The left can win opposing austerity

Photo: Arbeiderpartiet
Red Bloc leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt


By Nicky Dempsey

The outcome of the recent general election in Denmark produced a victory for the left where the decisive issue was pro- or anti-cuts. The outcome holds wider lessons for the left across Europe.

The election sees the Blue Bloc led by Lars Løkke Rasmussen‘s Liberal Party replaced by the Red Bloc led by Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s Social Democrats. Importantly, she is Denmark’s first-ever woman Prime Minister.

This is despite the fact that the Liberals gained a seat and the Social Democrats lost one. There was no great enthusiasm for either main party. Their share of the vote went from 29% and 25.5% in the 2007 general election to 26.7% and 24.8% respectively. The big losers from the election were the openly racist and pro-cuts Christian People’s Party which slumped from 10.4% of the poll in 2007 to 4.9% in the recent election.

By contrast, the two winners were the Red-Green Alliance and the Social Liberal Parties. Both are members of the incoming Red Bloc, but may be uneasy coalition partners. They each made equal gains, the Red-Green Alliance rising from 2.2% in the last general election to 6.7% and the Social Liberals increasing their vote from 5.1% to 9.5%.

The Red-Green Alliance is itself an alliance of difference currents who identify themselves from the left Social Democratic, Communist and Trotskyist traditions. It is militantly opposed to the cuts, but has seen repeated internal battles over combating Islamophobia, with some willing to make concessions to racism.

The Social Liberal Party made strong gains primarily because of its clear opposition to racist and discriminatory immigration policies, which include the ’24 year rule’, that prevents foreign nationals who marry Danes from gaining residence permits if either spouse is aged 24 years or below. This has led to the ridiculous imposition where many of these couples are forced to reside in neighbouring countries- and pay taxes there- even while working in Denmark. However, despite progressive policies in both education and in taxation, the Social Liberals seem destined to be unreliable allies in opposing further cuts.

At the forefront of the new government is the Social Democrats who were willing to make a series of concessions to the right during the course of the election campaign- and were rewarded with a steady drop in their showing in the polls as a result.

Yet these are the decisive questions. The Red Bloc won by opposing the Blue Bloc’s policy of government spending cuts. The biggest winners were those that opposed the cuts and those who opposed scapegoating Muslims in particular and immigrants in general. However, the overall victory over the reactionary Blue Bloc was a very slim one – 50.2% versus 49.8%.

There is a clear lesson from the campaign and the outcome. Making concessions to the right is as negative electorally as it is economically – as the Social Democrats failure to advance testifies. More consistent opposition to cuts was the key to the Red-Green Alliance’s success. But a winning coalition needs to take up all the concerns of society and all social questions. As the rise of the Social Liberals shows, this means taking a progressive stance on issues such as education and taxation. But above all in the current context it means a consistent stance in opposing racism and Islamophobia. If the Red Bloc can maintain a consistent stance on both these issues, it can stabilise and prosper.

In Britain it has become commonplace for Blairites in the Labour party to argue that the rise of the right in Europe means that it is necessary to shift even further across the political spectrum if Labour is to win again. Neglecting the fact that the Blairites are already to the right even of some traditional Christian Democrats in Europe, the outcome of the Danish election gives the lie to this excuse for embracing further reactionary policies. The string of recent important regional German elections points in the same direction. In France, despite the ogre of the Front National being used to scare moderate voters towards President Sarkozy, opinion polls since the large-scale protests against pensions cuts consistently show any Socialist Party candidate trouncing him in the 2013 presidential election.

It is true there as yet has been no great shift to the left in Europe under the impact of the cuts. But the right is not carrying all before it. A consistent policy of opposing cuts, and opposing the accompanying tide of racism and Islamophobia can make the left winners.