The Danish election doesn’t prove that the left should embrace anti-immigration policies

There are few obvious or easy lessons for Labour to draw from the Social Democrats’ victory. 

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The results of the Danish election can appear at first sight as a complete vindication of Maurice Glasman’s “Blue Labour” philosophy: the Social Democrats have regained their position as the largest party after adopting the hardline anti-immigration stance of the right-wing People’s Party. (They have called for a cap on non-Western immigrants, for immigrants to be forced to work 37-hours-a-week in exchange for benefits, and for asylum seekers to be deported to North Africa.) But it’s a lot more complicated than that.

Elections fought in small homogenous countries under proportional representation (PR) don’t translate easily into predictions about large countries with first-past-the-post electoral systems and large ethnic minority populations. In so far as there is a clear message over immigration to be drawn from these results, it is that the Danish electorate prefers anti-immigrant policies to be enacted by centrist parties, rather than those more clearly on the fringe.

The furthest right candidate, Rasmus Paludan, whose platform called for the deportation of Muslims, won only 14,000 votes and his Hard Line party failed to clear the 2 per cent threshold required to enter parliament. He vowed to “continue to fight against the total destruction of Denmark” but it appears that extreme Islamophobic tendency, although firmly established in Denmark, remains a minority pursuit. 

Conversely, the mainstream policies for discouraging asylum seekers are blunt and widely popular. There does appear to be a genuine political divide between those people who want immigration halted and those who want it reversed; and the fact that Mattias Tesfaye, the Social Democrats’ immigration spokesman, himself has an Ethiopian father only dramatises this. Only parties to the left of the Social Democrats oppose them, and all three of them combined won fewer votes than the former. Their voters, the calculation goes, have nowhere to go, so their preferences on immigration won’t count.

None of this translates easily into English (still less British) political arithmetic, because of Denmark’s proportional electoral system. The turnout was much higher — 84 per cent — than you’d expect in a UK general election, and the share of the vote required to win much lower: the Social Democrats won 25.9 per cent; the parties to their left combined just under that share.

More interesting is that the Social Democrats have moved leftwards on the economy. They want to increase public spending, and are considering different pension ages for blue- and white-collar workers. This is a reversal of a longstanding trend in Scandinavian politics and it shows how seriously the Danes take the principle of equality or fairness. The party is also considering raising inheritance taxes and reinstating wealth taxes.

This kind of egalitarianism is intimately connected with hostility to immigrants. The crucial idea here is integration. No one is allowed to diverge too far from the norms of society, whether this is because they are too rich or because they are too foreign: the preceding centre-right government brought in such measures as forcing immigrants to put their children into daycare for 25-hours-a-week from the age of one; automatically doubling the sentences for certain crimes if they were committed within areas officially defined as “ghettos”, and setting quotas on kindergartens to ensure they had a majority of native children.

Such policies are impossible to imagine in Britain — where is the childcare? — but they reflect a deep belief that the welfare state works because people trust it and believe in it, and this trust is maintained by nourishing a common identity. They certainly have an appeal to working class Danish voters, who have returned in large numbers to the Social Democrats and abandoned the People’s Party, the largest anti-immigrant grouping, whose vote was more than halved in these elections (from 21.1 per cent to 8.7 per cent).

One other aspect is important. The mainstream parties are all committed to green policies, reflecting voters’ deep concern about the issue. Environmentalism is one of the dividing lines between the hard right and the centre right. The belief that climate change is an emergency played an uncontroversial role in this campaign, and the historic reluctance of the People’s Party to take the issue seriously most likely damaged it.

But the lesson, above all, for British politics is that there is no obvious lesson to be learned. This may best be illustrated by the efforts of the Liberal Alliance candidate Joachim B. Olsen to win re-election. In UK terms, the Liberal Alliance are Orange Book liberals: pro-market, and great believers in what they call innovation. Olsen extended his pitch to the pages of Pornhub.com, where he took out advertisements urging readers to vote for him (“after you’ve got your rocks off vote for Jocke”). He was not re-elected. And, perhaps, not even the Liberal Democrats would make their pitch so directly to the wankers in the electorate. 

Andrew Brown is the author of “Fishing in Utopia: Sweden and the Future That Disappeared”