Denmark’s Left Must Find Balance Between Nativists and Progressives

Social Democrats try to lure back working-class voters. They must be careful not to alienate progressives.

Danish parliament Copenhagen
Christiansborg Palace, seat of the Danish parliament, in Copenhagen (Shutterstock)

Denmark’s Social Democrats are eying cooperation with the nationalist People’s Party which they have shunned for years.

Under Mette Frederiksen, who took over the party leadership after its 2015 election defeat, the center-left has supported such far-right policies as a ban on prayer rooms in schools and universities.

The two parties, who are both in opposition to a liberal minority government, have also made common cause against raising the pension age.

Frederiksen argues she is defending the Danish welfare state from the challenges of globalization.

Her strategy is not too dissimilar from her Swedish counterpart’s. Stefan Löfven, the ruling Social Democratic Party leader in Stockholm, has taken a hard line on border control, crime and defense in a bid to stem working-class defections to the far right.

Macron and Renzi

Their approach is the opposite from social democrats in France and Italy.

Emmanuel Macron and Matteo Renzi, respectively, vied for the support of middle-income voters with the liberal right and accepted that this meant surrendering the working class to parties like the National Front.

So far, the Macron and Renzi strategy has had better results. The former defeated Marine Le Pen with 66 to 34 percent support in May’s election. Renzi’s Democrats won 40 percent support in the most recent European Parliament elections, although they are now neck in neck with the populist Five Star Movement in the polls.

Cautionary tale

The experience of the Dutch Labor Party does not bode well for Frederiksen and Löfven.

It too tacked to the right on borders and immigration in an attempt to lure back traditional working-class supporters. The party toughened nationalization requirements while government. In the most recent election campaign, it proposed to revise the free movement of labor in Europe in order to protect native Dutch workers from Eastern European competition.

This failed to impress blue-collar voters, who stuck with the nationalist Freedom Party. But it alienated progressives, who fled to the cosmopolitan liberal Democrats and Greens. Support for Labor sunk to an historic low of 6 percent, down from 25 percent in 2012.


The lesson is not that social democrats can’t move to, or work with, the nativist right on immigration and welfare.

The lesson is that electoral politics are a balancing act. Lean too far one way and you lose supporters on the other side.

Frederiksen seems to manage so far. Her party is slightly up in the polls, the liberals and People’s Party are down. But, as is the case in the Netherlands, progressive voters in Denmark have plenty of other parties to choose from if they feel the Social Democrats are taking it too far.