Frederiksen’s balancing act

The Social Democrats' new leader must tread a fine line between displaying economic responsibility and offering a programme for renewal that will enthuse the party's grassroots

The Social Democrats won the battle, but lost the war in this summer’s national elections. The party became the largest in parliament but had to concede power to the centre-right Liberal party (Venstre) amid strong gains for the populist right.

On the eve of the defeat, Helle Thorning-Schmidt stepped down as leader of her party. Only 10 days later at an extraordinary congress Mette Frederiksen was elected unopposed as the next Social Democratic leader.

Frederiksen, who has been a member of parliament since 2001, is taking over a party that appears more defeated than victorious, in spite of the electoral progress. Central to the discontent are local leaders as well as rank-and-file members who said they did not always recognise the party and its values when it was in government.

She will have to build on the success of the almost four years in government – where she was first the minister for employment, then justice minister – as well as reinvigorate the party with a strengthened social democratic vision and mission.

Though Frederiksen was often seen to disagree with Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s more centrist policies, like reducing corporate income taxes as happened in the beginning of 2013, she has not announced her leadership of the party as a break from the Thorning-era. As a consensus candidate for the leadership, she has kept Thorning’s closest allies at the head of the party and vowed to continue the line of ‘economic responsibility’ of the party’s time in government.

That being said, it is clear that Mette Frederiksen has her own ambitions for the Social Democrats and that they do not only signal continuity, but also change.

In her speech at the congress where she was elected as leader, she emphasised that the party will always be on the side of wage-earners and that the party’s goal therefore will always be full employment. But if you are a worker’s party, then you must also be a party of workplaces – ie pursue progressive growth and business policies that enhance the competitiveness of companies.

The interesting part will be how siding more directly with wage-earners and having full employment as the end goal plays out. Emphasising full employment rather than just ‘increased employment’ or ‘more jobs’ historically places a greater responsibility on the state to ensure that periods of slow growth or recessions do not result in high levels of unemployment.

Frederiksen also underlined that maintaining a fair society doesn’t just entail ensuring high levels of social mobility, but also requires breaking the structures that make some children predestined to struggle at school, suffer longer spells of unemployment and a higher risk of spending time in prison.

Mette Frederiksen’s strategy appears to be to ‘walk the talk’ by gradually showing her opposition to the new centre-right government through concrete policy proposals rather than by proclaiming a big, new Social Democratic project. This seems reasonable and a good way to keep the party – not least its parliamentary group – united around her.

However, the risk of this strategy is that the broad base of party members will become impatient and demand more signs of change and renewal. In balancing continuity and change Mette Frederiksen and the Social Democrats will have to sharpen their political project, show how economic responsibility is more than keeping public finances in balance, but also translates into progress for ordinary people, and to lay out a path for how the welfare state can be renewed. Not an easy task. M


By Kristian Weise

Director of the progressive Danish think tank Cevea, Kristian has previously been head of Seretariat for the Danish Social Democrats.

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