Denmark’s Left Has Failed to Make the Green Transition Its Trademark Issue

Denmark’s thriving green energy industry ought to provide the Left with an ideal organizing opportunity. Yet this week’s election showed that it has failed to connect the green transition with a program for jobs and investment.

A wind turbine stands against a blue sky near the harbor entrance in Hvide Sande, Denmark, April 21, 2022. (Jonas Walzberg / picture alliance via Getty Images)

Denmark’s election this past Tuesday was held against a backdrop of geopolitical tension and a sense of increasingly dark times ahead. Just days before Social Democratic prime minister Mette Frederiksen called the election, the two pipelines Nord Stream I and II were sabotaged right outside Danish territorial waters. During the election campaign itself, inflation hit 10 percent, the highest figure in four decades. The worsening economic and geopolitical situation naturally affected the mood in the country — and this did not provide optimal conditions for the Left.

Frederiksen has been prime minister since 2019, spearheading a Social Democratic government reliant on a confidence-and-supply agreement with two left-wing forces (the Green Left and Red-Green Alliance) as well as the centrist Social Liberals. Frederiksen’s government collapsed when the Social Liberals withdrew support for the government following the “mink scandal”; during the COVID-19 pandemic, Frederiksen forced the slaughter of mink farmed for fur, as these animals could catch and develop the virus. This order turned out to be illegal, and Frederiksen faced heavy criticism for heavy-handedness and disrespect for the rule of law.

Yet, in the aftermath of Tuesday’s vote, it seems that Frederiksen will continue to govern for another term, despite a fall in support for the center-left bloc as a whole. While the vote for the Social Liberals and the parties to the left of the Social Democrats declined, Frederiksen’s party itself scored 27.5 percent — its best result in twenty years. The Right, as well as the former partners in the Social Liberals, had long focused their criticisms on Frederiksen’s personal leadership style and power grabbing. But the result turned out to strengthen her position.

Social Democracy: Left-Wing, or Centrist?

The key question after the vote is whether the Social Democrats will govern with the support of the Left or else aided by centrist, liberal parties. Referring to the worsening economic and security outlook, Frederiksen had expressed an ambition in forming a “broad” government around the center. She has claimed this will be more able to govern Denmark through inflation, geopolitical tension, and the worsening energy crisis.

Unfortunately for Frederiksen, that framing opened space for her old opponent, Lars Løkke Rasmussen — prime minister from 2009 to 2011 and 2015 to 2019 — to reenter the Danish political scene. Spearheading a new centrist party — the Moderates — Rasmussen could take up Frederiksen’s call for sensible centrism, without the Social Democrats being able to effectively challenge him.

Rasmussen’s Moderates received almost 10 percent, but it was not enough to make him kingmaker in the new parliament. Late in the night, after Rasmussen had already given a triumphalist speech, the tallies came in from the final two polling stations, allowing the center-left bloc to tick up from eighty-nine seats to ninety, and thus a slight majority. While the party finally kicked off at the Social Democratic headquarters, the right-wing bloc found themselves more fragmented than ever before. There are some seven right-wing parties in the new Danish parliament, none even reaching 14 percent of the vote. Particularly frustrating for the Right is the fact that Frederiksen’s slim majority depends on three mandates representing voters in the Faroe Islands and Greenland (called “Africa-on-ice” by conservative leader Søren Pape Poulsen— a gaffe bearing several layers of chauvinism against these relatively poorer territories).

What Happened to the Left?

With more than twice the vote of their closest rival, the Social Democrats are the only real “mass party” with support across various social groups and geographical climes. With twelve parties in parliament (and fourteen on the ballot) the fragmented party landscape has an option for each and any political leaning, in this era of politics-as-consumer-identity.

The old socialist party Green Left (formerly with the English name Socialist People’s Party) saw a small increase in support, as did the green party Alternative. The Green Left successfully positioned itself as a staunch defender of welfare, while the Alternative took ownership of climate issues — with the more outwardly ideological Red-Green Alliance squeezed between the two. Together with the centrist Social Liberals, these parties form a climate alliance which has pushed Frederiksen to increase her ambitions on environmental issues, and this is fortunately a top voter concern.

However, support for all parties to the left of the Social Democrats is very concentrated in the big cities, public-sector workers, and the young. The Red-Green Alliance was even the largest party in several districts in Copenhagen. But for the Left to have any influence on government policy, it relies on the Social Democrats doing the “dirty work” of getting support among older voters in the private sector and outside the cities. In the progressive Copenhagen district of Nørrebro, the Red-Green Alliance, the Green Left, and the Alternative added up to over 50 percent (and the small green-anarchist Independent Greens another few percent as well). In the small-town district of Ikast, however, the same parties don’t even reach 8 percent. In Esbjerg — one of Denmark’s largest towns and ports — they do only marginally better, totalling 12 percent.

Why are the Ikast and Esbjerg districts relevant? Because in the Ikast district lies Siemens Gamesa’s wind-turbine manufacturing plant, and almost half of all offshore wind installed in the European Union over the last decade has shipped through the Esbjerg port. Siemens Gamesa employs 5,600 workers in Denmark, while the companies based in the municipally owned port of Esbjerg employ several thousand others. Indeed, most firms in Denmark’s mighty green-energy sector are based in the more rural Jutland region, where the climate-focused left has its weakest support.

Denmark has built a powerful green energy industry — with wind alone employing over thirty thousand workers and the Danish turbine manufacturer Vestas making every fifth turbine installed on the planet. It has done so through industrial policy, including public investment, long-term planning, and the state-controlled Ørsted’s role as a major developer of offshore wind. It is ironic, then, that the Left seems unable to capitalize on its climate credentials among the “green” working class. But why is this the case?

The Right has a clear narrative on the green industry: thanks to the entrepreneurship of family-owned businesses, Denmark can export green technology to the world. However, the parties to the left of the Social Democrats seem to have a postindustrial perspective on climate — focusing more on the need for ambitious target-setting, emission taxes, and plant-based agriculture. Where the Right is keen to point out how important businesses are for the green transition, the Left has yet to develop a coherent narrative on the role of work and public investment in the green transition, able to appeal to workers.

Considering the size of Denmark’s green energy industry, here — perhaps more than most other places — the Left should be able to point out the benefits of state-led climate investment for workers. It should also be able to capitalize on its track-record: when the prospects of the Danish green energy push were still unclear, right-wing parties were skeptical, almost killing off the industry while in power in the 2000s, whereas the Left remained consistently supportive. However, telling this story will require a change in approach and a focused engagement with social groups like rural men working in the private sector.

A month before the election, Siemens Gamesa announced that it would lay off eight hundred workers in Denmark, probably mostly in the Ikast district. No leftist party took the opportunity to express solidarity with the workers facing layoffs, or to talk about unemployment and the need for more climate investments.

If the Left really wants to challenge the Social Democratic hegemony — or confront the Right on their home turf — it needs to start getting its hands dirty in rural and small-town Denmark. The Danish green energy industry might be a good place to start.