Kristian Thulesen Dahl, leader of The Danish People’s Party, celebrates after the election. Photo: Linda Kastrup/AFP/Getty
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Why even Scandinavia is moving to the right

The fall of Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and Scandinavia’s move to the right.

Another week, another setback for social democracy in Europe. On 18 June, Helle Thorning-Schmidt – the charismatic Danish prime minister, Neil Kinnock’s daughter-in-law and taker of selfies with Barack Obama – narrowly fell short of keeping power despite a remarkable comeback from political torpor two years ago. Her centre-left “red” bloc gained 47 per cent of the vote, against the centre-right “blue” bloc’s 51 per cent.

The result is further evidence that the global financial crisis has not tilted the arc of history to the left. It also illustrates another significant political story of our time: the squeezing of the established parties. In southern Europe, the Greek Syriza and the Spanish Podemos are mobilising against austerity; in the north, Eurosceptic parties of the right are on the rise.

In Denmark, the vote share of the populist Danish People’s Party (DPP) – the country’s equivalent of Ukip – surged to over 21 per cent. It became the second most successful party in the election, leapfrogging Venstre, the mainstream centre-right liberal party. The four parties that had dominated Danish politics for decades (Venstre, the Social Democrats, the Conservative People’s Party and the Social Liberals) gained only half of the vote between them.

Denmark’s shift to the right and the squeezing of its establishment are closely linked phenomena. They explain how the DPP managed to colonise ground on both sides of the electoral landscape. It has been nibbling the support of right-wing parties for over a decade by forcing immigration into the mainstream political debate. And yet, focusing on immigration alone, it struggled to get much more than 13 per cent of the vote. What made its campaign different this time was that it managed to reinvent itself as a party of the left – or the “left behind”.

The DPP performed particularly well in rural Jutland, the peninsula that makes up most of Denmark’s land mass, which suffers from lower growth rates than metropolitan areas. As one Danish politician explained to me, “The core dividing line in this election was between Jutland and Copenhagen.” The DPP has set itself up in opposition to the entire metropolitan political elite and won record levels of support.

As well as stealing votes from the centre right, the DPP tacked left by opposing the centre-left government’s plan to cut social benefits and pensions, a campaign based on “maintaining the Denmark you know”. It argued that the government should stop spending money on migrants and foreign aid, and should invest instead in social benefits for Danes. By linking migration to the future of the Scandinavian welfare state, the DPP managed to win support without sounding hysterical about immigration. In the televised debates, it was the two mainstream candidates – Venstre’s Lars Løkke Rasmussen and the Social Democrats’ Thorning-Schmidt – who were toughest on migrants.

Many Social Democrats, including a former minister who asked to remain anonymous, argue that the DPP was able to reinvent itself because their party had lost credibility by cutting taxes and consenting to austerity. The Social Democrats were caught in a pincer movement of their own making, hoping to win votes from Venstre by adopting a conservative economic platform and from the DPP by focusing on immigration. In the process, they lost their identity, leaving the door open for the DPP to grab a clutch of left-leaning voters.

The problem for Thorning-Schmidt was that although her party managed to defy expectations and top the poll with an impressive 26 per cent, the vote share of her putative coalition partners the Social Liberals and the Socialist People’s Party collapsed to under 5 per cent. Her campaign was successful for the Social Democrats but it destroyed support for her allies. It was a classic pyrrhic victory. Sweden is now the only country in Scandinavia that still has a centre-left government, contrary to the general view of the region.

Denmark’s Social Democrats were caught in the same trap as other leftist parties across the continent, unable to own or to challenge the neoliberal consensus. As a result, they were torn between reassuring the electorate by mimicking the right and mobilising it by offering a distinct alternative.

This is also the choice that will confront the Labour Party’s leadership candidates in the UK. The Danish election has relevance beyond Copenhagen. Like the human drama that captivated the world in the television series Borgen, it points to a universal progressive dilemma.

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Bush v Clinton 2

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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