Occasionally, things happen that are so weird that you wouldn’t believe them if somebody tried to fictionalise them. Back in the 1990s the UK Prime Minister John Major famously tried to revive his party’s flagging fortunes by declaring that the party should go “back to basics“. No sooner had Major made his big declaration before the Conservatives were flooded with endless sex scandals – one more bizarre than the other – and stories of corruption.
So maybe SF should have been warned: Trying to go back to basics does include some political risks.
The attempt to put poverty on the political agenda should have been an obvious winner – with all the elegance of a herd of bulls in a china shop, Liberal Alliance’s Joachim B. Olsen had attacked earlier demands for Christmas benefits for people receiving social benefits (In Denmark, LA is also known as Team Saxo Bank with a reference to one of the party’s sponsors whose founders a strong adherents of the teachings of Ayn Rand). In political terms, Olsen looked like a sitting duck.
Unfortunately, SF MP Özlem Cekic hadn’t done her homework properly when she produced a single mother on benefits, trying to make a living for 15.000 DKK a month, presenting her as a case of Danish poor and an argument for the need for an official Danish definition of poverty. The thing blew up immediately: Following the OECD’s guidelines, the woman couldn’t be defined as poor and the debate immediately put the relationship between benefits and work income, rather than the conditions of people on the borders of and outside the labour market, at the centre of the agenda. Even worse from the perspective of SF, the latter-day descendants of Jakob Knudsen have won this round of the fight.
In short, Cekic and SF had pwned themselves more effectively than anybody on the right-wing of Danish politics could have hoped for.
I will leave aside the interesting question about poverty and benefits here and just ask: How did SF mess up the story so badly. After all, the party went through an impressive transformation since 2005 which made it much more professional and streamlined in its public relations. We really should have expected a better performance.
One answer could be that Özlem Cekic is a bit of a loose cannon and that the party leadership is struggling to control her. That she is motivated more by instinct than calculation would only make the faux pas more likely. All parties are plagued by rogue politicians but SF’s main problem is that its political profile has faded during the last year and the party can’t really allow itself any major blunders in the public eye.
Keeping control of loose cannons, however, is easier when the parliamentary leadership is working properly and as commentators have pointed out, SF has a bit of a problem here. Party chairman Villy Søvndal is busy establishing himself as foreign minister, the former chairman of the parliamentary group Ole Sohn is rattled both by loss of status in the internal hierarchy and allegations of his past and Thor Möger Petersen lacks a basis in the parliamentary group. Add that the choice of new group chairman after the formation of the government was a surprise and seen as a snub to the party leadership, and we have a very messy situation on our hands.
As a party which is new in government and as a party of the left (as in: to the left of the Social Democrats), SF faces special problems and the process leading up to the formation of the three-party government should give the party leadership ground for concern.
In the meantime, “doing a Cekic” will be the Danish equivalent of “going back to basics”.