Denmark’s Dangerous Example

Denmark's Social Democrats won June's election after adopting hardline anti-immigrant policies - but following their lead would be a historic mistake for left-wing parties.

On the 6th of June the Red Bloc, a coalition of left-wing parties in Denmark, beat the right to become the largest grouping in the Danish legislature. The grouping, led by the Social Democratic Party (SDP), managed to gain 96 seats in comparison with the right’s 72, and in the process saw the Islamophobic Danish People’s Party (DPP) lose 21 seats and the fascist Stram Kurs (Hard-Line) fail to enter parliament. 

While the New Right, another of the extremist parties that has gained prominence since the rise of the DPP, did manage to gain four seats, the election was largely depicted as a success for the left, with the SDP stopping the rise of the DPP and seeing previously alienated working class voters return to their base. However, as Danish politics has become increasingly opposed to the presence of Muslims and refugees in the country, and as the rise of the far-right has become a threat to the electoral bases of the established parties, there has been an attempt to capitalise on racism in Danish society, and the SDP tried to stay ahead of the curve in doing so.

Since electing Mette Frederiksen as leader after being voted out of government in 2015, the Social Democrats have taken an increasingly right wing position with regards to immigration and Islam, deciding that the reason they lost the 2015 election was because they appeared to be soft on Denmark’s minorities. Under her leadership the SDP didn’t merely go along with the right-wing proposals of the Venstre minority government, which had a confidence-and-supply agreement from the DPP, but instead decided that they were going to push further right. In fact, under Frederiksen, the SDP has voted with the government on 90% of votes.

The party voted in favour of government legislation supporting a burka ban and stripping refugees of their jewellery and supported the idea that all refugees that have sought asylum in Denmark should be relocated to detention camps in Libya for processing, which would make Danish asylum policy among the most, if not the most, regressive on the continent. Of those who are permitted to stay in Denmark, the policy says people who commit crimes are to be held on an island used for testing contagious animal diseases, while those who do not have to work 37 hours a week if they wish to claim any benefits.

As well as adopting the policies of the far-right, the SDP decided that combating them involves adopting their outlook — embracing ethno-nationalism in both their actions and analysis. When parliament passed the L140 bill, which ensured that every quota refugee (asylum seekers who first arrived in a different country before being relocated to Denmark by the UN) should eventually be sent back, it gained the vote of every single SPD MP, following the line of ‘repatriation not integration’. The SDP’s spokesperson for immigration stated that “people will be given the more honest message that their stay in Denmark is temporary”. 

This move by the SDP has, fortunately, been treated with concern by most leftists outside of Denmark, and by the other leftist parties within it. Frederiksen’s electoral strategy was widely seen as a cynical move in order to capitalise on Denmark’s xenophobic attitudes. Of course, engaging in racist politics out of a desire to win, rather than genuine racist convictions, is still abhorrent. There is no difference between a cynical and an earnest deportation.

Most of the discussion about Denmark’s recent election assumed that this tactic actually worked. It is not clear that it did. The SDP, despite gaining one seat, actually lost in terms of overall share of the vote. While the DPP lost 21 seats, other right-wing parties gained 19, and despite only gaining 4 seats, the non-DPP far right got 5% of the vote. By contrast, the other parties in the red bloc mostly did far better. The centre-left Social Liberals gained 8 seats, the left-wing Socialist People’s Party (SF/SPP) gained 8 seats, with both doubling their representation. The Red-Green Alliance, the furthest left grouping in parliament, while losing one seat, are still at the second highest representation they have ever had. All of these parties were highly critical of the SDP’s stances with regards to refugees and immigration.

The Social Democrats may have realised the limitations of their strategy. In coalition talks (which have resulted in a confidence and supply agreement with the SPP and the Social Liberals, who have previously gone into formal coalition) they appear to have backtracked on their harsher immigration policies. The damage has already been done, though. Policies can be quickly voted away, but paradigms cannot: immediately after the news came out regarding not placing immigrants on an island used to testing contagious animal disease, a Venstre spokesmen railed against them, saying that ‘one can’t trust them’ on immigration. 

In allowing the DPP’s rhetoric to dominate the discourse of the 2019 Danish parliamentary elections, the SDP legitimised their analysis, and conducted politics on their terms. Instead of challenging the narrative that states Muslims and refugees are a threat to Europe, the SDP simply asked how best to tackle that threat. The SDP allowed themselves to entirely be defined by the DPP, and in doing so, allowed the DPP a greater victory than parliamentary representation. While the DPP lost seats, almost three quarters of all votes cast on of the 5th of June went to parties that had adopted far-right immigration policies.

When social democracy is faced with a crisis, it can either address the cause of the crisis through economic radicalism, or it can capitulate to — and ally with — reaction. Throughout history, social democracy has favoured the latter. Electoralism is an important part of the political aims of socialism, but it is not the only part. In seeing parliamentary representation as the most important part of the movement, social democrats become willing to sacrifice the objectives of socialism in the name of pragmatism—regardless of where such pragmatism leads.

In the UK, this is most clear in Tony Blair’s embrace of neoliberalism, coupled with a brutal asylum policy that he amped up after concluding that ‘the only thing’ that could lose him the next election was immigration. Instead of working against the conditions that create exploitable labour, Labour rallied against those who were exploited. Labour centre-leftists were also guilty. When Ed Miliband, fearing the backlash surrounding a radical economic agenda, decided to stick with the policy of implementing austerity, he too turned to immigrants as a source of Britain’s problems, leading to Labour’s infamous ‘Controls on Immigration’ mugs. In her 2015 leadership bid, Yvette Cooper stated that we shouldn’t be ‘squeamish’ about talking about immigration, citing ‘people’s concerns’ about its pace. This is a longstanding issue.

Many within Labour went celebrated the victory of the Social Democrats, focusing on their message on immigration. Whether or not Frederiksen’s SDP is a model for us to follow shouldn’t be a question that we even begin to consider. That we have to do so, and that we must argue against people who do see it as a potential model, doesn’t change the fact that it is a question that should never have been asked in the first place. Electorally effective or not, to engage in a politics which accepts the premise that the interests of a ‘native’ working class are opposed to those who are foreign is toxic. In opposition the SDP were indistinguishable from those they claimed to oppose, and while they will not be pursuing the full extent of their anti-immigrant policies in government, they still maintain explicitly an goal of repatriation when it comes to asylum seekers. Allowing these politics to carry the name of the left will have deep and long-lasting consequences.