Our early twenties are for transitioning from adolescence to adulthood. We work service jobs to finance a lifestyle of sleeping too little and drinking too much. It’s a time of study, self-discovery and freedom before children and work tie us down into a more mundane life. Well, not for everyone.
“It was hard – while my friends were out partying and getting drunk, I was spending late nights in parliament negotiating the budget,” Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen told me as we stood in the elevator after the interview had finished.
It made me think. We are both 30 years old, but while I was starting a Masters degree in 2007, she had been elected to parliament for the Red-Green Alliance (Enhedslisten). When she was re-elected in 2011, I was six months into my first job as a journalist and still living at home. Fun fact: I still live with my dad.
Her prodigal political ability is both fascinating and suspicious. Age 23, she was the youngest ever candidate to represent a party in a national television debate. What sort of person feels prepared to take on that level of responsibility and not only succeed, but thrive?
“I spend a lot of time preparing. Even if the debate is only seven minutes long I can spend two hours practicing. Being able to express myself isn’t a gift. I don’t believe in talent,” she says, dismissively.
But I’m not buying it. Schmidt-Nielsen is the Enhedslisten’s first political spokesperson, appointed after she was elected to parliament in 2007. In 2011, after four years in the role – Enhedslisten is run collectively and has no leader – the party tripled its electoral success and amassed 6.7 percent of the vote. While fellow left wing parties have since stumbled, Enhedslisten is now polling at almost ten percent.
It’s an incredible feat for a party whose 2011 party platform called for Denmark to become a communist and classless society. Schmidt-Nielsen’s communication skills are evident during the interview, where she remains on message as she deftly manoeuvres and sidesteps my attempts to get her to criticise her political opponents.
“I would rather answer a positive question,” Schmidt-Nielsen says after being asked to identify Enhedslisten’s primary ideological rivals. “Enhedslisten stands for increasing the influence that people have over their lives and for increasing sustainability. It is catastrophic that the West has not yet realised that it cannot continue to consume and produce at the same rate as we have been doing. It’s obvious our planet cannot cope, but the machine just continues.”
Schmidt-Nielsen has no issue with being the party figurehead. When I return with a photographer a few weeks later she immediately takes charge, guiding us to a bright stairwell where she slips into an uninhibited casual pose.
As I hold the flash above my head for the photographer, I notice she has on the same outfit she always wears – black trousers and a white shirt.
“I’ve tried to never be accused of using my gender to my advantage, so for years I have worn this uniform. Sadly it’s much easier for women to be labelled less serious than men – a short skirt or slightly revealing top is all it takes,” she explained during our first meeting.
“There are politicians and female politicians. [The prime minister] is known as Gucci Helle, but no one would have called [former PM] Armani Anders, even though his suits are probably just as expensive. Women are still judged by their appearance and abilities as mothers.”
Schmidt-Nielsen is disappointed by the debate about gender equality that, she argues, is too focussed on extremes. The lack of gender equality is a pervasive issue that affects all women, not just those trafficked into the prostitution industry, or who are kept out of male-dominated boardrooms.
She has long campaigned for more action in the field, and in 2009 Schmidt-Nielsen facetiously presented a pair of red socks to then equal rights minister Karen Jespersen. The Red Sock Movement (Rødestrømpebevægelsen) campaigned for gender equality in the 1970s and Jespersen was a notable member – the socks were awarded to Jespersen after she finally presented a law 13 months into her ministerial role.
Schmidt-Nielsen has a history in direct action and, concerned by the role of supranational organisation in redistributing the world’s resources, attended global summits during the rise of the anti-globalisation movement as a teenager. Her interest in tackling social issues developed on a far more local level, however.
“I grew up in a commune in the countryside together with my mother and 29 other families. I was brought up to take a political position on the communities and societies I belong to, and question the truths we are given – and to think that’s OK,” she says, adding that she moved into student politics to address the failings she witnessed around her.
“I was in a class with lots of kids who did badly and didn’t get the help they needed. Despite living in such a plentiful society. I couldn’t understand why we didn’t help these kids. That was my starting point for politics.”
In Danish politics you have a choice; embrace globalised trade but minimise immigration, or be mistrustful of corporations and supranational governance and leave the borders open.
It’s a crude generalisation, but it illustrates Enhedslisten’s priorities relative to its political neighbours as well. In its party program, Enhedslisten argues the fight against capitalism requires opposing institutions including the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation.
Schmidt-Nielsen is quick to point out that her party isn’t opposed to international cooperation, it’s the only way to solve environmental and climate issues, which are central to Enhedslisten’s mission.
“The European Union is built on a political foundation that listens more to the interests of large businesses than the interests of workers and the environment. In a globalised world where capital and labour travel across borders, we need international answers. But the EU prevents Denmark from forcing businesses to provide apprenticeships, or agree to collective bargaining agreements in exchange for taking public contracts, arguing that it is anti-competitive.”
The Copenhagen Metro is an example of a public infrastructure project that has failed to live up to Enhedslisten’s demands. In 2013, several years into the construction of the new City Ring, only two apprenticeships had been given, leading Enhedslisten to demand that the transport minister take action.
Collective bargaining agreements and social clauses make jobs more expensive, but Schmidt-Nielsen argues that they pay off in the long term.
“The labour movement believes that we increase freedom by being organised. This has been attacked aggressively in recent years where the public sector is cast as an enormous burden around the neck of private companies. But private businesses wouldn’t be doing so well if there wasn’t a well-functioning day care system, excellent health care and a security net to catch the unemployed,” she says.
“Scandinavia would have gone bankrupt decades ago if redistribution didn’t work. ”
Is jealousy of the wealthy and accomplished the other side of the coin to campaigning on behalf of society’s most vulnerable? The right wing thinks so, arguing that generous welfare keeps people dependant on the state because it lessens their incentive to work, while high taxes are essentially a punitive attack on those who’ve managed to succeed.
Schmidt-Nielsen doesn’t share this worldview. When I walked into her office I found her flipping through the copy of The Murmur I had sent her a week earlier. She was keen to know how it was funded and where the money came from. She sees money as a corrupting force, not only in the media, but especially in politics, where Enhedslisten wants tighter and more transparent financing regulations.
“Citizens have a right to know who is financing political parties. It makes a difference that Danske Bank has financed Venstre when the same party was negotiating bank bail out packages worth hundreds of millions kroner. And isn’t it interesting that the four parties that Maersk finances, were the four parties that agreed on its North Sea oil deal?” she says without a trace of humour.
“We know that if lots of capital is accumulated in the hands of the few it means that influence condenses too, that’s how our society works.”
What about Liberal Alliance, I ask, are you concerned that a Libertarian anti-welfare party has managed to find a niche in parliament?
“Despite getting millions and millions of kroner in support from Saxo Bank, Liberal Alliance can still only attract around five percent of the vote,” she says waving the question away.
“It’s often claimed that the left wing is in crisis, but Enhedslisten is growing and has never had more seats in parliament. Across Europe we are seeing the same trend. The Social Democrats are the ones in crisis because they stopped challenging the market logic and instead jumped onboard. But we will continue to insist on social clauses and make demands on the businesses that we sink billions of kroner of tax payers’ money into. We also need to try and organise labour even better across borders, to keep up with the flows of labour and capital.”
Schmidt-Nielsen’s cynicism toward the charity and philanthropy of business is matched only by her disillusion of the government’s immigration policies. She recently returned from a trip to the Middle East where she visited refugee camps housing those displaced by the conflict in Syria.
“You are overpowered by powerlessness. It’s the worst feeling you can have,” she says of the experience, before launching into an attack of right-wing proposals to reduce the numbers of asylum seekers.
Right wing Dansk Folkeparti and Venstre both argue that asylum seekers are better served if they are returned to countries near their countries of origin, instead of being housed in Denmark. Some MPs think Kenya, home to the world’s largest refugee camp, could be an ideal destination.
“The idea is ridiculous – you might as well suggest sending them to the moon or to Norway,” she scoffs. “It’s bad for the debate that we would even waste time talking about something as unserious, populist and unrealistic.”
She is also highly critical of the government’s decision to bar asylum seekers from claiming family reunification for the first year that they are in the country.
“Attacking something as fundamental as limiting the right for children to be with their parents is totally unbearable. You need to have really good arguments to tell a child they can’t be with their parents.”
Despite the increase in asylum seekers and associated costs, Schmidt-Nielsen does not thinkDenmark is about to collapse under its asylum obligations. Rather, she argues that the fear of immigration is merely a well-rehearsed populist narrative.
“It’s human to be afraid of what we don’t know. But as a politician you have a choice: you either fan the flames or try and solve the conflicts that exist and reduce the angst. Sadly, lots of parties choose the easy option of fanning the flames and pretend that Denmark is being flooded with refugees. It’s awful that there are votes in saying asylum seekers should be sent to Africa.”
For a part of her trip she was joined by Martin Henriksen, immigration spokesperson for anti-immigration Dansk Folkeparti, who is a keen proponent of the send-them-to-Africa solution for asylum seekers. How is it possible to go on a trip with someone you disagree with so fundamentally? How can you even communicate?
Again, she dodges the chance to take a personal swipe.
“In Denmark we enjoy cursing out and offending other people for its own sake. It’s childish. So what if I’m allowed. What’s the point?” she says, before illustrating why she’ll never be out of a job.
“You need to stay far away from anyone who thinks they hold the absolute truth. It’s important to realise that in life there are conflicts of interest. There always has been, and there always will be.” M