When the Pie Shrinks
For decades, Denmark’s Social Democrats have preached compromises between capital and labor to share out the proceeds of growth. What they can't explain is how come today workers are getting less and less.
- Interview by
- Lukas Slothuus
The June 5 general election in Denmark saw a victory for Mette Frederiksen’s Social Democrats, the collapse of the right-populist Danish People’s Party, and a general shift to the left. Yet even amid this positive picture, a fierce debate has ensued about the degree to which the Social Democrats have pandered to the far-right’s agenda, and who is really defending the labor movement’s values.
One of the two main forces to the left of Frederiksen’s party is the Red-Green Alliance (Enhedslisten), which took 7 percent support in the election, electing 13 of 179 MPs in the Folketing. It was established in 1989 by the Danish Communist Party, the Left Socialists, and the Socialist Workers’ Party, and over the past two decades, it has grown from an insignificant fringe party to a consolidated force in Danish politics.
Pelle Dragsted, widely considered to be one of the party’s key theoreticians and leaders, stepped down at this election after his own two terms as an MP. Lukas Slothuus spoke to him about the election results, the formation of a new left bloc, and the undermining of the traditional base of Danish social democracy.
What’s the takeaway lesson from the election in Denmark?
The great story of this election is the total meltdown on the Right — a massive shift. The Danish People’s Party lost more than half its support and even the two new more extreme right-wing parties Hard Line (Stram Kurs) and New Right (Nye Borgerlige) made up hardly any of the difference. The hard right has been completely dominant in Danish politics for almost twenty years — in a sense, this is the end of an era.
It will take a long time to rebuild the Right, which has been totally atomized. Its parties are now sharpening their knives — both internally and in their relation to each other. The libertarians (the Liberal Alliance) were completely obliterated, to the extent that their founder and leader was booted out of parliament, while New Right will struggle massively, since its ultimate demands are simply unattainable without Denmark leaving the European Union. It is difficult to see a right-wing government again.
The other important result of the election was a strengthening of the left-wing parties. The three parties to the left of the Social Democrats had their best-ever election, winning thirty-two seats (fourteen for the Socialist People’s Party, thirteen for Red-Green Alliance, five for The Alternative). This contributed to the overall opposition victory. But the Social Liberals, an economically more right-wing party which is also part of the opposition bloc, also advanced significantly, which could make it hard for a new government to push forward progressive policies.
The Red-Green Alliance was expected to grow but in fact lost a little ground. Why is that?
One main reason is the European Union. The Red-Green Alliance has always faced something of a conflict between our platform of getting Denmark out of the European Union and the views among our voters. This gap has grown much, much bigger since Brexit.
We cooperate very closely with both Podemos and La France Insoumise. Right now, these movements are not that strong, but it’s clear that we must play an active role on the European left to create change both inside and outside the European Union.
But opposition to leaving the European Union is widespread among the general population, and perhaps especially on the Left. The European Union is — rightly or wrongly — perceived as a safeguard against the right-wing nationalist advance across Europe. There’s all kinds of possible objections to that position, but I understand people might think that if we abolish the European Union tomorrow the alternative mightn’t be better.
You mean that some kind of vacuum will occur?
Yes, and what will fill that vacuum? I think that’s the idea many people have when you see Salvini, Le Pen, the Brexit Party. Can you be sure that it will be filled in a way that benefits ordinary people? I think that’s the doubt many people have. And because of this, they have struggled with our very rigid position and rhetoric. And it’s a question that people keep bringing up on the doorstep.
A second reason we have been challenged by is the equivalence drawn between the far left and the far right. The fact that a party as hard right as Hard Line emerged helped establish a public discourse about the dangers of radical politics, which damaged us.
You mean when Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen insisted that you were just as extreme as the far right?
There was a targeted campaign by right-wing politicians and right-wing media to paint a picture of the responsible centrist parties versus the radical fringe. We were lumped together with the latter. That campaign may have had some success, with people moving a little towards the center instead of being furthest to the left. Although our politics are in no way extreme, the mere fact of being the furthest left might have some kind of psychological effect.
In the sense that there may be some voters who think that the Socialist People’s Party (SF) is a little more . . . palatable?
A little softer. It was only a few years ago that our program still called for dissolving the police and the military. We are, after all, a party with an origin that many will perceive as extreme. Even though we have changed a lot over the past ten years, many still recall past positions or are doubtful about where we really stand on some of these questions. At the same time, SF’s different position on the European Union is often the “difference that makes the difference” when our program otherwise has many similarities.
Previously the Red-Green Alliance has threatened to topple a Social Democratic government. What’s the party’s position on that now?
In the current negotiations, we will put forward a set of broader aims. We don’t want another government (like the outgoing center-right one) that increases inequality, makes workers’ positions more insecure through labor market reforms, doesn’t take the climate threat seriously, and violates international conventions and human rights. Social welfare policy must be improved, not cut. That’s our minimum.
On top of that we must then demand further concessions like minimum standards in public institutions (a limit on the ratio of staff to children in nurseries: the BUPL union demands a 1:3 ratio for under-threes and 1:6 for three-to-six-year olds), a climate law, and restarting the refugee resettlement program that the center-right government ended in 2017.
If, like the last time we had a Social Democratic administration, we see them break these promises, then we’re very clear that we will not remain part of the government’s base in parliament. This will either lead to a new government forming, in which the Social Democrats collaborate with the Right, or a new election being held. Or them conceding to our demands! Of course, this last option is what we would prefer. The government must promise that it will not increase inequality or worsen workers’ conditions.
What can an international audience learn from the Red-Green Alliance? What’s your position on left-wing populism which several left parties have embraced across Europe?
The task is still to try to build an alternative government to the left of the Social Democrats. So being part of a social democratic government’s parliamentary base demands we strike a balance. On the one hand, we have to try to secure all the influence we can, for the benefit of ordinary workers. But on the other hand, we don’t want to be a mere addendum to or part of the social-democratic project.
Our long-term goal is to establish a left bloc that can seize power. If that is to be realized, then we need to ask how we can establish the kind of alliance that will make this possible. I don’t really think the most interesting issue is the slight shift in power between us and the other left parties like SF. Our positions regarding each other are relatively stable.
The question is what the Red-Green Alliance itself does. That concerns its communications and talking about politics in a way that actually facilitates an alliance between workers, pensioners, students, and the self-employed. That’s the task. For example, what kind of a collective “we,” who are we talking to and about? And how do we define our opponents, and thus ourselves?
And how do you do that?
I think it’s clear there’s a desire to become a “people’s party” that appeals far beyond the traditional left base. This requires lots of things that we haven’t yet accomplished but are working towards.
The adoption of a new party program in 2014 got rid of demands to abolish the military and the police, among other things. Has the party “modernized” or simply moderated?
It depends on what you mean by moderated. It’s quite clear that there have been some major changes in our way of communicating, but also political changes. The notion of how to change society. For example, we insist on a democratic position. The kinds of social transformation we want must be made through parliament. Of course, with a strong mobilization of social movements outside, but we have departed from the idea of revolutionary change in taking power. This is a relatively important shift in how we understand social change.
It is unclear what development we are about to see with the new government. Will it be a repetition of Sweden and France, i.e. neoliberal “extreme centrism,” or a more progressive government pushing redistribution? A government which, either with the Social Liberals or with the center-right Liberals, conducts a slightly more progressive climate policy and extends progressive social values, but continues neoliberal economic policies? Or a social democratic government that also moves left on redistribution?
Yet we should also understand that the crisis of social democracy in Denmark, as across Europe, is no random occurrence. It is linked to these parties’ lack of social analysis. Basically, they maintain a class-collaborationist strategy as if the capital-labor relationship is the same as it was in the 1960s or 1970s.
The neoliberalism and austerity implemented over the last ten years is a way to accommodate the demands of the economic elite and what we in Denmark call the “competition state.” But the elites have forsaken their part of this agreement. Even though we have historically low unemployment, workers’ wage increases are minimal. The relationship between the elite and the Social Democrats is characterized by an increasingly dominant and oppressive elite and an increasingly submissive and servile Social Democratic Party.
It’s much easier to pursue policies of class collaboration during a boom than a recession. If the pie grows, you can compensate workers and expand welfare without challenging the conditions of the economic elite. But when the pie shrinks, as it did in those years, you have to choose your friends: the working class or the economic elite. This is where the Social Democrats will come under greater pressure.
As long as they believe that class collaboration is the way forward and are not ready to confront the privileges of the economic elite, they will disappoint working-class voters again and again. This offers the opportunity to create a progressive leftist alternative, both in Denmark and many other European countries.
There were prominent candidates for both SF and the Social Democrats who are quite left wing. So, in these negotiations over forming a government perhaps it won’t be the Red-Green Alliance on one side and all the rest on the other?
Definitely. It’s no coincidence that the libertarians were almost wiped out. There is an undercurrent of aversion to the inequality in our society and the perception that an economic elite has completely detached itself from ordinary people. This is expressed in many ways, for instance the growing resistance to privatization and outsourcing — things that in the past were quite uncontroversial but now become major political battles.
For example, I experienced this in connection with the attempt to privatize Radius, our electricity supplier in the Copenhagen area, where I ran for the democratically elected board and helped prevent the sell-off. Not to mention the massive banking scandals in Danske Bank.
It’s not that people have all become anticapitalists overnight, but there is an undercurrent of feeling that something is wrong. If we can utilize and articulate it then I think it can be significant because it also speaks to people’s gut feelings, just like how the issue of immigration became an undercurrent of opinion. When we talk about left-wing populism, this sense of injustice is a feeling that is not only rational but can also mobilize people’s anger and outrage.
You mean there is something latent within people that can be brought out into the open?
Yes, there is now an undercurrent that we can try to activate. If we succeed in doing so, that will make it harder for a forthcoming Social Democratic government to avoid addressing the massive privileges awarded to the elite over the last few years.
What about the emergence of the relatively new party The Alternative (Alternativet)? How might they throw a spanner in the works? Even if they have no class analysis, they nonetheless speak of an idea of disruption or a dislocation.
Both the strength and weakness of The Alternative was its lack of any clear ideological foundation. Its strength was that it could appeal to all sorts of people because it was not labelled as left-wing, or dogmatically on the Left. But on the other hand, that is also what cost it. It has not managed to position and orientate itself; it was all form and no content. And when The Alternative faced scandals in its own democratic processes (accusations of hierarchical, centralized decision-making; leaked emails from a leading member describing a “sick culture”; allegations of sexual harassment; and an expenses scandal), that hit it really, really hard.
We really tried to build a close alliance with both The Alternative and SF in what I called “the alliance of change.” The purpose was to break up this view that exists in Denmark of a two-bloc system of center-left and center-right. We wanted to establish a third bloc. If this tactical alliance had succeeded, then things could have looked very different today.
Imagine that the bloc had kept polling at about 20 percent. Then the political landscape would have been divided up in a totally different way. We could have instead have incarnated an alternative and a counterweight to the Social Democratic project, on immigration and economic policy alike. But it seems some of this support instead ended up going to the Social Liberals.
I still believe the Left’s strategic goal is to disrupt this idea of a choice between a Social Democratic government or a right-wing one of broadly similar policies. What we can learn from some of the southern European parties and from social movements in Britain and America is the importance of socially broad alliances. They have to speak to workers in different parts of society: both public and private sector workers, precarious workers, as well as pensioners, the self-employed, freelancers, and students. It’s not just about which parties to align with but also which social base we need to build on.
What is the Red-Green Alliance’s relationship with social movements?
Something really encouraging at this election was the very strong social movement activity during the campaign. This is not very common in Denmark. We had the climate school strikes before but also during the actual election campaign. Then we had the parents’ demonstrations for minimum standards in public institutions. We also had the trade union movement that mobilized strongly. This is quite crucial for what happens in the years to come — that we do everything to keep those movements going and growing so they can pressure whichever government we get and not just be coopted by the Social Democrats.
We are strong in the trade union movement, both among public and private sector workers. But sometimes what happens when you get a Social Democratic government is that the union leadership gets very afraid of being seen as too critical. We experienced this from time to time during the last time they were in power.
The climate movement, on the other hand, will be difficult for them to co-opt. But it’s clear there will be tremendous anger and disappointment if the government fails to establish the very far-reaching new climate law that people expect us to do. I very much hope the climate movement will push on in the coming weeks and demand that the parties who said we should adopt the most ambitious climate law in the world will stick to that the promise.
And what about the parents’ movement?
We’re also strongly represented there. SF also played an important role in this campaign over the past few years. They’ve shifted their position — when they were in government they in fact opposed the minimum standards we called for in the budget negotiations. But it’s quite clear that they’ve played a positive role in mobilizing lots of parents and teachers. There are also some strong trade unions in this area, which both us and SF have a strong and close relationship with. So, I think we can create a mobilization, both during these negotiations and afterwards. On the whole, I foresee some strong social movements centering on welfare issues over the coming years.
In this context, you recently brought out a set of business policy proposals. What are you trying to do here?
We have tried to redefine the position of both the Left and our party on the self-employed, freelancers and precarious workers. We did this partly because we do have members and voters that belong to those strata and partly from a more ideological analysis of the fact that in the neoliberal era we have many interests in common with these groups. They are not on the wrong side of the class struggle, so to say.
They are equally, or sometimes even more, exposed to the insecurity and precarity that characterizes neoliberal capitalism. Of course, lots of salaried workers were hit hard by the crisis, but there were also thousands of small self-employed people who had to give up their businesses. Freelancers and casually employed workers were among the first to suffer.
It’s also about financial capitalism. When the banks raise their fees, this doesn’t just affect consumers as citizens, it also affects small businesses. When overdrafts were restricted after the crisis, this hit thousands of such independent firms. We have to appeal to that group and acknowledge that their interests aren’t aligned with big capital and the economic elite but to the broader working class. They are also financially more vulnerable as they often earn less than salaried workers.
This means they’re dependent on the solidarity of the social welfare model. They can’t just pay for private insurance and services like the elite. So, questions of maternity leave and unemployment benefits are central. This is also somewhat inspired by what I’ve seen Syriza and Podemos and others do, in appealing effectively to these groups in order to create a broader popular foundation of parties and movements.
But how do you organize these workers? They are very atomized and scattered. This is a huge challenge for the trade union movement as well. How do you go beyond simply appealing to the individual freelancer but to them as a collective entity?
Fortunately, some of the trade unions in Denmark take this question very seriously. Akademikerne (The Danish Confederation of Professional Associations), the Danish Union of Journalists, the IT workers’ union PROSA, but also HK (Union of Commercial and Clerical Employees) who organize many shop staff but also increasingly the self-employed. LO (The Danish Confederation of Trade Unions) is also increasingly concerned about this.
Among other things, 3F (United Federation of Danish Workers) succeeded in winning a union agreement with the platform company Hilfr, a cleaning company that has now taken employer responsibility for its employees. This is probably the first agreement in the world between a digital platform company and a trade union in this way. There is some awareness of getting these people organized through the trade union movement, but it is obviously an ongoing struggle.
Another theme I have been very concerned about is about ownership in the economy. How we can support what we call a democratic sector, i.e. companies owned by consumers, workers, municipalities, and the state. How we can strengthen the part of our economy that is not owned by private investors? Ideologically speaking, this is extremely important. This is an agenda that we will be pushing in the future.