minded terms. To me, privatization—selling things that belong to all of us—is incomprehensible.But, if this opportunity had not come along, I would now be teaching Dutch at a nice school in Groningen. I don’t think that I’d ever have returned to the West. People are created by circumstances. You are asked to do things. They are offered to you, and they come at the right time.'

The social-benefit payment scandal (toeslagenaffair) is a benchmark in your political work. What is your main finding from that?
‘This is history in the making. It affects so very many people. It exposes the fact that we are situated within a political system that looks down on people. Some people are clearly considered more important than others, and I think that’s awful. All of the people who were affected by the scandal were facing injustice alone. In many cases, not even their families believed them. I would like to see government policy allow more room for departing from rigid rules that make people truly impoverished and that stifle their voices.’

Has the benefit payment scandal changed your job?
‘It has put me in an odd situation. Because the scandal is so visible, people are now equating me with the fight, and this has turned me into an important person. That’s not why I got into politics. It’s not about me. I’m only a tool. But now that people are listening to me, I’m obviously going to make use of it. I’m going to say what I have to say, or help if I think that I can help.’

The most famous statement by the founder of this interview series, Aletta Jacobs, might well be the following: ‘The call for justice demands a sense of duty’. Do you identify with this?
‘Absolutely! Practically speaking, if people were to demand only their own rights, we would no longer be a society. At the same time: in society, you have the right to be who you are and to become who you want to be, but you also have the duty to participate in society—to vote and to engage with others. This doesn’t have to be exaggerated. It could be your neighbour, it could be your children, it could be your volleyball club. I think that most people just do these things. In my opinion, if we were to assign more value to this engagement, if we were to see it more, this would help to relax things a bit more. The fact is, however, that we are living in a society in which it’s more important to say what your occupation is and how much you earn than to say what you do for your neighbours.’

Renske Leijten

Renske Leijten (1979, Leiden) lives with her husband and two children in Haarlem. She studied Dutch Language and Culture at the UG and obtained her bachelor's degree in 2004. During her studies she became active for ROOD, the youth movement of the Socialist Party (SP). After her bachelor she opted completely for politics. Leijten has served in the House of Representatives of the Netherlands as a member of the SP since 2006 . She was in charge of the health and youth care portfolio from 2006 to 2017, and subsequently with the finance, Europe and the EU portfolio. Currently she is spokesperson for Home Affairs, Digital Affairs and Economic Affairs and Climate. In 2019, together with Pieter Omtzigt, she denounced the social-benefit payment scandal in 2019.

Last modified:03 December 2021 09.52 a.m.
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