Political and Campaigning Lessons From the Danish Social Democrats

Hal Hooberman interviews Malte Mathies Locke, a rising figure in the Danish Social Democrats, about what the party has been getting right.

As social democrats, cooperation is at the heart of all we do, aspire, and fight for. The electoral state of our movement renders an openness to learn, both from the past and our sister parties, necessary. There are few better places to look than the Danish Social Democrats. Having beaten off insurgent challenges from both left and right, the party has reasserted itself as the natural party of government, substantiated by polls putting them at around 30%, more than double that of their nearest competitor.

When exploring the electoral successes of our Danish comrades, one is faced with abundance. Hoping to be added to this list is the Social Democrats of an inner-Copenhagen municipality, Frederiksberg, as residents head to the polls this November. 

Frederiksberg is unique in being both the city’s only distinct municipality whilst also the being the right’s only Copenhagen stronghold. Akin to traditional political patterns, the municipality heads into these elections as a Conservative-led administration whilst the Social Democrats lead the left bloc, sitting in just 4 of the 25 seats. This time, however, the Social Democrats have, to the country’s astonishment, their eyes on Frederiksberg.

I sat down with Malte Mathies Løcke, the Social Democrats’ Frederiksberg housing spokesperson and fourth on the party’s list for the upcoming poll, to see what the party has been getting right in Frederiksberg, and across the nation.

Having walked me, proudly, through his Frederiksberg, Malte ushered me down a brief few steps into the home of the local party. It was a Young Fabian’s haven. A treasure trove of ninety year-old banners, red flags, song books, campaign posters, and portraits of those who inhabit our shared ideological hinterland. I had to be prized away. 

This served as an apt reminder of a key point Malte touched upon, we are all too comfortable talking amongst ourselves. No election, industrial dispute, or legislative reform has ever been won by simply preaching to the converted, or in this case being ensconced in our comrades’ dusty archives, as enjoyable as it may be. We have to “go and speak to people”, going beyond those, and that, which make us most comfortable. This is not about brandishing “academic arguments”, instead we must “use their language” and “their lived reality” to listen, and reengage, after years of “people being left out”.

Politics, our politics, hails from how people feel. Whether they know it or not, everyone has something to say, that something needs to be listened to. In response to my concern that many feel ill equipped to engage on the doorstep, Malte affirmed that we must remind them that it is about “values”, that which you “feel in your gut”.

Such a reality has put our movement in uncomfortable territory of late, forcing us to reconnect with the primacy of values. Asserting it as one of the “tricky things of the art or craft of politics”, Malte underlined that we “shouldn’t underestimate the power of values”. Values exist, we “need to take seriously that people feel like this”. Deflecting and negating them only gifts our opponents free rein to harness their inherent energy. Malte pointed to the Frederiksberg Social Democrats’ focus on security and their efforts to redirect such feelings towards that of community, housing, and employment, citing it as “the central responsibility of social democratic parties right now” to harness these values “responsibly”.

Tied to the primacy of values is a frank conversation on the very utility of policies, alone, as a campaigning tool. In office, policies are the means to realise our vision, but in opposition “policy is not as important as you might think it is”. Malte underlined this in his reassertion that “feelings are such a huge part of key constituencies’ views on society”, “policy is important but it shouldn’t be spoken of as a policy” alone. Suggesting a rebalance between values and policies, Malte pointed to the national party’s successes in utilising people at the forefront of their policy proposals. An example of this was the much-touted proposal to instigate early retirement for those from particularly physically demanding sectors, dubbed the ‘Arne’ policy, firmly rooting a policy in a wider narrative and network of values.

Elaborating on this, campaigns can not be a loosely-linked assortment of individuals and a scattering of proposals. Narratives must be forged. Citing them as “beyond powerful”, Malte urged the necessity of a campaign telling a story that “people can see themselves in”. Individual policies’ popularity, taken together, does not, unfortunately, equate to the sum of their parts, urging instead the articulation of a story, something that “ever since we were children we’ve been used to”.

Shifting the conversation onto yet more difficult territory for social democrats the world over, we touched upon the issue that has seen the Danish Social Democrats receive most international attention, their tackling of difficult issues of salience, immigration and asylum being the prime examples. Addressing any void between the centre-left and its core support has to be at the top of any to-do list. Malte points to two fundamental reasons for the Social Democrats’ difficult shift to, put simply, the ‘right’ on the country’s openness. Firstly, strategically “if you want to win you need to be sure to have solutions to what people want to see”. Secondly, our movement can not let our opponents monopolise these issues, it is beholden upon us to tackle these issues “in a way that aligns with our ideology”. This is difficult, ideologically and ethically, but better it is us than our opponents’ ideological ramping up of such issues. Citing that such a shift has “created a lot of opportunities” for the party, Malte asserted that it enabled the addressing of “some of the underlying issues creating this sense of fear”, tackling the root of voters’ concern over the long-term. 

Difficult territory is precisely where opposition parties, the world over, have found themselves over the past year. Malte offers us an element of hope. “I don’t envy the Right now in Denmark”, in reference to the “force of nature” that is the ‘rally around the flag’ effect that oppositions have been faced with. It posits a “huge difficulty” and is “something you have to live with”, it is not reason to despair.

Alongside these political lessons, Frederiksberg’s Social Democrats offer importable lessons from the campaign trail. As we return to the world of boards, voter ID codes, door numbers and names, Malte emphasised community, both in terms of the electorate and a campaign’s volunteers.

Talking, and listening, to voters can not just spring out at election time as a means of securing office, it has to hail from community engagement. Inextricably tied to the necessity of listening, Malte considers it to be a tool for community engagement, enabling us to “meet the voters where they are” in the years prior to polling day. Malte, and his party, place a premium on “showing an interest in people” and proving that what we, as volunteers, are told will be relayed to these people’s candidates and representatives, “showing them that you care about them”. 

This essence of community is, for Malte, applicable for party activists too, highlighting the necessity of “creating the right conditions” to “connect people and make a social fabric”. Going beyond mere optimisation, the party’s successes is testament to the effectiveness of pushing for more internal personability. Practically, Malte proposes meeting 20 minutes prior, and after, any campaigning session, hosting an end-of-campaign social event, and giving individuals an element of responsibility for each session, such as brining the campaign material or planning the route, overcoming any feeling of anonymity. These are simple steps to foster a sense of community amongst volunteers on any campaign. 

Ultimately, our Danish comrades are in power, unlike us, implementing their vision and improving the lives of those they were founded to serve. A hearing is justified. Malte posits a number of political and campaigning lessons that have fostered his party’s successes, both locally and nationally. Of course, seamless lesson learning is implausible, but let us use our Danish comrades as a point of reference as we continue the scaling of what is, frankly, an electoral mountain.


Hal tweets at @halhooberman.


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