Progressive politics, Danish style

Published in (Wellington), 12 June 2019

Denmark last Wednesday elected a Social Democrat-led government – so what else is new?

Along with its Scandinavian neighbour Sweden, Denmark is the quintessential social democracy. Few other countries have such a large welfare state and such a historically strong social democratic party that built it.

Still, the election of the Danish social democrats’ leader Mette Frederiksen, 41, as Denmark’s designated next prime minister is far from business-as-usual for three reasons. And they are worth analysing, especially for the benefit of other centre-left parties worldwide.

First, since November 2001 Denmark has had only one social democrat prime minister and for just under four years (Helle Thorning-Schmidt from October 2011 to June 2015). For the rest of the time, the right-of-centre Venstre party nominated the head of government (Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Lars Løkke Rasmussen).

Second, the election of any social democrat in Europe these days is newsworthy because of the sorry state of Europe’s mainstream centre-left parties. In Germany, the once proud SPD is down to 12 percent in opinion polls; in France, the traditional Parti socialiste scored 6 percent in the European Parliament elections; and in Greece, the once-dominant PASOK party does not even exist anymore.

Third, the Danish social democrats got elected by developing an unusual platform, transcending the usual left or right spectrum. They were simultaneously right and left, just on different issues. It worked for them.

Coming from the left wing of her party, not surprisingly, Frederiksen campaigned on traditional left-of-centre policies. The Social Democrats thus pledged to do more for the environment while also spending more on education and healthcare. Hardly any other centre-left party would object to those positions. On any of these matters, there is little that would differentiate Mette Frederiksen from Jacinda Ardern.

On immigration, however, Denmark’s Social Democrats took a stance more typically associated with right-wing and even right-populist parties. By New Zealand standards, not even New Zealand First would dare to run on the platform presented by Frederiksen and her party.

When still in opposition, the Social Democrats backed the previous centre-right coalition government’s restrictive policies on migrants, refugees and multiculturalism. This included a controversial ban to wear the burqa and niqab in public.

During the election campaign, Frederiksen’s party argued for a cap on non-Western migrants, processing asylum seekers’ claims in North African reception centres, and requiring refugees to work for their benefits.

Despite belonging to the same global network of parties, the Progressive Alliance, there could not be a bigger gap on multiculturalism and immigration between New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her soon-to-be Danish counterpart Mette Frederiksen.

Frederiksen is aware how unusual and uncomfortable the positions of her party must appear to her political friends elsewhere. In a recent biography of her, Danish journalist Thomas Larsen writes about a meeting Frederiksen had with other European social democrats in Lisbon. At that meeting, Frederiksen explained why she had shifted her party so far to the right on immigration.

According to her biographer, Frederiksen’s starting point was the realisation that traditional social democrat voters were feeling the negative impacts of globalisation by loss of employee rights, increasing inequality, and fears resulting from uncontrolled migration. Social democrats, so her argument went, needed to take these fears seriously to win back trust. This meant not allowing more migrants to arrive than can be integrated.

Frederiksen’s political calculation would have been that such a positioning of the Social Democrats would win back people who might have otherwise voted for right-wing populists. Meanwhile, other left-leaning parties would retain enough support for an overall left-leaning majority.

As last week’s election result showed, this calculation worked. The right-wing populist Danish People’s Party saw its share of the vote more than halved from 21.1 percent in the 2015 election to just 8.7 percent. Meanwhile, the so-called ‘Red Bloc’ of left-of-centre parties led by Frederiksen’s Social Democrats won 93 of the 179 seats of the Folketing, four more than in 2015, and thus enough for a parliamentary majority.

The Danish Social Democrats’ success has been noticed in other European countries. In Germany, for example, former SPD chair and ex-foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel wrote an opinion article arguing that Denmark could inspire his own party. As Gabriel argued, the Danish Social Democrats had maintained a “good understanding of their traditional electorate” – something that could not be said of Gabriel’s party.

Indeed, one might wonder whether this is the difference between the Danish social democrats and other mainstream centre-right parties worldwide. For example, was it not the intellectual remoteness of the Australian Labor Party from their traditional voters outside the inner cities that was at least partially responsible for Bill Shorten’s loss at the Australian federal election?

Perhaps that is the key lesson from the Danish Social Democrats’ success: Not that it was driven by an anti- uncontrolled immigration sentiment but that it reflected the concerns of the party’s traditional milieu?

We will have to watch with interest what shape Frederiksen’s new government takes – and how much of its anti-migration rhetoric will become policy. Nevertheless, Frederiksen’s strategic repositioning of the Danish Social Democrats is one of the most interesting political manoeuvres in European politics.

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