Denmark’s left in crisis?


First published at Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung.

Denmark’s radical left party, the Red Green Alliance, is in a spin. At the November 1 general election, it lost a quarter of its support, a third of its seats, and its influence with government. Alongside the immediate financial and political ramifications, the result has opened up both internal and public debate on what went wrong and why – exposing strategic disagreements over the party’s direction.

This was the Red Green Alliance’s (RGA) third electoral retreat in a row, following the 2019 national election and last year’s municipal vote. The party won just 5.1 percent of the vote, down from 6.9 percent in 2019 and its historic high-water mark of 7.8 percent in 2015. The result is worse if you consider the party was averaging 8.1 percent support when the election was called in October. Compared to expectations during the campaign, the election results came as something of a shock.

In the regions, the party’s vote continued to drop, with many voters turning to the Social Democrats or the Green Left party, and confining RGA support largely to the big urban centres. There too the party faced setbacks, with many supporters of radical change backing the new Independent Greens or the environmentalist Alternative instead.

The party’s Main Board soon announced an internal review and plans to address the sudden financial shortfall, but this review was pre-empted somewhat by an article in Politiken, Denmark’s main newspaper. In it, former party spokesperson and outgoing MP Pernille Skipper blamed the poor result on – among other things – outdated party structures, calling for an intensification of the “modernisation” process begun a decade and a half ago, and for greater political manoeuvrability for MPs.

A ”modern” left

This “modernisation” debate is a recurring theme in internal arguments over the RGA’s direction. It began as a reaction to the RGA’s terrible electoral results in 2007, where the party almost fell below the 2 percent parliamentary threshold. The changes brought a much-needed professionalised approach, and the party’s electoral prospects soon rose – from 2.2 percent in 2007, to 6.7 percent in 2011 – seeming to confirm the strategy’s success in making the party a credible left force.

While “modernisation” has many supporters, however, many fear it has blunted the party’s radical edge, making it too “pragmatic” and reformist, and therefore vulnerable to radical-sounding rivals. For these critics, the “outdated structures” Skipper criticises are not a bureaucratic burden, but the cornerstone of members’ democratic involvement in the party, and they complain that member influence in determining party policy and strategy has been radically diminished, impacting morale, support and party activism.

To be fair, both sides claim to seek greater member involvement. The “modernisers” argue existing structures unfairly favour those with more time to spend in long meetings, but their attempts at change have been largely unsuccessful. A recent proposal to elect the Main Board via online members’ poll – rather than by conference delegates – was resisted on the grounds that, without functional organs for healthy internal debate, leadership candidates with a higher profile and greater media access would have an unfair advantage.

There are also concerns that MPs and high-profile members use their access to the media to pre-empt or influence internal debate, or even contradict party policy. The “modernisers” argue, reasonably enough, that MPs must react decisively to issues in real time, and not depend solely on the deliberations of the Main Board – the party’s highest authority between conferences. Indeed, as in Skipper’s article, some argue that even more flexibility is required.

Critics can point to the issue of NATO to illustrate their point. Earlier this year, several party MPs publicly expressed a more moderate view of NATO than many believed was party policy – some all but denying the party intended to leave. At its national congress only months later, in May, the RGA then updated its NATO policy, remaining opposed to the alliance, but aiming to leave only when a “better alternative” turns up. The vote was democratic, but the topic was also added late to the agenda, having spent plenty of time in media headlines but without much internal debate.

Fears of a disenfranchised membership have also sprung up around the Main Board’s proposals to deal with the post-election financial situation. The proposals include closing the membership magazine, holding national conferences only every second year, and moving the national office into the parliament buildings to save rent. Without regular democratic engagement and a readily accessible leadership, some have expressed fear that a harmful disconnect will grow between members and a professionalised party “top”.

A victim of its own success?

Indeed, the RGA has sometimes made it hard for itself, its recent role as government “support party” placing it in a difficult, almost impossible, position. Having experienced electoral success following the “modernisation” process, the RGA made a tactical shift, hoping to use its newfound support to better effect. The party decided to provide conditional support to the Social Democrats in government as a “lesser evil”, while remaining prepared to withdraw support on bad policies, or if the government moved right.

After the 2019 election, the RGA – along with the Green Left and the Social Liberals – signed a memorandum of understanding granting the external support needed for the Social Democrats to form a minority government. In return, they set out their minimum conditions: a seventy percent climate emissions reduction target, the reversal of previous welfare cuts, a reduction in child poverty, and respect for international law concerning refugees.

Unlike in Sweden, however, where the Left Party’s very public red line on rents allowed it to benefit from briefly bringing down the government in 2021, the Danish left was unable to establish a clear trigger. Indeed, with the Social Democrats’ renewed popularity and supposedly progressive policies, it was unclear the RGA even wanted to withdraw support. It felt like a trap: pull down the government over one or another social dispute, or over migrant rights, and risk voter backlash and a possible right-wing government.

As a result, the RGA was left propping up a Social Democratic government that was attacking migrants and failing to repair the welfare state. The RGA did win some important concessions, such as free dentistry for young adults, a rent freeze, and a seventy percent climate target, and it also managed to limit some of the government’s worst excesses. But the party’s characterisation of itself as a “watchdog” on the government began to ring hollow, and clouded the party’s messaging during the election campaign.

Days before the vote, the RGA stumbled in opposing a Social Democrats plan to illegally send asylum seekers to Rwanda, refusing to confirm the party would withdraw support if policy was pursued. The RGA would vote against the plan – which the Social Democrats could still pass with right-wing support – but balked at toppling the government for fear of putting the right-wing in power. Facing sharp criticism, the position quickly shifted, but the party was left looking like it had junked its principles for a seat at the table.

Neither plague nor panacea

Neither the RGA’s current woes, nor its recent successes, can be pinned entirely on internal “modernisation”, however. The party’s renewal process coincided with the massive 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit protests, the financial crisis, and growing public anger at a Social Democratic government implementing right-wing policies and austerity. Disenchantment with mainstream politics gifted the radical left party an opening, and its new, more professional, approach positioned it well to capitalise.

This political space, and the movements that filled it, have now largely evaporated, however, and many voters have returned to the Social Democrats, or their left prop, the Green Left. Similar trends can be found beyond Denmark - radical left parties across Europe have also suffered major setbacks. Germany’s Die LINKE barely won 4.9 percent last year, Portugal’s Left Bloc collapsed in January from 9.5 to only 4.4 percent, and in September, Sweden’s Left Party fell from 8 to 6.8 percent.

As the anti-austerity wave receded, Danish Social Democracy renewed its project: courting working-class support with progressive-sounding economic policies, while also adopting the far-right’s anti-migrant xenophobia. This strategy successfully undermined Denmark’s popular far-right – which once enjoyed the support of a quarter of the population – winning many of their voters over to Social Democracy with the promise of a more exclusionary welfare state.

It also narrowed the space for a radical left or left-populist project, as did the government’s successful handling of the Covid pandemic – providing economic, political and social security during the crisis. The one major misstep – the illegal cull of 17 million farmed mink – provides an opportunity to the right, not the left. The Social Democrats have also managed to take credit for progressive policies enacted under their reign in a way that the RGA – which often drove these policies forward – has failed to.

The election also took place in a unique security climate, against the backdrop of the Ukraine war – a situation more favourable to an incumbent government. The vote was held only weeks after the Nordstream pipeline bombing off the Danish coast, while in June the government ran a successful referendum to drop Denmark’s opt-out of EU defence matters. The RGA was on the losing side of the referendum, and while it backed Ukraine immediately, its messaging, as with NATO, was at times unclear or contradictory.

Protest party, or left alternative?

At the election, the RGA’s nett losses to rival parties went in all directions: half a percent each to the Alternative, Green Left and Independent Greens. Supporters of “pragmatic” politics may have voted for Green Left, which is more associated with that approach, while those motivated by migrant rights switched to the Independent Greens, who won one in three votes in some immigrant dominated neighbourhoods. While normally strong in these areas, the RGA’s reputation on migrant rights took a hit with its poor messaging around the government’s Rwanda plan, and indeed for keeping the government in power while it carried out attacks on migrant communities.

The RGA’s climate policy proposed a series of radical initiatives in order to reach the emissions reductions targets required by science – and agreed to by the Danish parliament. One policy in particular – calling for a halving of Danish animal agriculture – Nonetheless, the RGA lost votes to the less anti-capitalist policies presented by the Alternative.

Considering that much of the RGA’s core support base, and membership, comes from the educated, young urban progressive layers, these trends in Copenhagen were unsettling. The party had hoped to broaden its support base at this election, but now faces the challenge of rebuilding it. More broadly, the nationwide result also underscored the weakness of the radical left project: lacking an organic mass implantation in the populace, it relies heavily on the volatile world of electoral politics to maintain its influence.

The project of a nationwide left-wing party capable of challenging Social Democracy therefore seems little more than a pipedream – for now. Building such an alternative would require the party to not only firm up its base, but to appeal to the working class, particularly the trade unions, beyond the major cities. The limited gains up until 2015 had been promising in this regard, but proved ultimately ephemeral, and the Social Democrats remain hegemonic in Denmark’s influential trade unions, and in the working class in general.

Ironically, such an opportunity for renewal of the Danish left may present itself sooner rather than later. The Social Democrats have already rejected the parliament’s newly elected red-green majority, and confirmed they intend to enter government with the right-wing Liberal party. As a new economic crisis unfolds, and the Social Democrats openly side with the political right on taxation, welfare, climate and services, the space for the radical left is likely to re-emerge – if it’s ready to fill it.

What next?

The 2024 European election will be the next major electoral hurdle for the party, bringing with it new challenges, especially since the RGA’s 2022 national conference updated its 30-year-old opposition to EU membership. Maintaining formal opposition to the EU, the new policy focuses more on seeking progressive reforms than on outright opposition to the bloc. The final wording also saw both staunch EU opponents and “critical reformers” claiming that their position had won, and it is unclear whether this issue is truly resolved.

In addition to a review of the election defeat, and steadying the boat financially, the RGA now faces the prospect – and opportunity – of fighting a right-wing government led by the Social Democrats. If the party can maintain cohesion, rediscover a shared radical vision, and present itself as a credible alternative, there is a good chance it can bounce back quickly. For this to succeed, however, the party’s two socialist souls – one reformist, the other more revolutionary – must find a way to work together more effectively as a political expression of working-class resistance.