A warning from Denmark

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(381)

What would a Labour goverment under Ed Miliband be like? One indication comes from Denmark. As Jørn Andersen explains, the Social Democrat-led government was elected in 2011 amid hopes for a real change. But instead the new government has launched a series of attacks on workers

In September 2011 ten years of Liberal-Conservative government in Denmark came to an end. A new centre-left government took over, while the anti-capitalist Red-Green Alliance got its best result ever with 6.7 percent of the votes, leaping from four to 12 seats.

Very few were prepared for what was to come, not that there was much enthusiasm for the new government. The euro-crisis had made the social democrats backtrack on earlier promises from 2009. They even said they wanted people to work 12 minutes extra per day. The election was, nevertheless, a vote for a hope for change. But the backtracking did find a reflection in the opinion polls. The Social Democrats lost four percent in the last four months before elections - and had their worst election result for more than 100 years.

The Socialist People's Party (SF, a left Social Democratic party and now part of the governing coalition) lost 8 percent, almost half their votes, in the 12 months leading up to the election.The first warning came when the government coalition said: "The starting point for the government is the economic policy of the [former] Liberal-Conservative government." What this meant soon became clear. The government attacked the sick and disabled. It attacked people on welfare. It attacked student grants. It joined with the right wing parties to introduce a tax "reform" which helped the rich get richer. A promise of taxing the very rich harder was cancelled. The list of broken promises grew. The "hope for change" had gone. And in the polls government parties lost almost a further 10 percent after the election.

Stealing holidays
The coalition government's first attack on organised workers (which the former government hadn't dared to do) was an attempt to take away two holidays. It planned to negotiate the change through "tripartite talks" between the government, the employers and trade union leaders in spring 2012. Most trade union leaders were willing to negotiate. But then local and national unions started to get phone calls and messages from their members and from shop stewards asking: "Is our union part of this?" And when the executive of the right wing metal workers' union told the chairman that he'd better back down if he wanted to keep his job, the tripartite talks collapsed. The government's attempt had failed - not because of a well organised campaign, strikes or demonstrations, but because trade unionists wouldn't let the bureaucrats sell out.

Unfortunately nobody saw this as a chance to organise to prepare for the next attacks. A few days before the collapse, a large cross-union meeting had been called to protest at the sell-out. But when the talks collapsed the meeting was "downgraded" - and only 100 came. But two more very serious attacks were on their way.

In Denmark we have a trade union related unemployment benefit system. You pay a monthly fee, and after six months you could, until recently, get unemployment benefit for four years. If you had had a full-time job you would get about £400 per month (before tax), which is much more than you would get on welfare. The outgoing government, in its last months, changed this so you had to wait 12 months, and you would only get benefit for two years - but left it to the new government to implement the law.

This was not just a smart move from the right wing parties. It was also an outright attack on the new government's core supporters. More people will get desperate for a job, which will then put pressure on wages. But it will also make a lot of people ask: "Why pay for the unemployment fund?" It's expensive, and you only get benefit for two years.

Soon we will probably see a substantial drop in trade union membership because unemployment insurance is one major reason why so many people are in trade unions in Denmark.The new government had no intention of cancelling this law. On the other hand, it wasn't an easy ride to implement it. Twenty months later, however, it seems the government has succeeded.

Last autumn the Red-Greens agreed to vote for the annual budget if the unemployed were given six months of benefits extra. This was very cheap for the government - the budget was the harshest for several decades. Just a few weeks ago this mechanism was - again supported by the Red-Greens - prolonged with a phasing out mechanism. It now seems the law will be fully implemented in about two years. Why weren't there any protests? Not because people didn't care. At the time of last year's budget, about 80 percent of voters said they wanted benefit rules to stay unchanged. This means the whole working class was solidly behind it. A week before the final negotiations this May, an even larger majority of people who voted for the social democrats indicated that they wanted to shorten the period before you are entitled to unemployment benefit to 26 or even 13 weeks. Even among voters from the right wing parties more than 60 percent agreed. But nobody called for protests - neither the trade union leaders nor the Red-Greens.

Teachers' lockout
The last big attack, so far, has been against the teachers. The government - through the organisation that represents local councils - wanted to take away teachers' preparation time, which had been negotiated with the teachers' union. Now it would be up to management to decide how much time individual teachers must teach, and how much time they can use for preparation. The local councils' organisation announced well before the negotiations started that it was preparing a lockout of all teachers. This was immediately supported by the government. Still the leadership of the teachers' union said: "We don't want a conflict - it's the employers who are attacking. We want to negotiate."

This was clearly an unsustainable position.

The union leaders thought they could win this by being "nice". However, what won support was not being "nice", but when they started to talk about "discount education" and when, just two days before the lockout started, they called for demonstrations in the five largest Danish cities. Teachers were very active throughout the lockout with daily activities in almost every locality. Teachers had not been on an all-out strike for decades. However, the activities were meant only to win public opinion. The fight was very much controlled from the top by the union leaders. There was almost no collective discussion about how to win. Everybody celebrated Anders Bondo, the union president, as if he was a rock star. But there were serious problems.

From the very start it was clear that teachers were not just up against their own employers, but against the government. "Being nice" may have won some support in the polls, but it couldn't win against the government. Only solidarity action from other groups of workers could do that. Solidarity action didn't come - and it wasn't asked for.

All the public sector unions knew that if the teachers lost they would be next in line for government attacks. But only the FOA, a large public sector union, offered solidarity - but only if they were not alone. The teachers' union leaders rejected this. Bondo even called for a "balanced" government intervention. But when government intervention did come, just a few days before May Day and after almost four weeks of lockout, there was nothing "balanced" about it. Most of the employers' demands were made into law.

The teachers had been able to stand up against their own employers, but they couldn't win against the government on their own. They were beaten, severely, but not broken. When prime minister Helle Thorning spoke a few days later on May Day in Århus and Randers it was impossible to hear more than a few words. Thousands of teachers and supporters shouted and blew whistles. Signs with "bad smileys" showed their thoughts about the government.

A party in meltdown
The chief strategist of the former prime minister's party was impressed that the government had attacked the teachers. He wouldn't have dared to do this himself, he said. But the two "workers' parties" in government have paid a heavy price. In September 2011 about 75 percent of teachers had voted for government parties. Near the end of the lockout only 5 percent said they would do it again. The supposedly more radical partner, the Socialist People's Party (SF), has paid a particularly heavy price for being in government for the first time. They were the "party of hope" - with almost 20 percent in the polls 18 months before the elections. Now they are in a virtual meltdown with just 4 percent.

When the party's chairman decided last year it was time to leave, the party leadership thought it would be a walkover to get a supporter of the old guard elected. She was beaten with a two-thirds majority by an almost unknown MP who promised a "stronger SF profile" in government. She hasn't been able to deliver any profile at all. SF's only chance of survival is to leave the government.

The Red-Greens
The anti-capitalist Red-Greens are the main winners in the polls with 12 to 14 percent (but the right wing parties are ahead overall) - way more than their usual 2 to 3 percent. But it sees its role as parliamentary only, yet no parliamentary action can stop the attacks. Its parliamentary principles say that it will only vote for "improvements", and always against cuts. It looks very principled, but it is very much open to interpretation.

For example, it has voted for the last two budgets - arguing that it got "improvements". What it really means is that the government can - and does - make attacks with the right wing parties, and when a left cover is needed (eg over unemployment benefit) the Red-Greens are available.

Why doesn't it organise a fightback? With almost 10,000 members it is the only party on the left with the weight to do so. It says this must be up to "the movements". So it doesn't have a trade union strategy - or any other movement strategy.

Many Red-Green members are active in trade unions, movements and networks, but they get no support from their party. Behind this is a new parliamentary strategy that is becoming more visible. The Red-Greens want to "fill the gap" left by the crisis of the government parties. It may well be successful. But what will happen when, in a few years, this brings the Red-Greens into government?

The government's attacks will continue - with this or the next right wing government. Even if the economic crisis is not yet at the same level as in Southern Europe, the attacks are written from the same textbooks. Organising a fightback is crucial. Hopefully we can win sections of the Red-Greens to do it.