Denmark’s Socialist Left Needs to Reverse the Decline in Working-Class Mobilization

Recent decades have seen a historic shift in Danish politics, with mass-membership parties replaced by a professionalized media-political sphere. To drive real social change, the socialist left needs to go beyond creating a progressive niche — and rebuild the mass organizations that once made the working class a mighty political force.

The main voter base of the Red-Green Alliance party is heavily concentrated in the largest cities, with as much as 50 percent of its vote falling within the area surrounding Copenhagen. (Unsplash)

In Denmark, socialist parties to the left of social democracy are stronger than ever. The Red-Green Alliance and the Socialist People’s Party together took a historically high 14.6 percent in 2019’s general election and are now polling above even that. This is especially remarkable given that the Social Democratic Party today commands over 30 percent support, regaining some of its historic strength.

Its new leadership’s move away from former prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s neoliberal policies has paid off: for the first time in decades, a majority coalition between the Social Democrats and the socialist left could be possible after the next election.

Yet despite these encouraging facts, it would be ill-advised for the socialist left to become complacent. Indeed, with little chance of attracting protest voters from the currently popular Social Democrats, the socialist left’s room for maneuver has decreased significantly. The two more leftist parties have been highly effective in mobilizing what has become the “traditional” left-wing vote in recent decades: students, well-educated residents of large cities, and a significant share of public employees. These middle layers can be mobilized on left-wing welfare and climate agendas — and comprise these parties’ main social base.

Success mobilizing these groups should be celebrated. Yet, the risk is that the socialist left will be limited to this core vote alone. If it wants to grow into a stronger political and social force — the kind actually capable of major social transformation — it has to confront its problems connecting to and mobilizing wider layers of the working class.

Much could be done through strong political communication and better ways of organizing. Yet, these problems aren’t just a matter of these parties’ tactics or day-to-day parliamentary scuffles: they have deeper historical roots, dating back to the decline of mass politics starting in the 1960s and ’70s. If forces inspired by the New Left of that era are to expand beyond their current niche, they first need to get to grips with these historic weaknesses.

The Decline of Mass Parties

The 1973 general election stands out as a particular watershed, separating the politics of mass, class-based parties from a new and more volatile political landscape. In that election, more than half of MPs were replaced; five hitherto unrepresented parties (including three entirely new ones) took up seats, most notably the ultra–free market, immigrant-bashing Progress Party. The four so-called old parties all lost support, especially the Social Democrats, who fell from 37 to under 26 percent of the vote.

Since the late nineteenth century, the liberal, conservative, and Social Democratic “mass parties” had organized voters — and members — in large numbers. Along with the labor movement — and the strong networks of social, cultural, and economic organization linked to peasant-farmer culture — these parties served as most important institutions for democratic participation and influence among broad sections of the population.

Yet from the 1970s, mass parties began to decline. The total number of party members fell from 600,000 in 1960 to 135,000 in 2019 — that is, a decline from 13 percent of the population to around 2 percent. In 1960, the Social Democratic Party organized around 260,000 members — around a quarter of its voters. Yet its membership then fell to 100,000 by 1980, 50,000 by 2000, and 36,000 by 2019 — corresponding to only 4 percent of its voters in that year’s election.

This disintegration of mass parties and mass democratic organizations drove a shift toward a political landscape ever more atomized and individualized at the bottom even as it was ever more professionalized and mediatized at the top. Democratic participation withered, and the relation between population and political institutions came undone, as politics became a question of what political scientist Peter Mair called “ruling the void.”

These profound changes in the political landscape were connected to even deeper social and economic transformations. The disappearance of a once large class of medium-sized peasant-farmers; technological development; globalization; and the start of deindustrialization; all helped change the composition of the working class. But Social Democratic reforms themselves had an effect: with the building of the postwar welfare state, larger sections of the population gained access to higher education, and the number of public employees expanded significantly.

The fact that the New Left and its parties emerged in a period of declining mass politics is crucial to understanding their subsequent trajectory. The two main parties of the Danish New Left were the Socialist People’s Party (SPP), founded in 1959, and the Left Socialists, which broke from the SPP in 1967.

Just as importantly, however, were the many grassroots movements and groups emerging in the period, focused on issues of gender, environmentalism, peace and international relations, university/educational issues, energy (with a strong movement against nuclear power), as well as a plethora of minor countercultural movements and groups. These new social movements and groups were primarily organized by the so-called new middle layers of students, the well-educated, and the functionaries from the expanding numbers of public employees.

The New Left parties’ focus differed markedly from that of the former class-based mass parties and organizations, often preferring to highlight cultural and social lines of conflict. With its vast network of popular organizations, the socialist labor movement had also been a significant cultural movement. However, while the labor movement had closely tied cultural issues to the question of class, the new social movements gradually pushed class conflict and politics into the background, as new types of cleavages among the population became more central.

During the 1970s, the Socialist People’s Party and the Left Socialists increasingly oriented themselves toward these new social or “grassroots” movements. In the 1970s, these movements constituted a dynamic social force, which the left parties sought to strengthen and push toward wider social change. However, the two parties soon found themselves primarily mobilizing the new middle layers rather than the working class.

When the Red-Green Alliance was founded in 1989 as a joint coalition of the Left Socialists, the former Communist Party, and a minuscule Trotskyist party, it had no roots in the working class, styling itself instead as a “grassroots party.” But by that time, the social movements of the 1970s had faded — and the party’s members were drawn from small left-wing activist milieus in the largest cities. Today, the party’s main voter base — the well-educated, students, and public employees — are heavily concentrated in the largest cities, with as much as 50 percent of its vote falling within the area surrounding Copenhagen.

Retreat From Class

But to criticize the New Left parties for failing to connect to and organize the working class does not provide the whole picture. After all, the new social movements and new middle layers did constitute an increasingly significant part of the population, and their often-progressive claims really did need to be articulated by the Left. Discussions on the New Left from the late 1960s centered on building strong popular parties by connecting the new grassroots movements and groups with the labor movement. But we should acknowledge that this project failed.

This failure coincided with the perhaps related general retreat from class in politics, media, and among intellectuals alike. Public opinion in Denmark had traditionally been heavily influenced by media connected to class-based mass organizations and parties. The liberal Farmers’ Party was the first to establish a wide network of newspapers and magazines in the late nineteenth century, and the socialist labor movement soon followed, building its own alternative workers’ public sphere. However, these spaces began to recede following the decline of mass parties, culminating in the 1990s with the triumph of capitalism and a one-dimensional, neoliberal public sphere.

To complete this story, we also need to mention the significant transformation of the Social Democratic Party caused both by socioeconomic shifts and its response to them. We can distinguish between two periods, in this regard. First, a decline in the party’s working-class base can be detected following the shifts in class composition that began in the 1960s. The traditional social-democratic base among private sector workers (skilled or unskilled) declined relatively as the number of public employees and functionaries rapidly grew.

At the same time, the previously large class of small- and medium-sized independent farmers and agricultural workers almost disappeared, creating an influx of wage earners not socialized in the labor movement. Social Democratic electoral support among working-class voters declined from 73 percent in 1957 to 51 percent in 1987.

Second, from the 1980s deindustrialization took off — resulting in a decline in traditional secure industrial jobs, which were replaced by new and often precarious service sector jobs with low pay. The Social Democratic Party’s failure was that it did not respond to these socioeconomic developments by revitalizing and renewing its vast network of social, cultural, and economic organizations. Even the traditionally strong union membership rate has declined from 69 percent in 2000 to 53 percent in 2018.

Instead, the party consciously distanced itself from its former working-class base in favor of chasing the expanding group of middle-class and urban swing voters. With the decline in party membership and the disintegration of the labor movement’s former mass organizations, the — by now socially atomized — working class had no means by which to prevent the Social Democrats’ embrace of neoliberal policies. From the 1990s, Social Democratic governments have pushed forward successive waves of austerity, liberalizations, and privatizations, leading to increasing inequality and social insecurity among the working class.

In hindsight, it is perplexing that the rise of right-populist forces, beginning around 2000 and continuing till today, should have come as a surprise, fueled as it is by rising inequality and new forms of economic and social insecurity. The Social-Democrats, along with many intellectuals and the media, had long since junked class politics, while the collective solidarity once offered by the disintegrated socialist labor movement and its alternative public sphere had declined steeply.

The right populists thus faced an open goal in waging cultural warfare on supposedly left-wing educational elites, experts, and immigrants. Since 2000, these right-populist forces have increasingly gained working-class voters in former Social Democratic strongholds.

Challenges Moving Forward

Understanding the problems and weaknesses of the current Danish socialist left means taking their deeper historical roots seriously. Today’s Left suffers from the failure of the New Left parties’ project and the subsequent decline of democratic mass organizations, the introduction of neoliberal policies, and the retreat from class. Much of the debate on the socialist left today, on the merits of parliamentary versus social movement politics, completely misses the deeper historical roots of its problems.

The Left’s challenge today is not to establish a better connection between a “grassroots” drawn from left-wing activist milieus and a historical base in the new middle layers. These activist grassroots, while often highly effective in organizing, are not easily expanded to wider sections of the population. Rather, the Left’s main challenge is to connect to a generally demobilized working class.

The left parties face a Social Democratic Party that has gained some of its former strength among working-class voters, including those captured by right-populist forces in the 2000s and 2010s. It has done so by distancing itself from its former neoliberal period, but also by embracing anti-immigration policies. Part of this project has also meant effectively echoing the Right by driving a wedge between working-class voters outside of the largest cities and more urban and educated left-wing voters. In response to this, the Left needs a project capable of doing the opposite — though current inability to mobilize beyond its core social base doesn’t provide much grounds for optimism.

The good news is that the Danish socialist left is stronger than ever in terms of members and support among voters. It also has crucial communicative, intellectual, and organizational resources at its disposal. One of the strategic tasks of the “old” left was to reach beyond its social base and draw in parts of the middle layers in a working-class led coalition. Today’s Left faces the same problem, but inside-out.

With an atomized social base drawn primarily from the middle layers and with no other effective way of connecting to and mobilizing the working class, today’s left parties are condemned to play the game of professionalized and mediatized politics. The first step, therefore, lies in using its current parliamentary strength and means of communication to push forward class politics as the main line of conflict, permeating all other issues on the public agenda.

To do so, the socialist left needs to challenge the Social Democrats’ currently regained popularity among sections of the working class outside of the largest cities by focusing its parliamentary and organizational means on framing and owning issues of most relevance to working-class people’s everyday lives.

In the longer run, the socialist left needs to resolve the general problem of social demobilization through rebuilding new forms of mass organizations and institutions and by reconstituting a working-class public sphere. Rooting itself more deeply in the unions — still a major force in Danish society, despite their decline in recent decades — is the best place to start.