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What lies behind the Danish Social Democrats‘ trend-bucking victory? An aggressive stance against hyper-immigration and reconnecting with their working class base

In Denmark’s June general election the Social Democrats emerged as the biggest party, returning to government as head of a ‘Red Bloc’ left-wing coalition. This bucks the general downward trend in the fortunes of the historic centre-left parties across the developed world. But what lies behind this victory? Following a change of leadership in 2015, the Social Democrats have taken an aggressive stance against hyper-immigration. And in reconnecting with their working class base have, in combination with other parties, sapped electoral support from the extreme Right.


Danish election results: 2015 and 2019

Danish election results: 2015 and 2019


The right-wing Danish People’s Party had been making steady progress since the mid-nineties, but its vote has been reduced from 21.1% in 2015 to 8.7% now with the number of MPs down from 37 to 16. In the 2015 election, their leader Kristian Thulesen Dahl secured the highest vote of any candidate with 57,371 votes. This time around it was the Social Democrat leader Mette Frederiksen in first place with 43,489. Some analysis by the University of Oslo’s Centre for Research on Extremism indicates that a re-invigorated working class vote for the Social Democrats took 12% of the Danish People’s Party’s 2015 voters. A further 17% of these voters were lost to the centre-right Liberal Party, 9% and 6% to the new right-wing formations New Right and Hard Line respectively, and 9% elsewhere. Overall then, the Danish People’s Party lost more than half of its electoral support.

A radical shift by the Social Democrats away from liberal sentiment and policy on immigration in the past period has, according to The Guardian, ‘dragged the party sharply to the right’, but Mette Frederiksen has a different outlook: “For me, it is becoming increasingly clear that the price of unregulated globalisation, mass immigration and free movement of labour is paid for by the lower classes.” Not a move to the right then but a re-engagement with working class supporters who are bearing the brunt of globalisation. “We have become more aligned with many of the voters who we are made to represent, and who we became alienated from over the past 25 years,” says Social Democrat MP Peter Hammelguard.

While some middle class voters have migrated from the Social Democrats towards Red Bloc allies, leaving the party’s overall share of the vote relatively stable, the Social Democrats are clearly and unambiguously re-orienting towards the working class. The leakage to other Red Bloc parties may well have been anticipated; even ‘part of the plan’, says The Economist: ‘win voters from the right, even at the cost of losing some to the left, and you have shifted the overall centre of gravity, allowing a left-leaning coalition to seize power. The point was not to win the debate on immigration, but to neutralise it.’ More a defensive parry rather than a knockout uppercut in other words.

Concerns over immigration and the assimilation of migrants have long been key issues in Denmark, including amongst the Social Democratic base. According to The Guardian ‘37% of loyal Social Democrat voters thought immigration policy was too lax. And this was after three years of the most anti-immigration government in Danish history.’ Or indeed anywhere.

Along with the shift on immigration policy, the Social Democrats have also supported banning the burqa and niqab and the removal of jewellery from refugees to help towards the costs of settlement, as well as calling for immigrants in receipt of benefits to work 37 hours per week. Having adopted a de facto open borders position and lost the working class in the process, going too far in one direction has forced them to match the right wing on the other (as distinct from coming up with a holistic pro-working class solution from a position of strength). Up to that point, they had bought into the clubbable illusion (close neighbour Sweden is even deeper in the stew for the same reason) that mass immigration in combination with identity politics were no more than an extension of their core philosophy, and over time would significantly advantage the party’s electoral interests. Wrong, on both counts.

Yet even with this pivot the presence of the right, still amounting to double figures, demands vigilance. Beyond immigration lies the wider question of integration. Paul Collier writes in the New Statesman: ‘In tandem with her core focus on returning to the party’s roots in addressing the anxieties faced by working people, Frederiksen is paying serious attention to how integration can best be achieved. All citizens need to absorb the belief system of reciprocal obligations and mutual regard that underpins Denmark’s social miracle: that is the condition under which immigration from different cultures is sustainable.’

And ‘sustainability’ is the key point. We have had a taste of what a backlash against unsustainable levels of immigration looks like. Should the Social Democrats, and the Western polity more generally, fail to come up with a convincing line on immigration and integration then the spectre of repatriation is likely to be resurrected across the West, and not just for asylum seekers.

More than anything, the Danish election results illustrate that, in these chaotic times, neither the Left’s nor the Right’s political constituency is settled. Clearly, the working class can support a right-wing party in one election and then vote for a Left party in a subsequent election if the appropriate policy adjustments are made. And although electoral support for the Danish People’s Party suffered heavy damage, New Right and Hard Line, both of which are positioned even further to the right, took a large chunk of these votes and will, no doubt, be ready to pounce should the Social Democrats backslide.

Time will tell whether or not they do so. In a candid admission Mette Frederiksen told working class voters: “you didn’t leave us; we left you”. This same lesson applies to many other parties too, including Labour in the UK and the Democrats in the US. But they are not listening, committed as they are to heading at breakneck speed in precisely the opposite direction.

This article first appeared on the Independent Working Class Association facebook page on the date given above and has been transferred here in August 2019.

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