What Can Danes Teach Europe’s Social Democrats?

It’s not (just) about immigration. Center-left voters want politicians to protect the welfare state.

Danish Social Democratic Party leader Mette Frederiksen gives a speech in Allinge-Sandvig on the island of Bornholm, June 16, 2017
Danish Social Democratic Party leader Mette Frederiksen gives a speech in Allinge-Sandvig on the island of Bornholm, June 16, 2017 (News Øresund/Sofie Paisley)

The victory of Denmark’s Social Democrats in the election on Wednesday would some seem to vindicate leader Mette Frederiksen’s lurch to the right. She hardened her party’s policy on immigration and supported such far-right proposals as a ban on prayer rooms in schools and universities.

A closer look at the campaign she ran, as well as the election result, reveals a more nuanced picture.

Culture war

Social democrats in Denmark, Finland and Sweden have all moved to the right on immigration and integration. This is contrast to social democrats in Portugal and Spain, who have moved to the left.

I reported here almost a year ago that both strategies appeared to be working. Social democrats have now won elections in all five countries. Assuming Frederiksen is able to form a government, they will soon govern in all five.

The lesson, it seems to me, is that social democrats need to pick a side in the cultural divide that is supplanting the left-right axis in European politics.

On one end are well-educated, cosmopolitan, younger and more urban voters, on the other the “left behind”. The former are generally optimistic about the future, the latter have been on the losing side of cultural and economic changes — or fear they will be.

Not everyone falls neatly into one of these two groups. There are young voters who are drawn to the alt-right. There are old socialists. And it are still often small-town and suburban middle-class voters who decide the outcome of national elections.

All the same, António Costa, Pedro Sánchez and for that matter Emmanuel Macron have sided with the first group in Portugal, Spain and France. Frederiksen speaks more to the concerns of the second. Social democrats in Germany and the Netherlands have refused to pick a side and are losing supporters to progressive and Green parties on the left and nationalists on the right.

Not a big win

But has Frederiksen really revived social democracy in Denmark? She won 26 percent support on Wednesday, or 48 out of 179 seats in parliament, a gain of… one. Support for the Social Democrats has hovered around 25 percent since 2005.

The real winners were outgoing prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen’s liberals, who gained nine seats; the centrist Social Liberal Party, who doubled their seats from eight to sixteen; and the far-left Socialist People’s Party, who also doubled their seats, from seven to fourteen.

Their gains came at the expense of the far-right Danish People’s Party, which posted its worst result in two decades, and the libertarian and mildly Euroskeptic Liberal Alliance.

Frederiksen didn’t emphasize immigration in her campaign. Leonid Bershidsky reports that she ran on promises to raise taxes on the rich, boost spending on education and health care, and provide early retirement for those who have worked for forty years.

Austerity

The real reason she did well (or not worse), according to Bershidsky, is that Frederiksen stood firm against austerity.

Since the financial crisis, Denmark has capped benefits and introduced stricter means-testing. This has helped to reduce the number of unemployment and social assistance claimants by almost a third in the last seven years — but it has also eroded the sense of security to which Danes had grown accustomed.

It’s the same in Finland, where the Social Democrats won on a promise to end the outgoing center-right government’s austerity program. The incoming government of Antti Rinne plans to raise taxes and spend more on higher education and pensions.

And it’s the same in Iberia, where both Costa and Sánchez campaigned against austerity and have raised public spending while in office.

In this sense, too, the Dutch and German social democrats stand out. Both have been junior partners in governments led by the center-right that cut spending during the euro crisis. Many left-wing voters have yet to forgive Germany’s Social Democrats for liberalizing labor law in the early 2000s, even though the party has now officially repudiated the so-called Hartz reforms that failed to create well-paying jobs for low-skilled workers.

Electorally attractive

I still think the culture-war element is relevant. I would not be surprised if the Social Liberal Party and Socialist People’s Party in Denmark attracted younger and more college-educated voters than the Social Democrats, just like Green parties did in France, Germany and the Netherlands in the European elections.

But I’m also persuaded by Bershidsky’s argument that what the center-left victories in Iberia and Scandinavia have in common is voter fatigue with governments that don’t pay enough attention to social agendas.

Whether in Denmark and Finland, where the unhappiness becomes manifest before most people feel any pain, or in Spain, where voters have been incredibly patient since the global economic crisis, parties of the moderate left can offer just enough tax-and-spend relief to be electorally attractive.