There are few jobs seemingly as cynical as that of a spin doctor – those who guide politicians through the Machiavellian power struggles that play out between and within political parties. They help decide what politicians should say, and when and how they should say it, to maximise the impact of their message, and prepare their defences from counterattack.
While some hide in the shadows, others are almost as well known as those who they advise. This is certainly the case for Noa Redington, the special advisor to Helle Thorning Schmidt when she was leader of the Social Democrats (Socialdemokraterne) between 2008 and 2015, and prime minister fron 2011 to 2015.
Redington continues to participate to the political debate, albeit now through the pages of Politiken newspaper as a contributing writer.
Freed from any association to a political party, Redington could be forgiven if he turned on his former employers – the ‘elite’ political class that seems to be almost universally reviled in this post-Trump and Brexit landscape.
But no, Redington is on the side of the politicians.
“Our politicians are being humiliated to an unreasonable degree every time they take a stance, and they are too ashamed to stand up for their own beliefs. We have a political class, which needs to take care of itself some more,” Redington says.
To him, this is most evident whenever the topic of the EU rears its head in the political debate, and politicians hesitantly justify their support for the much-maligned union.
“It’s absurd to me that the politicians have to make so many excuses in regards to the EU. There are too many ‘buts’ and not enough ‘becauses’.”
Redington argues that politicians face two major problems at the moment. The first, is the decreasing trust of the public in political institutions. The second is the lack of economic growth.
“We see this crisis of trust surrounding the political class, not just in Denmark, but all over the world. And the problem is that the politicians don’t have the tools to address what ought to be done,” he says.
“Politicians need to acknowledge that we are living in difficult times and that there are no easy solutions. They need to stop being ashamed of sometimes having to shift positions on things. Sometimes you have to turn to untraditional means, and politicians need to insist that it is done to ensure the very best for Denmark.”
In Redington’s eyes, insisting on your political opinion will result in more respect from the public – regardless of whether that opinion changes over time or not. The persistence and determination that you’re doing something for a greater good, is always the strategically better way to go in politics.
But instead, politicians today focus too much on the public’s waning trust and it makes for self-conscious politicians. Rather than finding solutions to this distrust, the discourse among politicians has shifted towards the difference between the elite and the people.
“Politicians are afraid of losing the popularity game, so they spend a lot of time talking about class differences. It’s almost like they think you need to be an anti-politician. Uffe Elbæk [leader of Alternativet] has had success with this strategy, because he’s not like the rest – but politics is a tricky and complicated business and requires knowledge. We cannot live in a society ruled by anti-politicians – God forbid!”
While Redington admits that both Brexit and the Trump presidency can at least be partially blamed on anti-establishment sentiment, he does not subscribe to the backlash against the elite.
“What does it mean to be elitist? I’ve never met a single person, who’s been able to explain this to me properly. Is Lars Løkke elitist? I don’t think so. Mette Frederiksen? Not to me.”
According to a survey by Kristeligt Dagblad in October, only 12 percent of respondents thought that politicians belonged to the elite. This is worrisome, argues Redington. Why does the public not want the very best in society – the elite – to represent us?
“Our politicians are better than their reputation. We often forget to recognize that we actually live in a perfectly well-functioning society. And this is not just despite the politicians, but actually to a large extent because of them. A series of good decisions have been made over a long period of time – whether during a left or right wing government. We have a strong economy, a strong welfare state, and a functioning democracy. We wouldn’t be able to have all of this if our politicians constantly made the wrong decisions.”
Article continues below photo
New times for the opposition
A new right wing coalition government took office in November after the Liberal Party (Venstre) conceded that its minority government was finding it too difficult to reach a consensus with its supporting ‘blue bloc’ parties, particularly on taxation.
But while the three-party government (Venstre, Liberal Alliance, Konservative, or VLAK for short) released an 80-page platform outlining its approach in all areas of government responsibility, the newspapers spent as much time speculating on what inner power dynamics were responsible for the various cabinet appointments. Was the new government more stable or insecure than its predecessor? Had the PM ensured his own survival?
Redington is critical of this meta debate, arguing that it detracts from the actual policies the government has set out to pursue by creating an atmosphere of insecurity.
Still, he thinks the VLAK government is likely to survive, and usher in a period of stability after Venstre’s less than stellar solo run.
“The opposition must be annoyed by this new constellation because they have been pretty solid in the polls lately. They’ve really been riding the blue bloc’s wave of misfortune,” he jokes.
Redington argues that the key issues of the coalition government will be the economy, tax cuts, growth initiatives and of course immigration policy. And it is now up to the opposition – led by the Socialdemokraterne – to present their ideas for both stimulating growth and protecting the welfare state.
“Socialdemokraterne have accepted all of the new right wing restrictions to immigration, but they have yet to present their thoughts on stimulating growth. How will they react to the new government now? Will they deny that Denmark needs these initiatives?” Redington asks.
Since Socialdemokraterne lost power to Venstre in 2015, they have made two strategically inescapable transformations says Redington. First, they have communicated clearly that they don’t need to collaborate with their traditional centrist partners, the Danish Social-Liberal Party (Radikale Venstre). Second, is that they have joined the right wing to pass immigration reform that the Radikale and the rest of the left wing oppose.
“But Socialdemokraterne need to be vary of the balance between their goals for growth and their goals for immigration. If their immigration policies start to affect the economic growth – which is likely, if they accomplish getting rid of the green card program – then they’ll be going nowhere”, he argues, pointing to the visa programmes that could be scrapped by the right wing coalition.
Last December, Danes voted in a referendum not to swap its opt-out on cooperating in EU justice and legal affairs, with an opt-in procedure. It means that when the European police cooperation Europol transforms into a full EU agency, Denmark will have to withdraw, which will be a major blow to Danish crime fighting capabilities.
Several parties urged a ‘no’ vote, and argued the EU would easily make a deal to let Denmark participate anyways. The deal never materialised.
This approach reflects the deluded view that Denmark is a core country in the Union, Redington argues.
“We are living in a parallel reality in which we act like we are a core country, but we’re not. That was made clear in the referendum last December – and now we’re not even sure we can be a part of Europol!” he says.
“Personally, I find the current situation really frustrating, because to me it’s obvious that the challenges that we’re presented with, such as tax evasion, the environment, migration, all call for a European cooperation. But it’s flat out wrong to say that Denmark is at the heart of it and now we won’t take part in some of the biggest decisions in years to come – all due to the referendum”, Redington says.
While Denmark undermines its own interests by failing to fully commit to European cooperation, no political parties have yet to present a sound economic strategy to address the stagnating economy. This is problematic, Redington argues, because without this strategy Denmark risks losing its unique balance of welfare and growth, and security and freedom.
“There is nothing original in simply lowering the taxes until they’re as low as Luxembourg’s. And there’s nothing original in just focusing a lot on education, so we end up being a nation of Einsteins, who live on big ideas, hopefully. Denmark’s originality is staying as close to the Danish model as possible, and evolving it. That to me is truly original.” M