Last week’s big media story was the publication of “Den hemmelige Socialdemokrat”, an anonymous account of the everyday life in the parliamentary group in the Danish Social Democrats. Insider accounts of the wheeling and dealing behind the thick walls of Christiansborg (that’s Borgen, if you are a foreign visitor to this page) have always fascinated the media and some parts of the public – accounts that describe an ailing party with internal power struggles are even more fascinating. It is a bit like watching a feeding frenzy in the lions’ den at the zoo. Which, incidentally, you could also do this week.
If we want to read the book as an account of the state of the Social Democrats or life in a parliamentary group, the book has some shortcomings, though. The author is anonymous and, all things considered, there are some good reasons for this: Parliamentary work contains a good deal of considerations and negotiations, and these are best done outside of the direct public eye. This also means that the author has had to leave out a large part of everyday political work – any detailed references to policy debates and committee work would reveal the identity of the author and end his or her political career pretty fast. Still, if you read the book without any further knowledge of parliamentary work, you would be excused for believing that the parliamentary group of the Social Democrats was some kind of Paradise Hotel cast with MPs rather than dysfunctional youths. So, first, we should remember that the book almost completely omits questions of policy and concentrates on politics and struggles over central posts in the parliamentary group and ministerial portfolios.
Second, the author – or the editor – decided to enhance the descriptions with fictional accounts. While the book would always have been one person’s image of the parliamentary group and in many ways biased – even if we couldn’t pinpoint the exact nature of the bias -, we have absolutely no ways of telling which parts are fiction and which fact. Again, the elements of fiction could also be a way of putting up an extra smokescreen around the author.
But all things considered, the book is a lively account confirming most of what we believe to know about the parliamentary Social Democrats: It is a frustrated organisation with a distant leadership and lack of political direction. It is perhaps not surprising that there will be a distance between backbenchers and leadership but still Helle Thorning-Schmidt and Bjarne Corydon (the real villain of the story) only manifest themselves as shadowlike characters whom the author never really manages to grasp. Which political vision guides Thorning-Schmidt and Corydon? The distance between the pre-election manifestos and post-election policies leave just about everybody confused – and convinced that the Social Liberals are somehow calling the tune.
As it is, the situation appears to be even more frustrating as the pre-election alliance with SF also meant that an opaque faction of “workerites” took over control of SF with the Social Democratic leadership following suit. The political and organisational breakdown in SF after the 2011 election which eventually led to the exit of the party from the three-party government also saw the “workerite” faction leaving more or less en bloc to the Social Democrats much to the dismay of Soc Dem backbenchers – and in my view not just because of the increased competition for positions of power in the group but also because of fundamental conflicts over policy and strategy. If the “workerites” have failed in SF and brought the party to its knees, what are the prospects for the Social Democrats (even if there are some major differences in organisational culture between the two parties)?
The portraits of leaders one step down on the ladder (Henrik Sass-Larsen, Carsten Hansen) are livelier but not really surprising: They come across af typical hard men who run the day-to-day business in parliamentary group. Any parliamentary group.
Then there are the mythical “coffee clubs” which have attracted the attention of political journalists since that expert of personal branding, Ritt Bjerregaard, introduced the concept in the early 1970s. The creation of personal networks and recruitment of newcomers to “coffee clubs” is the object of much attention both inside and outside the group but as a reader I was left with the impression that the existence and relative strength of the respective “clubs” – or factions, if you will – are almost irrelevant when we look at the Social Democrats’ general policy and strategy.
Is the description lacking something here or do media put too much emphasis on these groupings? In the case of SF we can see that a faction has played a major role in determining the course of the party – even if the party leader’s decisions of strategy may have been the most important factor driving the strategic and organisational changes in SF between 2005 and 2012. The situation in the Social Democratic Party looks less obvious. Cynics would argue that the Social Democrats have been controlled by the SF between 2007 and 2011 and by the Social Liberals since 2011 and that the party leadership in any event needs a considerable range in its freedom of action in order to function in the complicated environment which the Folketing is.
To conclude: The book is fun to read for political junkies but while the author (helped by the editor?) has a talent for individual portraits, it lacks the more principled outlook which could have sparked a much-needed debate over the political direction and organisation of an troubled governing party.