A new dawn for the Danish radical left?

As the Social Democrats shift rightwards, a coalition of new and emboldened leftist parties have banded together to fight for a real alternative, writes Lukas Slothuus.

September 10, 2018
9 min read

Christiansborg Palace, the Danish parliament building. Photo by Comrade King (flickr)

The long-standing centre-left opposition coalition in Denmark has entered an unprecedented period of instability and unpredictability, with a series of recent open confrontations between social democrats and the radical left. Alongside the emergence of a ‘post-ideological’ rival party, the radical left has a roadmap for social transformation but needs to step carefully to extend its electoral success without reneging its political platform.

Social democratic dinosaurs

The Danish Social Democrats are in many ways an anachronism. While ‘centrist’ European social democrats have generally decimated in relation to more left-wing parties, Denmark has somewhat bucked the trend.  That they have managed to cling on is at once once perplexing and understandable. Perplexing, because according to popular opinion across most of the continent, social democracy under proportional representation appears to be a spent ideological position.

Understandable, because the Danish Social Democrats have navigated these changing political waters quite well, by shifting what it means to be a ‘social democrat’. The party has been on a rightwards trajectory since previous Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt beat left-wing rival Frank Jensen, current Mayor of Copenhagen, in a 2005 leadership contest. With a strong-handed shift towards the far-right Danish People’s Party on immigration policy and towards the neo-liberal Liberal Party on economic issues, the Social Democrats have become a misnomer for what is increasingly an amalgamation of these other two parties. The culmination was the sell-off of state-owned energy company DONG to Goldman Sachs.  Elections are fought, then, on managing the economy, not on ideological difference.

An Alternative?

When Alternativet (the Alternative) blasted into Danish politics in 2013 with their unmistakable neon green aesthetic, a swathe of jaded leftists celebrated this new party. Hailed as a non-dogmatic, democratic, future-oriented, and post-ideological alternative to established political parties, Alternativet provided a hip and fashionable political identity for young cosmopolitans and metropolitans.

With an emphasis on environmental issues, a social investment strategy, and progressivism on a swathe of social policy areas like recreational drugs, this seemed like a welcome contribution to efforts to push politics to the left in response to a ‘centrist’ slide rightwards.

Yet Alternativet positions itself explicitly outside left-right divisions. Its strange set of positions are not clearly left-wing. An obsession with entrepreneurship, small businesses, and a non-existent analysis of class, material interest, and social antagonisms, its environmental and progressive veneer covers a politically impotent challenge to neoliberalism, the far right, and social democracy.Indeed, the party emerged from a defecting former Social Liberal minister, a party rooted in neoliberal cosmopolitanism, mixing progressive social policies and neoliberal economic policies.

Alternativet is a laudable democratic experiment, but not a solution for the left. Post-ideological parties are dangerous precisely they have no materialist analysis, no vision for how to seize and employ state power, and no anchoring in the struggles of ordinary people. They are an intellectualist chimera, the concoction of a flawed idealist account of social transformation that Marx demolished in his critique of the utopian socialists: We do not revolutionise society by appealing to the moral good-will of capitalists but by organising and struggling against them.

Left unity

In Denmark, the radical left has achieved a remarkable degree of unity around Enhedslisten (the Red Green Alliance). Literally translated as the Unity List, and foreshadowing the emergence of radical left coalition parties like Syriza by several decades, Enhedslisten manages to bring together a full pallette of Marxists and anti-capitalists.

Founded in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Enhedslisten was initially merely an electoral alliance encompassing Leninists, Trotskyists, and New Leftists yet soon grew into a fully-fledged, self-contained political party. Gone (at least nominally) was the factionalism and sectarianism that has riddled the radical left in so many European countries. It flirts with left populism, yet is nonetheless Marxist.

Enhedslisten continues its solid and steady rise, going from a meagre 2.2% of the vote in the 2007 parliamentary elections to 7.8% in the most recent 2015 elections, and currently polls over 9%. It is the fourth-largest party in a parliament of nine parties. What is more, the party has nearly quintupled its membership, going from just over 2,000 members in 2003 to almost 10,000 today.

A little less left?

No doubt this rise has been partially fuelled by softening of its rhetoric, culminating with the 2014 adoption of a new party platform. It removed conventional Marxist language of revolutionary socialism in the form of forced expropriation of enterprises, abolishing private property, and dissolving police and military.

Crucially, the new platform now permits MPs to vote for centre-left budgets. This grants a seat at the table in budget negotiations, and helped establish a gravitas that consolidates the ascendancy. At no point has Enhedslisten reneged on the materialist basis of its politics: they explicitly eschew identity politics for class politics, and are steadfast in their socialism.

This transformation of the platform came a mere six months after the founding of Alternativet. While Alternativet did not grow directly out of Enhedslisten’s base, it has captured a large proportion of their potential voters: Enhedslisten’s steady rise has been complemented by Alternativet capturing 5% of the vote. These voters did not come from Enhedslisten. That there is an electoral space for both parties shows there is plenty of voters to win over for the radical left. While Alternativet might be a short-term ally, in the long run Enhedslisten will have to aim its guns at them in order to topple the Social Democrats.

But Enhedslisten’s rise isn’t just due to tactically toning down its revolutionary language. With more seats in parliament comes more funding from the state, allowing a bigger and better campaign machine that has put the party in pole position on the internet, particularly on social media. An internal term limit prevents career politicians and maintains the link between social movements, trade unions, and the party. This provides fresh parliamentary candidates anchored locally and rooted in political struggles. It also secures a long-term future for the party independent of the charisma of individuals, even when this has harmed its short-term electoral success.

Coalition in crisis

Helmed by chief ideologist Pelle Dragsted, a formerly imprisoned militant anti-fascist turned respectable politician, Enhedslisten currently pursues a left front strategy. It treats Alternativet and the small reformist Socialist People’s Party as partners in a three-pronged attack simultaneously aimed at the Social Democrats and the centre-right coalition. By challenging the Social Democrats, Enhedslisten could gradually take on the mantle of the dominant left-of-centre party.

Crucially, however, Enhedslisten never reneged its support for a Social Democratic prime minister. They needed the Social Democrats and vice versa. Some members grew tired of the support for the Social Democrats, who were seen as nothing more than a different shade of the centre-right coalition. This suspicion reached its zenith when the Social Democrats consistently started voting with rather than against the centre-right coalition, as they provided the parliamentary basis for the neoliberal party who were struggling to keep the far-right in line.

In recent weeks, Enhedslisten has entered into open confrontation with the Social Democrats. Thus, in a landmark declaration on 15 August, the party leadership withdrew its implicit guarantee to back a Social Democratic prime minister after months and years of Social democratic arrogance denouncing Enhedslisten. They no longer think of themselves as necessarily part of a joint left-of-centre bloc but as a political force in its own right. This marks a major shift in left strategy, and presents a promising opportunity for a left shift in the run-up to the forthcoming elections. Elections will take place before next June.

With the slow but steady growth in enthusiasm and support for Enhedslisten, twinned with the anachronistic Social Democrats, it is now not inconceivable that the former can supplant the latter as the major left-of-centre party in the future.

The future of the radical left

The radical left is right to push along its own path. Enhedslisten have stressed the separation is not mainly down to immigration policy – although it is of course a central issue nonetheless – but due to two things: attacks on the working class and poor environmental policies. The Social Democrats governed during the largest teachers’ labour dispute in 2013, where 67,000 teachers were locked-out by the employers’ association backed by the government. Meanwhile, commitments to decrease carbon emissions have been brushed off the table.

A major source of enthusiasm among those on the left is Enhedslisten’s campaign “100 days with Enhedslisten”, a concrete set of 100 fully-costed proposals implementable within 100 days in power. Straightforward, tangible socialist politics setting the scene for further, radical demands in the future. Most importantly, it initiates a conversation with the public about what socialism is and prepares the ground for the party not simply being a parliamentary watchdog barking on the sides but a serious party ready to seize power.

While Alternativet presents itself as a radically democratic alternative to the established parties, the truth is that Enhedslisten has long worked along lines of internal party democracy beyond what is seen in most parties even on the left. There is no leader, only spokespeople. Candidate lists for parliament are democratically decided by delegates at the annual conference.

The answer to the Social Democrats’ shift to the right is for the radical left to be steadfast and relentless in its insistence on class politics and a materialist analysis of society. The only way to fight pervasive xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment is not softening the far right’s but pushing an alternative narrative altogether. The arrogance of the Social Democrats should be challenged head-on in order to facilitate a left shift in Denmark.

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