From being “Different” to moving “Forward”: The rebranding of the Flemish Socialist Party
If one were to believe certain (extreme) right-wing politicians, then one would consider the term “socialism” to be a negatively loaded concept. According to them, “socialists” are economically illiterate, free spending nanny-state[i] lovers, who - as the hypocrites they are - do not walk the talk of their own proposals.[ii] In some countries, this perception even translates to slurs such as champagne socialism, smoked salmon socialism, gauche caviar (the caviar left-wing), and many others. All used as insults to describe self-identified socialists, whose luxurious upper middle-class or "preppy" lifestyles are ostensibly in conflict with their political beliefs.[iii]
While he did not state so explicitly, Conner Rousseau would have undoubtedly had this in the back of his mind at the moment he decided it was time to “modernize” his party. As such, after he became the chairman of the Flemish socialist party in 2019, he instigated a renewal process. Internally, the renewal process meant that the structures and ways of working were to be addressed. Externally, it meant that the party would get a new name, logo, and way of profiling itself.[iv]
In this article, the focus will be on the external modernization process. It will examine this in the broader context of political party rebranding. To situate this clearly, the article will start by briefly explaining the concept of political party (re)branding and providing relevant examples of the use thereof. Hereafter, the focus will be on the rebranding done by the Flemish socialist party - respectively going into the various components that detail the followed process. To conclude, a contemplation will be made on the ingenuity and added value of the party’s rebranding in light of the current political context.
Political party (re)branding
Political parties face a continuing electoral drag if the symbolic value of their public identity - or party brand - remains weighed down with past political baggage.[v] In addition, a strong continuing association with past political controversies generates electoral challenges that generally get reflected in diminished election results. As a consequence, political parties have resorted to periodically rebranding themselves in order to improve their public image, reputation, competitive positioning and emotional connection with electors.[vi] For better or worse, the reality of most modern democracies is that to win elections, strong political branding is just as important as strong policy. Image matters. A damaged brand cannot win elections, no matter how popular the policies. When a political brand is damaged, political rebranding is in order.[vii]
In light of this reality, political parties have increasingly turned to expert consultants, opinion poll data, and focus group research to provide the raw materials needed to consider the rebuilding (or, less substantively, repackaging) of their “party brand” - to increase the public appeal of their policy platform.[viii] Considerations in this regard have, amongst others, led to the rebranding of the British Labour party into New Labour by Tony Blair, the rebranding of Front National to Rassemblement National by Marine Le Pen, and the rebranding of the Lega Nord to Lega by Matteo Salvini. But similar considerations undoubtedly have also led to the creation of new parties such as La République En Marche! in France and Servant of the People in Ukraine.
The rebranding of the Flemish Socialist party
Looking at the Flemish Socialist Party, one has to situate their latest rebranding within the chairmanship of Connor Rousseau. After he was elected as the new chairman of Socialistische Partij Anders (Socialist Party Different) in November 2019, he proclaimed a new direction was urgently needed to break with the outdated party structures.[ix] Initially, this meant that structures and the way of working were to be addressed. More concretely, the autonomy of local chapters was curtailed and more centralisation was introduced to achieve greater unity of command. In addition, the party’s research and communication departments were expanded and the national headquarters moved to the building where the Walloon sister party Parti Socialiste has its offices.[x]
After the internal processes were dealt with, Rousseau moved on to dealing with the external aspects - getting the party a new name, logo, and way of profiling itself.[xi] To do this, he asked and received a mandate from the party bureau to pursue this.[xii]
On 9 September 2020, after the preliminary deliberations were finished, the party bureau gave the final and unanimous go-ahead, whereafter Rousseau announced - with great enthusiasm - the new party name: VOORUIT (Forward).[xiii]
For a party that has been around for 144 years, VOORUIT embodies their sixth new identity.[xiv] It represents a nod to the past, as it refers to the eponymous first socialist newspaper in Flanders.[xv] At the same time, it also provides a look to the future. VOORUIT no longer presents itself as a party, but as a broad centre-left movement that can act as a counterweight to a centre-right block.[xvi]
The name change did provoke a lot of protest, however. Among others from the Vooruit arts centre in Ghent that bears the same name. By its own admission, Vooruit Ghent was faced with a fait accompli. Which, according to Vooruit Ghent’s general coordinator Franky Devos, made it unworkable for them and necessary to look for a new name.[xvii] In addition, a number of localised parties that bear the name 'Vooruit' also opposed the change of name of the socialist party, as they feared becoming intrinsically linked with it.[xviii]
Nevertheless, Rousseau moved forward and did not let this stop him from working towards an official launch for the new brand of the Flemish Socialists. This was initially planned for December 2020, but was postponed - due to the COVID-19 crisis - to the symbolic date of 21 March - the beginning of spring and the Dag van de Zorg (the Flemish Day for the Healthcare).[xix]
As the COVID-19 crisis did not allow for physical events to go through, the launch was eventually organised digitally via virtual reality. This allowed various prominent figures of the party to come together in a virtual space without being physically in the same room.[xx]
At the event, Rousseau went further in detail about the new project. Looking ahead, he said, VOORUIT wants to think about how to make Belgium the best country in the world. In addition, he claimed, VOORUIT wants to do politics in a different way - by listening and getting things moving on a daily basis, thereby breaking the sluggishness, stagnation, and degradation caused by traditional politics.[xxi]
However, no major new thinking or visionary ideas were put forward by Rousseau. And he also stressed that the core values of the party - solidarity, justice, equality and freedom - would remain the same.[xxii] Leaving some to wonder in what way VOORUIT (except for its name) differs from the former Socialistische Partij Anders.[xxiii]
Assessing the Flemish socialist party’s rebranding, one can see similarities with other rebranding efforts. For example, similar to Tony Blair’s New Labour, VOORUIT’s brand follows a young, energetic politician’s rise to party leader; which, in doing so, embodies the forward-looking vision of the new political brand. By rebranding, both Rousseau and Blair sought to signal a break from the past and the - in their eyes - damaged socialist brand; thereby positioning their parties to occupy the “centre ground” - whether ideologically or perceptually.[xxiv]
VOORUIT’s positioning as a political movement - rather than a political party - also strikes similarities with movement-like parties such as the Five Star Movement in Italy and La République En Marche! in France. As such, it would seem that Rousseau senses this to be the current political zeitgeist and consequently a recipe for electoral successes. However, his attempt to make a new movement out of an existing party is something that to date has no precedence in European politics.[xxv] The question thus arises: is the Socialist Party's foray into VOORUIT anything more than a political marketing operation - set around the person of new chairman Conner Rousseau?
Regardless of how one perceives it, the reality is that a rebranding in itself is never an element of success. It can be a success, however, if it accompanies other elements. Think, for example, of New Labour’s accompanying political manifesto (New Labour, New Life for Britain)[xxvi]; or Servant of the People’s announcement that Volodymyr Zelensky - who played the role of President of Ukraine in the eponymous TV series - would be their candidate for the 2019 Ukrainian presidential election.[xxvii] From the outset, this aspect seems to be overlooked with VOORUIT’s rebranding.
Many reasonably expected that the party would present its new brand with a few elaborate new ideas or perhaps even political newcomers.[xxviii] But, as mentioned above, no major innovative thinking or visionary ideas were put forward; nor were the core values of the party changed. Nevertheless, this ambiguity might also provide an opportunity for the new brand to be successful. After all, VOORUIT represents ideals - solidarity, justice, equality and freedom - with which large swathes of the population can identify. And perhaps if the - as (extreme) right wing politicians would describe: toxic - socialist label were removed, feel comfortable to identify with.
[i] A term of British origin that conveys a view that a government or its policies are overprotective or interfering unduly with personal choice. See: Wheeler, Brian. “Are We Living in a 'Nanny State'?” BBC News, October 11, 2018. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-45356189. [ii] Moore, Matthew. “Champagne Socialists 'Not as Left Wing as They Think They Are'.” The Telegraph, July 14, 2010. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/7887888/Champagne-socialists-not-as-left-wing-as-they-think-they-are.html. [iii] Khorsandi, Shappi. “'As a Proud Champagne Socialist, I Know That Having Money Doesn't Have to Stop You Believing in Equality'.” The Independent, November 2, 2018. https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/socialism-equality-money-poor-working-class-welfare-politics-economy-a8614226.html. [iv] Van den Broeck, Karl. “SP.A Grijpt Terug Naar Naam Met Geschiedenis: VOORUIT.” Apache, September 10, 2020. https://www.apache.be/2020/09/09/sp-a-grijpt-terug-naar-naam-met-geschiedenis-vooruit/. [v] Broome, André. 2009. “Rebranding the Right: Political Baggage and the Redefinition of Party Identity.” Paper prepared for presentation at the Political Studies Association Annual Conference. Manchester: 2 [vi] Marland, Alex, and Tom Flanagan. “Brand New Party: Political Branding and the Conservative Party of Canada.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 46, no. 4 (2013): 951. [vii] Michael Box. “What Marketers Can Learn from the Successful Rebranding of Britain's Political Parties.” Skyword, last modified November 3, 2017, https://www.skyword.com/contentstandard/what-marketers-can-learn-from-the-successful-rebranding-of-britains-political-parties/. [viii] Savigny, Heather. “Focus Groups and Political Marketing: Science and Democracy as Axiomatic?” British Journal of Politics and International Relations 9, no. 1 (2007): 122-37. [ix] Torbeyns, Anouk. “SP.A Is Officieel Vooruit: 'Definitief Afstand Van De Stilstand'.” De Standaard, March 21, 2021. https://www.standaard.be/cnt/dmf20210321_93744731?M_BT=1078086801556&_section=65832196&adh_i=b86b7b384d2d0b1f1ecdac400e30f9ea&imai=&utm_campaign=middagupdate&utm_medium=newsletter&utm_source=standaard. [x] Lesaffer, Pieter. “Hij Wil Meer Solidariteit Én Een Nieuwe Naam: SP.A Stemt Massaal in Met Rousseaus Vernieuwingsoperatie.” Het Nieuwsblad, June 16, 2020. https://www.nieuwsblad.be/cnt/dmf20200615_04991839. [xi] Van den Broeck, Karl. “SP.A Grijpt Terug Naar Naam Met Geschiedenis: VOORUIT.” Apache, September 10, 2020. https://www.apache.be/2020/09/09/sp-a-grijpt-terug-naar-naam-met-geschiedenis-vooruit/. [xii] DBA. “‘VOORUIT’: Sp.a Verandert Van Naam .” De Morgen, September 9, 2020. https://www.demorgen.be/politiek/vooruit-sp-a-verandert-van naam~b4da85dc6/?ctm_ctid=bdceadc6820b327d87575a31431b8198. [xiii] DBA. “‘VOORUIT’: Sp.a Verandert Van Naam .” De Morgen, September 9, 2020. https://www.demorgen.be/politiek/vooruit-sp-a-verandert-van naam~b4da85dc6/?ctm_ctid=bdceadc6820b327d87575a31431b8198. [xiv] Van den Broecke, Sander. “Conner Rousseau Lanceert ‘Vooruit’: Een Naam Zonder ‘Socialist’, Maar Met Vooruitzicht Op Een Standbeeld?” HLN, March 21, 2021. https://www.hln.be/binnenland/conner-rousseau-lanceert-vooruit-een-naam-zonder-socialist-maar-met-vooruitzicht-op-een-standbeeld~aea0223e/. [xv] Guy Vanschoenbeek. “Vooruit (1884-1991).” NEVB Online. Accessed April 7, 2021. https://nevb.be/wiki/Vooruit_(1884-1991). [xvi] Depuydt, Piet. “Rousseau wil met ‘Vooruit’ oorlogsmachine om opnieuw verkiezingen te winnen.” De Tijd, March 21, 2021. https://www.tijd.be/politiek-economie/belgie/algemeen/rousseau-wil-met-vooruit-oorlogsmachine-om-opnieuw-verkiezingen-te-winnen/10292634.html. [xvii] Tielens, Filip, and Marie Garré. “Kunstencentrum Vooruit Verandert Naam Na Commotie Met SP.A.” De Standaard, November 23, 2020. https://www.standaard.be/cnt/dmf20201123_95512284. [xviii] Winckelmans, Wim. “Lokale Vooruit-Partijen in Verzet Tegen Vooruit.” De Standaard, February 19, 2021. https://www.standaard.be/cnt/dmf20210218_97904719. [xix] Callens, Florian. “Sp.a Heet Nu Ook Officieel Vooruit: ‘Van Ons Land Beste Land Ter Wereld Maken.’” Newsmonkey, March 21, 2021. https://newsmonkey.be/sp-a-officieel-vooruit/. [xx] Belga. “SP.A Heet Voortaan Officieel Vooruit, Voorzitter Rousseau: ‘Breuk Met Oude Politiek.’” VRT NWS, March 21, 2021. https://www.vrt.be/vrtnws/nl/2021/03/21/sp-a-wordt-vooruit/. [xxi] Depuydt, Piet. “Rousseau wil met ‘Vooruit’ oorlogsmachine om opnieuw verkiezingen te winnen.” De Tijd, March 21, 2021. https://www.tijd.be/politiek-economie/belgie/algemeen/rousseau-wil-met-vooruit-oorlogsmachine-om-opnieuw-verkiezingen-te-winnen/10292634.html. [xxii] Depuydt, Piet. “Rousseau wil met ‘Vooruit’ oorlogsmachine om opnieuw verkiezingen te winnen.” De Tijd, March 21, 2021. https://www.tijd.be/politiek-economie/belgie/algemeen/rousseau-wil-met-vooruit-oorlogsmachine-om-opnieuw-verkiezingen-te-winnen/10292634.html. [xxiii] Dujardin, Dieter. “Komt Er Echt Beweging in Vooruit?” De Tijd, March 22, 2021. https://www.tijd.be/politiek-economie/belgie/algemeen/komt-er-echt-beweging-in-vooruit/10292832.html. [xxiv] Michael Box. “What Marketers Can Learn from the Successful Rebranding of Britain's Political Parties.” Skyword, last modified November 3, 2017, https://www.skyword.com/contentstandard/what-marketers-can-learn-from-the-successful-rebranding-of-britains-political-parties/. [xxv] Eeckhout, Bart. “Wat Zit Er Achter De Façade Van Vooruit?” De Morgen, March 27, 2021. https://www.demorgen.be/politiek/wat-zit-er-achter-de-facade-van-vooruit~b7d070bf/. [xxvi] Blair, Tony. “1997 Labour Party Manifesto: New Labour Because Britain Deserves Better.” Archive of Labour Party Manifestos, July 4, 1996. http://www.labour-party.org.uk/manifestos/1997/1997-labour-manifesto.shtml. [xxvii] Ray, Michael. “Volodymyr Zelensky.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Last modified September 27, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Volodymyr-Zelensky#ref1274321. [xxviii] Dujardin, Dieter. “Komt Er Echt Beweging in Vooruit?” De Tijd, March 22, 2021. https://www.tijd.be/politiek-economie/belgie/algemeen/komt-er-echt-beweging-in-vooruit/10292832.html.