In his first public appearance since his resignation as chairman of Vooruit, a detached Conner Rousseau unintentionally exposed in detail why his departure, despite support within and outside the party, was the only solution. “I was looking for my Trump wall, but on the left.”
Just before Conner Rousseau enters the stage of the Behavioral Design Fest, he literally receives a pat on the back from the organization. In the pitch-dark hall with about 150 people present, he has just been announced as ‘one of the most discussed politicians of the past four years in Belgium’ and ‘the most popular politician until his resignation in November’.
Not a word was said about the reason for his resignation on Friday afternoon during the conference on the outskirts of Amsterdam, for which the hip marketing crowd present paid 395 euros. Since Rousseau resigned as chairman of Vooruit in November last year after drunken racist and sexist statements, and later as a Flemish Member of Parliament, he has worked as a consultant for Sue & The Alchemists, the Dutch communications company behind this event, which was organized by, among others, former -VVD minister Klaas Dijkhoff was founded.
Earlier this week, Vooruit announced that Rousseau will not become East Flemish party leader in the elections in June. The position of list pusher is still being kept open, but in his first (semi-)public performance since his departure, the now 31-year-old resident of Sint-Niklaas gives a detached impression. He still wears white sneakers and darker T-shirts with rolled-up sleeves, but corrects himself when he calls himself a politician. ‘Out.’
Despite the blow that Rousseau received, according to party members, he seems far from losing his self-confidence. “I will be away from politics in Belgium for two-three months,” says a visibly relaxed Rousseau when talking about authenticity. ‘There are a huge number of wannabes who copy me, but people can smell that. They still haven’t packed my place, you know? People who were fans of me are not suddenly fans of the B version. That’s not how it works.’ Some awkward laughter followed. Rousseau does not explain who he is targeting.
The distance he took from the Wetstraat and the setting of the speech enable Rousseau in Amsterdam to offer a revealing insight into the strategy he used to put Vooruit back on the map.
The distance he took from the Wetstraat and the setting of the speech also enable Rousseau in Amsterdam to offer a revealing insight into the strategy he used to put Vooruit back on the map, after a decade of electoral decline. And with this insight, under the title ‘How the left can win back the people’, Rousseau himself explains in detail why his statements were so damaging to Vooruit that – despite his popularity within and outside the party – he only saw his dismissal as a solution. .
Rousseau explains how, after the failed 2019 elections, he inherited a party that did well in substantive voting tests, but could hardly seduce voters. ‘We are emotional beings. 98 percent of our decisions are based on emotions.” This is how he begins his fiery plea for an ‘attacking’ left-wing politics from the gut, which meanders from the low-emission zone in Ghent to the American presidential elections. ‘Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight. Don’t bring facts to a frame war. Politics is about getting votes.’
His strategy? To reconnect with two important electoral groups that the then SP.A had lost in his view: young people and the working class, which Rousseau consistently called ‘average working class people’ in his newly learned jargon. As the youngest party chairman ever who was hyperactive on social media, that first problem disappeared immediately, says Rousseau.
Make sure people ask the winning question, to which your party is the answer. We were not the winner on any question.
Former chairman Vooruit
‘Focus on what you do, be disciplined in what you don’t do’ was the mantra he imposed on the party to attract the second category. “In this way I managed to get on board a group of people who were green-left cosmopolitan and who had somehow ended up in my party,” says Rousseau. ‘Because that’s how we could win elections.’
Rousseau instructed that ‘all focus’ should go to socio-economic themes, such as work, purchasing power, pensions, education or childcare. Hence the choice to claim the federal portfolio of Health and Social Affairs with Frank Vandenbroucke at all costs. “Everything had to be framed in the welfare state,” says Rousseau.
The party had to remain silent in all languages on socio-cultural themes such as migration or identity. ‘We were not going to participate in the culture war or the woke discussion.’ This focus arises from the political science reality that voters vote for the party they associate – not rationally but emotionally – with the dominant theme. “Make sure people ask the winning question, to which your party is the answer,” says Rousseau. ‘We were not the winner on any question.’
To appeal to the emotional gut of the voter, shortcuts, symbols, are needed. In the context of the purchasing power debate during the pandemic, Rousseau cites as an example the wall that former American President Donald Trump promised to build on the border with Mexico. Inflation and wage indexations are rational terms that appeal to few people. “I was looking for my Trump wall, but on the left.”
The answer: Debora, the supermarket cashier who Rousseau conjured up from his hat during the corona crisis as a symbol for the hardworking Flemish. During the discussion about the subsequent purchasing power premium for employees of a company with high profits, even Prime Minister Alexander De Croo (Open VLD) referred to the woman. “You always have to play the same stimulus,” says Rousseau. ‘And if another stimulus comes up, you have to guide people back.’ Joe Biden fails in this and Trump triumphs, Rousseau believes.
Vooruit would never be the answer to the question ‘who will bully foreigners the most’, according to Rousseau. ‘The left is having a hard time, because we have been playing on someone else’s field for 40 years. Facts don’t matter if you don’t tell the right story first.’ Vooruit had to and would become top of mind for all socio-economic themes, which in turn had to dominate the political debate. After two years of presidency, Rousseau, who refers to internal polls, said he had succeeded.
Best poll ever
Only then can you ‘deviate from the line’, says Rousseau. He then refers to his statement two years ago that he does not feel at home in Molenbeek, which provoked a huge controversy. His spokesman advised Rousseau to have the passage removed from the interview in question, but Rousseau saw an opportunity in it. ‘In my bubble I received very negative reactions after the publication, but on the street everyone understood me.’
The left is having a hard time because we have been playing on someone else’s field for 40 years. Facts don’t matter if you don’t tell the right story first.
‘The poll afterward was our best ever and I was the most popular politician.’ Rousseau claims in Amsterdam that with the attention generated he created interest in the left-wing solutions that his party proposed to help places like Molenbeek get better, but that is a disguise of reality. Attention was focused on social problems on which the right is capitalizing according to its theory.
It shows the Achilles heel of Rousseau’s strategy: it is impossible for the left to remain silent on socio-cultural debates, and yet it only seems harmful. The same mechanism made it impossible for Rousseau to frame the statements that led to his dismissal – especially given their extremity – in his narrative and thus fit his party strategy.
Rousseau himself came up against the one mantra he had insisted on in his party all those years: silence everything from which we cannot gain. The journalists present who wanted more explanation or tried to gauge his preference for being on the list were there in Amsterdam for the effort. After the applause, Rousseau rushed away as quickly as he had arrived.