- Interview by
- David Broder
In a country that spent most of the last century under Social Democratic–led administrations, Denmark’s local elections on November 16 brought major setbacks for the ruling party — and significant advances for the radical left. This was most visible in the capital, Copenhagen, where prime minister Mette Frederiksen’s Social Democrats failed to top the polls for the first time in over a century, as its vote fell by 10 percent. The party’s candidate Sophie Hæstorp Andersen only retained the Social Democrats’ grip on the mayor’s office thanks to the aid of smaller neoliberal parties.
The single most popular force was the Red-Green Alliance, whose campaign focused on the landlord-friendly redevelopment policies that have made the capital unaffordable for many workers while also causing harm to the natural environment. At the center of the Red-Green Alliance was its mayoral candidate Line Barfod, a former MP. She spoke to Jacobin’s David Broder about how property developers have taken over Copenhagen, her party’s recent election campaign, and its wider meaning for Danish politics.
Your victory in the Copenhagen elections was the first time in a century that the Social Democrats didn’t come first. But we could also say Social Democratic rule isn’t what it used to be. How has Copenhagen changed in recent decades, particularly as regards the question of housing and what it means to be a livable city?
Thirty years ago, Copenhagen was a very poor city. About 200,000 people had moved out to new housing in the suburbs, and those left in Copenhagen were poorer, though also including workers and others. Then, the mayor of the time made an agreement with the government to create a development company that would take over former military spaces, the old port, and the former industrial areas — the idea being to sell all this off to developers and use the money to build a subway and create new parts of the city along the metro.
At the same time, the mayor made an agreement with the Liberal Party — the other biggest party in Copenhagen at that time — that they would build no more social housing, sell 20,000 cheap municipal-owned apartments, and take a lot of the small apartments and put them together to make bigger ones. All this was meant to get money for the city, with poor people moving out in favor of richer residents, who’d pay more in taxes.
They did this for many years. There were protests, for sure, but not large ones. But this means that we have lots of very expensive apartments in Copenhagen and not very many cheap ones. About ten years ago, it became obvious even to the Social Democrats that it was a problem that no cheap apartments were being built. So, they said we need to have social housing again. They had the government make a rule that at least 25 percent of new builds should be social housing. But while they did start to build, this wasn’t enough. More and more people are getting angry that it’s too expensive to get a place to live: A lot of those who work in Copenhagen cannot get an affordable home here. Even many conservative people think this is absurd and has to stop. We need a capital where everyone can get a place to live, from workers to students and young people leaving their parents’ homes.
So, what’s the solution? Rent controls? More new buildings?
Rent controls don’t come from the municipal level but the national parliament. And it’s very difficult to get laws about this through parliament, because even if the Left does legislate this, the Right will change it back when they come to power. So, we are trying, but it’s very difficult.
What we’re saying is that the municipality should be able to insist on more than 25 percent social housing, especially in the part of the city controlled by the state-and-municipal-owned development company created thirty years ago. We should be allowed to say we want 75 percent cheaper apartments — and we hope that we will get an agreement on this in parliament. Social housing in Denmark isn’t meant to be just for the poorest or people with social problems, but for everyone.
While your party got the most votes in the election, the new mayor is Social Democrat Sophie Hæstorp Andersen, with the support of center and center-right forces. She is said to have a liberal attitude on drugs, but our readers might best know her party for its harsh immigration policy, and indeed the way that the demonization of migrant communities (or “ghettos”) is itself used to promote the “regeneration” and privatization of certain neighborhoods. How much did this figure in the campaign?
It wasn’t a big part of our campaign because in the capital, neither the Social Democrats nor even the right-wing parties are discussing migrant issues. For they know that they can’t get any votes in Copenhagen using the same kind of language that they use in the rest of the country: They’d lose a lot of votes.
For sure, we discussed the so-called “ghetto law” (a terrible word) and said that it’s absurd. The United Nations has declared that this law is discriminatory — and we can’t have that in a democracy. There have been negotiations, and in Copenhagen, we don’t have to tear down any houses. Yet some of the other cities in Denmark are now going to tear down sound apartments, good homes for people, because of this law. In Copenhagen, there are a few blocks that are being sold and privatized, and in some areas, they are building new private homes, the idea being that you need rich white people to move in, not people whose grandparents come from other countries.
So, while this legislation wasn’t itself a big part of the campaign, I think a lot of previous Social Democrat voters have turned away from the party because they can’t stand these inhumane laws and how they talk about other people.
What do you think drove the increased support for Red-Green Alliance?
I think it was mainly two things. First was the housing question, where we had the approach that it shouldn’t be the developers — private capital working for profit — that decide how our city is developed. We suggested doing like Vienna, which has been working with cheap rents for a century. Housing is part of the welfare system, and we should be able to give people homes they can afford.
The other part was the green transition, climate change, the impact on nature, and so on. We have popular movements that have grown very big this year, against plans by the development company owned by the state and the municipality to build on areas of wild nature that have endangered species. Then there’s also another popular movement because this company wants to build a big island to have more houses that can be built by developers to rake in more money. So, we worked with these popular movements and cooperated with them very much during the election campaign.
You had success in a long-Social-Democratic-run city. But a question facing left-wing parties everywhere is whether the goal is to recapture the previous Social Democratic base — even by promising to defend such parties’ own past achievements — or else mobilize a different kind of voter coalition. Prime minister Mette Frederiksen’s position on migration is itself outwardly explained in terms of winning back older working-class voters from the far-right Danish People’s Party, perhaps at the expense of losing parts of its left-wing base. So, how far do you think you are battling over the same voters — or is your electorate generally younger and better educated?
A bit of both. But there isn’t so much of the traditional Social Democratic working-class electorate in Copenhagen, even if there are of course some, also voting for us.
Copenhagen is a left-wing city. We see that even people who would once have voted for right-wing and liberal parties shift to the Left after they’ve been here a few years. The overall electorate in the city is young — one-third of voters are under thirty — and our campaign was aimed at them especially. Obviously, climate change and housing are both very much topics that speak to young people. The Red-Green Alliance has a new youth organization, created last year, and it did a great campaign mobilizing in areas where younger people live.
The Social Democrats in Copenhagen have held onto the mayor’s office through an agreement with centrist and right-wing parties. In national government, they rely on outside support from the Red-Green Alliance and the Socialist People’s Party but also the Right on some issues. And we find similar cases in the recent Swedish government formation process and the current negotiations on the Norwegian budget: Indeed, across Scandinavia, we have governments led by the center-left, but reliant on some means of outside support from the radical left. So, after your rising support in these elections, what kind of pressure can you put on the national-level government?
I think it’s been a shock to the Social Democrats — not only in Copenhagen but also in parliament, nationally — that we’ve gained so many votes, mostly in the capital but also in other municipalities. This also means something when we are negotiating in parliament. Now, they know that they can’t just focus on gaining voters from the Danish People’s Party by being as right-wing as possible but must also look to the Left. Until now, they thought this wouldn’t be an issue. But when we become bigger than them and might take power from them, then they can’t go on like that. The experiences from Sweden also show that they can’t just use the Left as a doormat to just trample on. They’re learning that they can’t just do anything and be sure of our collaboration.
Obviously, housing is one of the main issues we are fighting over. But also, when the Social Democratic government came to power, an agreement was made, a basis to work with [for this legislature]. One of the things that was very important for the Red-Green Alliance was to prevent child poverty, and this is being discussed now. The Red-Green Alliance insisted you have to provide a higher income to families with children, or we won’t support your government anymore. So, we’re waiting for legislation on this.
But it’s also important to make clear that in 2015 we decided on a new parliamentary strategy, where we said we don’t want to be just a party who try to draw the Social Democrats to the left. As this election showed, we want to be a party in our own right, making our own agenda and making people discuss the important questions — voting for us because of what we want, not just to be the little brother of the Social Democrats.