The Nordic Radical Left

By Teppo Eskelinen1

Nordics, historical and present

The Nordic cases2 are interesting for the political left globally, because of the “welfare state” tradition characterized by a relatively equal income distribution, high-quality universal services, and very unionized workforce. Indeed, for many, the Nordics stand as something of a symbol for the best compromise with capitalism known to history. Yet currently, the “welfare state” is increasingly becoming an object of nostalgia rather than living political reality.3 The broad left has been in retreat, both in the sense of traditional social democracy losing its grip on government, and the radical left gradually losing its social support. In all Nordic countries, there has been a visible right-turn in politics, made especially alarming by the sky-high support of nationalist right-wing populist parties,4 but most concretely manifested, so far, in traditional right-wing economic policies.

The Nordic countries have been quick to liberalize their economies in the midst of the neoliberal tide – deregulate finance, privatize key government enterprises and welfare systems, etc. The growth of income disparities has been high by global standards since the 1990s. Under the latest right-wing government in Sweden, the income of the bottom 90% decreased despite a growing economy.5 The particular attacks on the welfare system vary by country. Sweden is infamous for creating a semi-privatized schooling system, Finland for producing horrific results in unequal access to healthcare, and Denmark for its “flexible” labour markets, while Norway is doing somewhat better thanks to its massive oil revenues.

What is noteworthy, though, is that these recent political and economic developments cannot be attributed to the financial crisis / eurocrisis to the same extent as similar trends in Central and Southern Europe. All Nordic countries survived the crisis with relatively little damage. Although there was some increase in unemployment rates between 2008 and 2014 (up from 6.4% to 8.7% in Finland with the worst unemployment, and from 2.6% to 3.6% in Norway with the best situation),6 it was never on a scale comparable to the Eurozone’s Southern periphery. Nor, except for some banks’ misadventures in the Baltics, was there a financial-capital bubble like the one that hit Anglo-America.7

In foreign relations, the Nordics do not appear as a uniform entity, as the institutional setting dictating economic and foreign policy differs from country to country, in terms of whether or not the country belongs to EU/NATO/eurozone. Finland is the only eurozone member country, and clearly is suffering from that position. EU-members Sweden and Denmark, as well as non-member Norway, have been resistant to the common currency. Nordic governments have been perceived for decades as something of a “moral compass” within the Western bloc, with high ambitions in peace, development, global governance, etc., but they have become increasingly conservative, and no longer see “saving the world” as something worth the input.

The Nordics have typically had high voter turnout, Finland being the sole exception. In the latest parliamentary elections, voter turnout was highest in Denmark (87.7%) and Sweden (85.8%), with Norway not far behind at 78.2%. The figure for Finland is 66.9%; the country stands out as having the most cynical attitude toward politics in general.8 The political systems are also very parliament-centered, in the sense that referenda have been few and without a clear mobilizing right-left dimension; indeed, the only issues subjected to referenda in the Nordics since 1989 have been EU-related.9

Yet, it would be hasty to believe that Nordic people are happy with politics in general. Citizens I interviewed believe, for instance, that the rise of the green parties in Norway and Denmark is a sign of anti-political sentiment, as is the spectacular rise of the populist right. Except for the Unity List in Denmark, the left parties have largely failed to present themselves as alternatives outside the traditional party system. It also needs to be noted, as a positive detail, that in Sweden, support for the Left Party is bigger among those who say that they have low or very low trust in politicians.

The Nordic radical left parties

Generally, the Nordic radical left parties come with a similar kind of background. These parties are middle-sized; that is, relatively small but not insignificant. They are not averse to participating in governments. Generally, the Nordics have had, from early on, a very party-politicized radical left, meaning both that the radical left has had an influence in shaping the policies of these countries – or at least in pushing the social democrats to the left – and that the focus on party politics has partly de-radicalized the left, drawing its activity away from mass demonstations, labour militancy, etc., and toward formal politics. The Nordic approach is likely to appear reformist, when looking from the perspective of the street-protest-oriented radicals of central and southern Europe.

Looking at left parties after 1989, a few general observations can be made, despite country-to-country differences. First, left parties tend to be continuations of varieties of communist parties, renamed in the early 1990s in order to abandon the “communist” label – and possibly formed in a process of rival communist parties merging together. By implication, the Nordics have not seen a Podemos-style new and movement-based left political force. Second, there has been a vague but steady and general decline in support for the left, although with election-specific exceptions.

In Finland, the Left Alliance (Vasemmistoliitto VAS)10 is a merger of left forces, established in 1990. The party has drawn steady albeit declining support, around and below 10%. The latest parliamentary election in 2015 gave the party 7.1% of the national vote, a decline from the 1995 high of 11.3%. Other recent elections show somewhat better support: 9.3% in the European Parliment elections in 2014, causing a return to the European Parliment, and 8.0% in municipal elections in 2012.

In Sweden, the Left Party (Vänsterpartiet, V)11 is a traditional communist party renamed in 1990. The re-identification gave the party a momentary increase in support. Generally hovering around 4 to 5% in parliamentary elections, the 1990s saw the party’s support go up to 12%, dropping back to 5.7% in the 2014 elections. Similarly, the party has attracted around 6% of the vote in European Parliment elections, securing one MEP.

In Norway, the Socialist Left Party (Sosialistisk Venstreparti, SV)12 dates from the 1970s, when it was formed as an electoral coalition. As in Sweden, and unlike Finland, its support has been fluctuating, with a peak at the turn of the millennium, but a decline since. The record election for the party was 2001 when its support was 12.5%, which collapsed down to 4.1% by the 2013 election. Similarly, the latest municipal elections have given the party around 4%. Yet, as noted, there is no straightforward declining trend: the party’s electoral success was lower also in the 1990s, quite like the Left Party in Sweden.

In Denmark, the Socialist People’s Party (Sosialistisk Folkeparti, SF)13 has been the most obvious equivalent to the other Nordic left parties, with similar levels of support, 4-13% in the post-1989 era. Having been at its peak in the late 1980s, its support crumbled in the 2015 election to 4.2 %, which is the lowest in almost 40 years. Yet, the difference from the other Nordic countries has been that there is a strong radical left competitor, the Unity List, Enhedlisten (O),14 originally a fractional-communist electoral alliance combining three parties. The collapse of the SF party is thus also a reflection of the support moving to its radical left rival, not so much a sign of withering support of the radical left generally. After a history of getting barely over 1% of the vote in the post-1989 era, the Unity List drew 7.8% support in the latest parliamentary election (2015), thus becoming the major radical left party in the country.

In addition to these traditional and more institutional parties, there are a number of smaller parties, deriving their raison d’être from hard-line identity, a general idea of not giving in to capitalism. Most significant of these is the Norwegian 2007-formed Red party (Rodt), which got very close to wining a seat in Oslo after gaining 1% of the popular vote. In Finland, the Finnish Communist party (Suomen kommunistinen puolue) manages regularly to win some municipal council seats. More marginal parties in the communist fringe, with a national vote in hundreds rather than thousands, tend to be characterized by constant splits and electoral coalition formations.

Ideologies

The radical left parties have been the last line of defence of the welfare state institutions, such as public universal services, progressive taxation, and a large public sector, and are trusted for doing exactly this. The key debates within the radical left parties concern the ideological linkage to the welfare state: is it the political agenda – the very purpose – of the left, to defend a political model which, despite all its inspiring elements, is still only a temporary compromise between capital and labour? Are not better compromises achieved – others ask – by more radical labour politics, rather than simply aiming to uphold an institutional model?  Yet other activists see the purpose of the radical left as promoting wider political ideals beyond the existing models.

Typically, the ideologies of the radical left parties in the Nordics are combinations of several political ideas, which are not self-evidently part of a uniform policy package. The left parties have generally built their political identity on the ideological currents of the “New Left”, that is, internationalist and identity-political sensibilities, attached to the more traditional issues of economic egalitarianism and the welfare state.

A common point of identification within the identity-political field for these parties has been feminism, which all these parties more or less formally and vocally endorse, the Swedish Left Party most explicitly declaring itself a “feminist party”. Also, environmentalism is a key part of the ideology. Often classifying themselves as “red-green” or “ecosocialist”, they claim to be the true promoters of sustainable politics, with competition coming from more right-wing-liberal “green parties” in each country.15  Indeed, the label “red-green” is the most common self-identification, also present in party symbols and flags. Often, environmentalism is a combination of global issues (such as campaigning for binding emissions reductions) and local issues (such as opposition to oil drilling on the Lofoten islands in Norway).

Furthermore, as the Nordics have seen a similar kind of right-wing-populist sentiment to the rest of Europe, the radical left parties have taken the position of true defenders of the virtue of global solidarity, and the politics of free migration. While having a history of endorsing such values, this has increasingly become the distinctive feature of the Nordic radical left parties, as even the traditional social democrat parties more often flirt with right-wing rhetoric as a panic response to their declining support.

Interestingly, the radical left parties in several Nordic countries are strongholds of not only open migration policy, but also euroscepticism. Vocal opposition to EU membership / eurozone membership are indeed often platforms that have guaranteed left parties more popular support.16 The Norwegian Socialist Left Party and the Danish Unity List have been especially close to the “No EU” campaigns, mainly building their argument in defence of the welfare state, seen as being under attack from neoliberal EU institutions. The biggest exception is the Finnish Left Alliance, which has never taken an anti-EU position but has rather seen the EU as an arena open to change through political struggle, although it has also always included a vocal but marginal “No EU” fraction. In all Nordic countries, the opposition campaigns around EU/eurozone parliament votes/referenda have nevetheless been visible and intense.17

Voter base and relations to movements

As in almost all of the advanced countries, the left has been seeking its identity in the post-industrializing world. What seems obvious is that there is no given, class-based support to the extent that there once was (in the sense of self-conscious “class for itself”). Instead, support will have to be fought for in an intense struggle over political hegemony. Yet, some general observations regarding the political base of the radical left can be made:

First, as already noted, the ideological support for the radical left appears to be moving from class-conscious fight for bread-and-butter issues, to support for leftist “cultures” or “values”, especially environmentalism, feminism, and global solidarity. This might of course reflect simply the fact that the Nordics have until recently been spared from the most devastating effects of austerity. Should this change, there will very likely be a return to material issues. Currently, as the Finnish government is most aggressively slashing the welfare functions, anti-austerity sentiment is bound to become the left’s driving force again. Indeed, this year, Helsinki has already witnessed massive (by Finnish standards) marches against cuts in education and social services.18

Second, the radical left has regained its position as a youth movement. While the radical left was seen by some pundits as an aging relic after the 1989 turmoil, the Nordics have also seen in this Millennium a new radicalization of students and youth in general. In turn, a key dynamic in the radical left parties and wider movements relates to the political and organizational differences between the student radicals and the blue-collar base: the internal contradictions and the future prospects are largely determined by whether these two groups with very different political cultures can find enough common ground to unite in struggle.

Third, Nordic politics also are inevitably influenced by the dispersed nature of the populations of the area. While in central Europe, the radical left struggles are those of a metropolitan workforce, the Nordics are (with the exception of Denmark) large land masses with relatively small populations; this means that spatial issues have an inevitable influence on the political landscape. Framing politics in the capital is notoriously different from framing politics in the large peripheries. Also, a strong part of the left’s traditional base is the peripheral working force, with the perceived hegemony of the metropole and the related inequality being always a significant mobilizing factor. A real issue for the radical left parties, especially in Finland and Norway, has been how to keep this base as the parties and movements become increasingly urban. Indeed, the Left Party organizers almost invariably cite building a stronger network of local organizations throughout the countries as a key issue – and challenges in doing this as a significant explanation for declining support.

Generally, the identities of the parties are quite largely shaped by the extent to which new movements have chosen to function on party platforms. As mentioned, in the political climate of the Nordics, activists are inclined to become party members. During the last decade, offshoots of the anti-globalization movement created in the Nordics such institutions as local materializations of the World Social Forum, Attac chapters, movements directly focused on protecting the welfare state, and movements with a single focus such as opposing privatizations. Environmental radicals have often had the greatest difficulty deciding whether to accept the left parties’ platforms. Another significant movement is the anti-racist movement: ever more people take anti-racism to heart in response to the rise of the far-right, and the uncompromisingly anti-racist radical left parties have become the political platforms for many of the activists of these movements.

Also, the radical left party youth organizations tend to be large, mobilizing and inspiring, providing links between party politics and popular movements. They have served as recruitment vehicles for youth to the radical left, from movement activists to party politics; and, they are also active radical left organizations in their own right with their own campaigning around social themes.

Interestingly enough, the Nordics have not seen any major new wave of union radicalism. Rather, the unions tend to be conservative and anti-confrontational, controlled by the social democrats. There are some unions with a radical left leadership, however, as well as some fields with traditions of strike activity (such as dock workers), but even these unions are not hotbeds for new labour radicalism. As an interesting single case, though, the Norwegian labour movement has been funding radical left groups as part of a wider hegemonic struggle. This created a wide coalition of left forces, which influenced the course of the country for most of the last decade. It also caused a partial return of the social democrats to form an alliance with more radical left-oriented unionists. Finland, which is currently undergoing a historic attack on the welfare state, is a case to follow in the future: will the unions be able to find new waves of radicalism and understanding of the need for new alliances, when under severe political threat?

In and out of political power

As the Nordic welfare state is a brainchild of the social democrats and generally associated with the left, a significant identity issue for the radical left is to distance itself from the social democrat parties. Above, I have discussed the ideological aspect of this (radicalism, relations to movements, intransigence on racism, focus on environment, etc.). But in practical politics, an even more significant issue appears to be the relation to government power. All radical left parties have had to face the decision, to what extent they are willing to become supporters of social democrat governments – and crucially, on what conditions.

Looking at the post-1989 era, radical left parties have been sitting in social democrat-led cabinets in Norway 2005-13, Denmark 2011-15 (SF), and Finland 1995-2003. In Finland, the experience of the radical left in government involved sitting in bizarre “rainbow coalitions”, with parties from left and right in a single cabinet, the latest of which even had a conservative prime minister (2011-14). These political experiences have self-evidently not happened without tensions, even splits within parties, as some have opposed what they have seen as using the party as a tool of justification for existing policies. Significantly, the experiences of the radical left in government in both Denmark and Finland ended with the party eventually resigning in protest of government policies.

Further, other parties have chosen to act as supporting parties to social democratic governments, meaning a promise to vote for the government in parliament in return for some political concessions (yet without ministerial posts). This has been the case of the Left Party in Sweden and recently the Unity List in Denmark. Thus, there is no major radical left party in the Nordics that has not had some kind of government involvement.

The radical left parties have seen participation in cabinets strategically:19 it has enabled them to use their critical position in forming a majority government to push for left policies (such as a significant increase in social security benefits in Finland in 2011), or to control a key ministry (such as the ministry of education in Norway 2005-13). Yet, the outcome of these misadventures in power has invariably been considerable electoral defeats: clearly, the supporters prefer seeing radical left forces pushing their policies as a parliamentary opposition. The collapse of the SF in Denmark (and the parallel rise of the Unity List especially in the 2015 elections), Left Alliance in Finland, and especially the Socialist Left Party in Norway after eight years in cabinet are all reflections of this same tendency.20

What is certain, after these experiences, is that the radical left parties will be wary of memberships in cabinets in the near future; rather, they are likely to reposition themselves as radical voices of opposition. Naturally, a reason behind these events has been the shift of the social democrats to the right and a blurring of social democrat / radical left identities as parts of a common governmental power, which has hindered people from seeing the radical left as presenting a true political alternative. Often, the radical left parties have dragged the social democrats closer to their left roots, but this kind of effect is difficult to demonstate to the public. Also, especially in Finland and Norway, the mainstream media have gained maximun mileage out of the radical left selling out, highlighting with considerable bias all its concessions.21

In the good years for the radical left (in Norway and Sweden), it grew as people turned away from the ever more capital-friendly approach taken by the social democrats. This all has taught the radical left that its political prospects depend on showing a clear distance from the social democrats. Indeed, despite their history, the social democrats have typically been the ones to establish the neoliberal order and push the countries into the market-oriented EU institutions (although whenever social democrats enter opposition, their rhetoric leans left, which also easily exhausts the political space of the radical left).

Conclusion

All in all, the situation of the left in the Nordics is largely shaped by its institutional nature. Radical left parties are serious parliamentary forces. This pushes the societies somewhat to the left, but also deradicalizes potential street protest, drawing activists to formal politics. New movement activists have often found their way to the radical left parties, but there has also been a lack of new left political forces, as the existing parties tend to have a long history.

The left is generally struggling with two main issues: first, distancing themselves from social democracy, and second, finding a compromise between the “material” and the “cultural” aspects of left policy. It is likely that with the decline of the welfare state, and with poverty again becoming a serious issue, there will be an increasing focus on “material” issues, but framing the matter as “defending the welfare state” looks unwise. An interesting aspect of this reorientation is that some parts of the currently conservative unions might get radicalized and align with the radical left.

In any case, in the face of steadily declining support, it seems that the Nordic radical left parties have to reinvent themselves in the near future; in what manner, remains to be seen.

Notes

1. The analysis benefited from comments by Stefan Lindborg (Left Party Sweden) and Ingrid Wergeland (Manifest Analyse).

2. “Nordics” refers to the four major Nordic countries – Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Norway. Iceland and Greenland would merit a separate article, addressing Iceland’s miraculous post-crisis recovery and Greenland’s independence dilemmas.

3. See Asbjörn Wahl’s excellent study, The Rise and Fall of the Welfare State (London: Pluto Press, 2011).

4. All Nordic countries have fairly similar right-wing populist parties focused mostly on anti-immgration and social conservatism, with occasional fascist tones. The results for these parties in the latest national elections were 12.9% (Sweden), 16.3% (Norway), 17.7% (Finland), and 21.1% (Denmark). As recently as a decade ago, these parties had no more than 0-3 parliamentary seats in Sweden and Finland. Their growth in Denmark has also been significant.

5. Pavlina Tscherneva’s data on the rapid turn to increasing income disprarities in Sweden appears in several articles, for example Jordan Weissmann, ‘How the rich conquered the economy, in one chart’, Slate Magazine [Online], September 29, 2014.

6. OECD data on annual harmonized unemployment rates. OECD, Statistics on harmonised unemployment rates by country.
http://stats.oecd.org/index.aspx?queryid=36324#, (2015).

7. Again, the noteworthy exception is Iceland, which underwent a full-scale financial collapse, to become the people-before-profits model for post-crisis survival.

8. Data on voter turnout are compiled by the International Institute for Democracy and Electorial Assistance. IDEA. Statistics on voter turnout by country.
http://www.idea.int/vt/countryview.cfm?id=-1 (2015).

9. EU membership referenda: Sweden accepted 1994, Finland accepted 1994, Norway rejected 1994. Eurozone: Sweden rejected 2003, Denmark rejected 2000. Denmark also held two referenda on the Maastricht treaty in 1992-93, rejecting the treaty at first but approving it later.

10. http://www.vasemmistoliitto.fi/

11. http://www.vansterpartiet.se/

12. https://www.sv.no/

13. http://sf.dk/

14. https://enhedslisten.dk/

15. This competition has tightened with new green parties entering the political arena in Norway and Denmark in the 2010s – with good electoral success by beginner’s standards.

16. See, for example, Norwegian Socialist chairman Audun Lysbakken’s strong pre-election stance against the EU, ‘Nei til EU og EOS’, http://www.audunlysbakken.no/2-nei-til-eu-og-eos/, (August 27, 2013).

17. A more detailed discussion on the strategies of Nordic left parties in relation to the EU can be found in the analysis by Michael Brie and Cornelia Hildebrandt in their edited volume, Parties of the Radical Left in Europe: Analysis and Perspectives (Berlin: Karl Dietz Verlag, 2005), 132-93.

18. There has for now been a shortage of coverage in English. For a Finnish story on the 2015 protests, see Pontus Purokuru’s article in Finland’s Left weekly Kansan Uutiset, ‘Hallituksen vastaisia mielenosoituksia tulossa iso lista’, Kansan Uutiset [Online], (June 4, 2015).

19. Very much in line with the findings in T. Bale and R. Dunphy, ”In from the cold? Left parties and government involvement since 1989,” Comparative European Politics 9 (2011), 269-291.

20. More detailed discussions on Nordic left parties in government can be found in J. Olsen, M. Koss, and D. Hough, Left Parties in National Governments (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

21. It needs to be noted, though, that the Nordic countries, with the exception of Finland, have explicit or de facto electoral bloc systems, in which parties associate themselves to a given government formation already before the elections. This makes radical left parties necessarily part of the “social democrat bloc”.

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