It has been almost six months since my last serious post and what has happened in Danish politics in the meantime? Basically, we’ve had two major agreements about tax policy and disability programmes, SF and the Social Democrats look more doomed than ever in the polls and the economy is still frail. The summer entertainment was provided by Berlingske which discovered that the Red-Green Alliance was a revolutionary socialist party (I’m like … Who would have thought? I mean: Really?) and a restaurant-keeper in Vejle who decided to put a bomb under the agreements governing the Danish labour market – and receiving full support from the party of the moment (the Liberals, in case you wonder).
But today delivered two contributions to the debate about the state of the three-party government: An op-ed piece by SF veteran Aage Frandsen hinting that SF should consider leaving the coalition and a blog-post by (conservative) commentator Niels Krause-Kjær arguing that the Social Liberals are putting the government in danger by pushing their policies at the public expense of SF and the Social Democrats.
First, I think Frandsen in many ways make the correct diagnosis of what ails SF but given his political experience made an unexcusable mistake in suggesting that SF should choose the nuclear option and pull out of the coalition. Obviously, all interest has concentrated on this rather than his discussion of SF’s chances of raising its profile in while staying in government.
Perhaps I should point out that parties leaving a government during a parliamentary term is a very rare occurrence in Denmark. In fact, the only case is CD which left Poul Nyrup Rasmussen’s coalition in 1996 after a budget agreement with the left-wing. The problem for SF is that CD had the choice of supporting a Liberal-Conservative coalition while SF’s only choice is to try an enjoy a position as a left-wing protest party (in effect as a second Red-Green Alliance).
My advice to SF would be to put more emphasis on developing a deeper understanding of the demands being a governing party put on a political organisation and here a number of reshuffles and organisational reforms look like a more promising strategy. (I’m with those who think Villy Søvndal should never have taken the Foreign Affairs portfolio, not because he wasn’t qualified – I don’t think he has been less successful than most of his predecessors – but because of the demands of the position. SF desperately needs someone who concentrate on the parliamentary group and the party organisation).
Second, Krause-Kjær raises a question which is essential for anyone trying to either understand or control the dynamics of a coalition. Compared to many other countries, Denmark is a bit odd as the Social Liberals despite being the junior partner in the coalitions the party has participated in, has a reputation of being frighteningly efficient in promoting its own positions at the expense of its coalition partners with the economic and immigration policies of the 1990s as the case which is mentioned most often. Usually, junior partners suffer from participating in coalitions (see: Norway, Sweden).
First of all, I would agree with those who argue that the Social Liberals don’t exactly suffer from a lack of self-confidence. But as a (Social Democratic) saying goes: Once you deal with the fact that the Social Liberals are an arrogant and self-righteous bunch of politicians, you can do business with them – and the crisis which hit the Social Democrats during the 1990s also had a lot of internal reasons. Making the Social Liberals the scapegoat was in many ways the easy option for the Social Democrats. (And we should also remember that the Social Liberal participation in the three-party Conservative-Liberal-Social Liberal coalition between 1988 and 1990 hardly counts as a success in terms of policy and votes)
But the charge remains: The Social Liberals has been maintaining a profile which is so high that it is endangering the present coalition in the medium and long terms. The question is if this is true and what the party should do if this is the case.
The first problem is to decide if the Social Liberals are too successful or the Social Democrats and SF are failing. If failing is the problem, the question is if the Social Liberals can do much to help: The coalition partners need to improve their performance. A complication is that the SocDems and SF compete for different voter segments – basically no blue collar voter will vote for the SocLibs. On the other hand, a successful coalition is also a matter of giving and taking – a situation where one part constantly appears as the winner risks undermining the coalition in the longer run. The present Con-Lib coalition in the UK could serve as a warning to all parties.
The second problem is to figure out what the chances and risks of the Social Liberals in the electoral arena look like. If the party make major concessions to the SocDems and SF, it could risk losing voters to the right wing (in particular the Liberals, the Conservatives and Liberal Alliance) if it doesn’t SocDems and SF lose voters to the right and left. Perhaps all three parties need to take a common and harder look at the dynamics which have been pulling voters back from the left to the right since September 2011.