Debates in the Red Green Alliance over budget support

How could the ’left’ Red Green Alliance (launched in 1989 by the Left Socialists, Communist Party and Socialist Workers Party, which is the Danish section of the USFI (United Secretariat of the Fourth International)) support a budget that means that 40,000 unemployed people will lose their benefits during 2013? What is the left’s alternative to the government’s right-wing course? The debates in the Red Green Alliance in Denmark are important for all socialists.

After 10 years of right-wing governments in Denmark, the Social Democrats won the election of October 2011 despite getting slighly less votes and seats than at the previous election in 2007.

Then the Social Democrats and the Socialist People’s Party (SPP, a party formed in a split from the Communist Party in 1956) formed a coalition government together with the "left-liberal" party, RV.

The Red Green Alliance (Enhedslisten - Unity List - in Danish) - now more of a party than an alliance - gave support to the new government but raised radical demands and the need for a break with the neo-liberal policies. The RGA had received a big increase in the election - 236,000 votes (from 2.2 to 6.7 percent) taking them from 4 to 12 seats. Since then, its membership has doubled in two years - from 4,500 in 2010 to 9,000, last summer. Its public profile as socialist and anti-racist – in contrast to all other parties – has increased its support.

But hopes of a change were dashed quickly. The Social Democratic-led government continued with "åtstrammningspakken" (the austerity package) of the traditional pro-capitalist governments. Almost all promises of more jobs and greater prosperity were broken.

Last spring, the government made a deal with the right-wing parties for a tax cut of 14 billion Dkr (2.1 bn euros) that specifically favoured the highly paid. To pay for this, they agreed on cuts of three billion on early retirement, sickness benefits and social assistance. At the same time, another "reform" was introduced to force the sick to seek work – similar to what has been implemented in Sweden.

The Red Green Alliance, whose parallel negotiations with the government last spring were dumped, came in for harsh criticism. ”The government has now definitively joined the blue block”, said the RGA president, Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen, who also declared that the RGA no longer was a support party for the government. She said the deal meant ”’Pissing’ on the people who voted for a new government in the belief that it would break with the policy of inequality" (of the right-wing governments).

The Social Democrat-led government’s focus on "broad agreements" also included an attempt last summer to sign a tripartite agreement with the unions and the employers. The government aimed to "save" four billion by "increasing the labour supply" through abolishing one or two bank holiday days. But after just two weeks of talks, the country’s main trade union federation – the LO - said no to a deal because of strong criticism from trade unions on the ground. The LO in Greater Copenhagen and in Horsens were among those who chellenged the need for existing employees to work more, when there are 160,000 unemployed workers.

Setbacks for Social Democrats

The LO’s ’no’ was a major setback for the Social Democrats and the finance minister Bjarne Corydon. Even the metal-workers’ Union, that previously supported the Social Democratic right wing and the prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, now stood behind LO’s ’no’.

During the summer, the Social Democrats’ support in the polls fell to an historically low 16.9 percent, way down on the 28.4 percent they won in the 2011 election. The SPP also fell sharply while the Red Green Alliance undertook a Summer offensive with criticism of the spring ’reforms’ and recruited 1,400 new members.

At the same time, the Social Democrats directed harsh attacks against the Red Green Alliance and said that its criticism would open the way for a new right-wing government. The Red Green Alliance was accused of including "Leninists, Marxists, Trotskyists and communists". In fact, it was the government’s own policies that led to the lost support.

The trade unions have criticised the government since it took office and when it became clear that the government wanted to reduce benefits to the unemployed, the unions in the autumn stepped up their criticism.

Some LO unions have already stopped giving money to the Social Democrats. Amongst the other unions, the electricians and decorators announced that they are considering stopping their financial contributions to the Social Democrats and the SPP, and instead running their own political campaigns.

The union criticism focused on the unemployment benefit. Ten unions in the public sector warned in a publicity campaign, when the Folketing (parliament) opened in October, that the government’s proposal means "a social disaster" for thousands of workers who are losing their benefits. The council workers’ union’s president, Bodil Otto, said, ”The government must choose a different path, this will not do!". Unfortunately, this criticism was not followed up by a public campaign and the mobilisation of a demonstration. Such mass protests were organised several times during the period of the right-wing governments.

Government’s austerity hardened

Ahead of budget negotiations last November, the government’s austerity line hardened, with reference to the Danish economy being in recession during the third quarter. The proposal was for the maximum period for unemployment benefit to be reduced from four years to two. More than 3,000 people would lose their benefit every month.

Opposition to worsening unemployment rules has very strong support among workers and the population generally. Before the election in 2010, the right-wing government proposed cuts for the unemployed and the trade union federation LO organised a national demonstration against them. Both the Social Democrats and the Socialist People’s Party participated in the In that demonstration. For the Red Green Alliance, defence of the unemployed and early retirees was the main election promise in 2011.

The RGA was invited into negotiations while the government also began talks with one of the traditional right-wing parties. The end result took many by surprise, not least members of the RGA. Despite years of promises to vote against all cuts and guarantees that no one would be thrown off unemployment benefit, the RGA negotiators agreeed to the budget.

Their main argument was that the budget would have been much worse if the government had made up with the right wing. They also said the budget had been softened with an "emergency package", which requires the unemployed to receive an education offer with social benefits (9000 Dkr a month) for six months. After six months, the benefits end. But this softening does not change the disaster for the unemployed - six months training does not provide any real professional qualifications and the unemployed can hardly expect to find vacant jobs afterwards.

The Red Green Alliance group in the Folketing agreeing to the budget caused frustration in the party, but also in trade unions. A third of the party’s national committee voted against, and several important branches raised sharp criticism, including in Aarhus, the second biggest city. "We have criticised the Red Green Alliance for abandoning its unconditional demand that no one should be excluded from benefits, but unfortunately they did not listen", said Aarhus RGA chairperson, Lone Degn.

The Socialist Workers Party (SAP), the Danish section of the USFI (United Secretariat of the Fourth International), and one of the founding groups of RGA, wrote in a resolution that support for the budget, "Put in question the idea that the Left can or wants to do something other than managing the crisis of capitalism. The party has thus tainted its own credibility".

Criticism was also directed at the RGA leadership for not following its Congress decision from 2010, saying categorically no to cuts. The Congress decision even said that the RGA cannot support a budget if it does not include previous cuts being reversed.

Supporting the budget included a, de facto, acceptance of the spring deals with right-wing parties on taxes and sickness benefit. The budget also continues the automatic cuts agreed under the previous right-wing governments. In the new budget, these cuts amount to three percent of state expenditure - cuts based on the rules of the EU fiscal pact.

Red Green Alliance co-responsible for benefits losses

The Red Green Alliance is now co-responsible for the many thousands who lose their benefits. The credibility of the Alliance’s criticism of the government is undermined, while the Social Democrats and the SPP now expect support for future budgets. At the same time, the government can come to terms with right-wing parties when it suits them better.

The Red Green Alliance lost public support after the budget negotiations in early November. But the party has since risen again and received 9.7 percent support in a survey in January. In Copenhagen, the RGA, at the end of 2012, got over 20 percent.

One explanation is that the RGA continues to win votes faway from the Social Democrats and the SPP, which together lost five percentage points since the election just over a year ago. The RGA is not yet seen as fully responsilbe, which gives room to change its position and regain more solid support.

But continued support for the government will eventually undermine the RGA’s base. It is clear that their allying with the government does not prevent a return of the right-wing. On the contrary, the neo-liberal policies of the government open the door for a return to the traditional right-wing parties, as in Sweden in 2006.

A real socialist alternative

The debate inside the RGA about whether to be a party for struggle and a socialist alternative or a party orientated towards parliamentary negotiations will be intense up to its congress in the Spring.

The RGA made a mistake already after the elections in 2011. It could easily have voted to stop the right-wing parties and allow this government to take power, without presenting itself as a support party to the government. It should take an independent stand to all proposals and present its own proposals for the budget and reforms.

Socialists in the Red Green Alliance should stand for a ’no’ to all budget cuts, combined with a public campaign to mobilise support. This would strengthen the party and the left’s support, including in the unions. The RGA should actively intervene in strikes and local struggles to assist and attempt to provide a way forward, something the party is not doing in an organised way today. This should involve the new members and would give a basis for the the party to grow even more. It is a positive sign that several RGA branches have already started with protests outside job centres and on the streets.

The RGA needs a clear programme, showing how public sector services and jobs only can be defended with clear socialist policies. The RGA should show that capitalism is the root of the crisis and the austerity policies. Breaking with the present political direction would mean demanding a massive jobs programme, a reversal of the growing wealth gap in society and nationalisation of banks and big business under democratic workers’ control and management.

The development of a real fighting left and socialist force is also the only way to stop the rise of the right-wing parties, including the racist Danish People’s Party.

The government is planning new cuts in 2013, including a large "welfare reform" and the reduction of grants for students. This is occurring simultaneously with rising unemployment and new forecasts of weak growth or no growth in the economy. The agreement made at Scandinavian Airlines for lower wages and longer working hours shows what happens if the unions do not fight back.

These attacks from the government and the employers need a strong response from below, from the labour movement. A socialist alternative is about offering a break with capitalism and the EU framework and a struggle for genuinely internationalist democratic socialism.

For backgroung reading, see "New Parties of the Left - Experiences from Europe"

Committee for a workers' International publications

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