The Social Democrats won the battle, but lost the war in this summer’s national elections. The party became the largest in parliament. But it had to concede power to the centre-right Liberal party 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 – without competition – as the next Social Democratic leader.
The 37-year-old female, who has been a member of parliament since 2001, is taking over a party that in spite of the electoral progress is appearing more defeated than victorious, not least among many of its local leaders as well as rank-and-file members who said they did not always recognise it 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.
Workers’ party, full employment – and involvement of members
Though Mette Frederiksen has often been considered to be in opposition to some of Helle Thoring-Schmidt’s more centrist policies, like reducing corporate income taxes as happened in the beginning of 2013, she has not introduced 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 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 presented her understanding of what the Social Democratic party is and stands for. She emphasised that the party will always be on the side of wage-earners, or workers if you like, and that the party’s goal therefore always will be full employment. But also that 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, language that Helle Thorning-Schmidt probably would not have used, and having full employment as the end goal plays out. As many readers will be aware, emphasising full employment rather than just ‘increased employment’ or ‘more jobs’ historically places a bigger responsibility of the state to ensure that periods of slow growth or recessions do not result in high levels of unemployment.
Frederiksen also underlined that ensuring a just society doesn’t only entail ensuring high levels of social mobility where disenfranchised kids can break away from their social backgrounds, but actually breaking the structures that mean that these kids are still predestined to problems at school, longer spells of unemployment and a higher risk of spending time in prison.
Furthermore, Frederiksen has continually repeated that she has no more ownership over the party than other members of it, and that she wishes to involve party members in policy development. While the party in the previous 10 years has become more centralised and campaign-oriented, there now is an expectation that it could again become a venue for local policy debates.
‘Walking the talk’
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 proclaim 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 members of the party will become impatient and demand more signs of change and renewal. Indeed, such impatience is likely to be on display at this coming weekend’s ordinary party congress.
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, but indeed a very important one.