Impact workshop: “The Left in Power”, Copenhagen 9-10 June

Duroyan Fertl

In June 2022, the Brussels Office of Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung hosted a workshop in Copenhagen to better understand and compare the central issues, experiences and strategies of left-wing parties’ participation in, or support of, governments in the region. The event was face-to-face and by-invitation only to guarantee an atmosphere of trust and confidentiality to participants.

The workshop brought together 30 party activists and decision-makers from among the political left in Sweden, Denmark and Germany.[1] Participation included current MPs, members of the party leadership, and activists with experience at the regional and local level from Enhedslisten (Denmark) and Vänsterpartiet (Sweden), as well as DIE LINKE officials and elected representatives from several German states and state parliaments (Thuringia, Brandenburg, Berlin, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Bremen and Hamburg).

Participants had the opportunity to exchange viewpoints on analysis and strategy, learn from each other and connect, gaining useful insights into the experiences and debates of left parties in the Nordic countries and Germany. A dynamic mix of inputs, interactive methods, small group discussions and strategy development, concentrated on a number of key questions, including the case for the “left in power”, strategies and tactics for making this a reality, and the question of placing limits or “red lines” on government participation.

The workshop was part of an ongoing series of events with a focus on the Nordic countries organised by RLS Brussels.

The left in power

In recent years, a number of left-wing parties in Europe have either entered government, or have lent their conditional support to (usually) centre-left parties to form government, at national, state, regional, and local level. At the time the workshop was held, the left in Denmark (Enhedslisten) and Sweden (Vänsterpartiet) were providing external support to Social Democratic minority governments – although subsequent elections have forced them into full opposition.

Indeed, the Scandinavian left parties have considerable experience with government at national level, especially with “tolerance” arrangements that are rarer in Germany, as well as at regional level (Sweden) and at municipal level (Sweden and Denmark). While the German left party DIE LINKE has not participated in federal government, it has a wide variety of experiences, both good and bad, at the state level – including in leading state government.

Set between the party conferences of Denmark’s Enhedslisten in mid-May and Germany’s DIE LINKE at the end of June, and in the lead up to Sweden’s general election in September (as well as well-founded suspicion that a Danish general election would be held later in the year), this was an exciting and relevant time to facilitate the exchange of experiences, strategies and tactics on this topic.

To enter government, or not?

One major topic discussed was a relatively fundamental question – why, and under what conditions, should the left attempt to enter power by joining a government or lending it support? The workshop looked in particular across the need for preparation – both of the party’s political outlook, but also of the expectations of its membership and supporter base – in order to make such a circumstance both possible and potentially successful.

Exercising political power needn’t mean entering government at every chance. Sometimes, sitting outside of government can be just as effective, winning outcomes without the risks of government, and retaining a critical distance from unpopular policies. The question of participation can also be decided by other forces who simply refuse to work with the left, and responding to attempts at isolation can also be a good gauge of political influence.

In recent years, Vänsterpartiet have been kingmakers in Swedish politics, providing the Social Democratic government a majority. There have, however, been attempts to isolate them. After the 2018 election, the Centre Party’s demanded as a condition of negotiations that the Social Democrats and Green Party not even talk to the left. Vänsterpartiet instead made their budget proposals public – printing them in the media – and many of these ideas were subsequently adopted.

Securing effective red lines

After Denmark’s 2019 election, Enhedslisten – along with the Green Left and the Social Liberals – negotiated a Memorandum of Understanding with the Social Democrats, establishing several key demands as the basis for supporting government: a commitment to 70% climate emissions reduction by 2030; adhering to international law on refugees; reversing welfare cuts; and fighting child poverty. On paper, at least, this was one of Denmark’s most left-wing governments, and expectations were high.

By Enhedslisten’s own admission, however, the mechanisms for holding the government to account were limited, and the red lines were not specific enough. The Social Democrats took advantage, gradually shifting to a more right-wing economic policy while maintaining the xenophobic policies of its predecessor. Polling suggested a majority of Danes supported this approach, making Enhedslisten seem isolated in its defence of international law and migrants’ rights, and the issue was rendered effectively unenforceable as a red line.

While it was ineffective in holding the government to account, however, this red line was a rallying point for many members and supporters critical of the party’s support for the government. Enhedslisten’s leadership was faced with the unenviable task of explaining the party’s continuing parliamentary support for a government in apparent breach of not only international law, but also the Memorandum Of Understanding for government.

The need for clarity (and a little luck)

In Sweden, on the other hand, Vänsterpartiet made more effective use of its red lines. Before the 2018 election, the party had clearly set out three preconditions for supporting government, but no one really believed that they would act on them and risk toppling a centre-left government. Indeed, on one of their conditions – labour rights legislation – the party ultimately followed the lead of the trade unions, which abandoned their opposition (under influence from the Social Democrats), and allowed the reform to pass.

This was quickly understood to be a mistake, and when the government proposed in 2021 to marketise the rental sector – crossing a red line the party had made clear from the outset – Vänsterpartiet stuck to its principles. It explained its position to the public and – when the time came – pulled the plug. A no-confidence motion succeeded in parliament, and the Social Democrat government fell. Minimising negative fallout, Vänsterpartiet immediately offered to restore support to government in exchange for the legislation’s withdrawal.

The move was a success – the centre-left government was restored, the rental proposal was abandoned, and Vänsterpartiet received thousands of new membership applications – but there had been no guarantee the approach would work. The right-wing parties could have voted to pass the new rent laws, which they agreed with ideologically, but their animosity towards the Social Democrats was greater. A high-stakes game, perhaps, but one that was carried out with great political clarity throughout the process – and a bit of luck.

Relating to the movements…

There was also a more general discussion about what constitutes a “red line”, and where and how it should function. Germany’s political culture – which places great importance on stable government – suggested the need for a less radical approach than that pursued by left parties in Denmark and Sweden, but there was an acknowledgement that perhaps the biggest difference was a definitional one, and that the focus should be on how best to achieve concrete outcomes.

In this respect the experience of the 2021 Berlin housing referendum – which saw 59 percent of voters support a proposal to expropriate the city’s “mega landlords” – also drew into sharp relief the complexities and challenges of balancing left participation in government with support for extra-parliamentary social movements, particularly when the government refuses to carry out a recognised popular demand.

There was a broader discussion of the importance of extra-parliamentary activity – both under DIE LINKE’s own banner, and in the social movements. Not only is this a vital source of political power in its own right that can help influence government decisions, but is also a protection against getting caught in the institutional logic of parliament, of making “necessary” compromises to take power or achieve outcomes that can gradually lead parties away from their political base.

…and to other political parties

A recurring challenge for the left is how to escape social democracy’s shadow, and be taken seriously as a genuine political alternative. The left’s vision should not be to receive ministerial posts, it was argued, but to aim for a time when it is distributing them. Swedish participants indicated that Vänsterpartiet has begun to work – on occasion – with parties of the centre and centre-right against the Social Democrats, meaning the left is no longer seen as a disposable prop for social democracy, but an actor in its own right.

In Denmark, after a near-death experience in 2007, Enhedslisten underwent a “modernisation” of the party, focusing more on victories and economic trustworthiness, presenting itself as a “normal” party. With this – and the accompanying electoral growth – participants argued, the party not only developed a culture of shouting about itself as the alternative, it also made the Social Democrats view it as a threat (something participants largely agreed was a common goal).

Participants from Germany outlined the left’s sometimes-toxic relationship with the Social Democrats, and DIE LINKE’s orientation towards them at the last federal election was raised as an example where sharper differentiation may have been beneficial. The stark differences between German states – from the overwhelmingly urban Berlin and Bremen, to the largely rural Mecklenburg-Vorpommern – was also highlighted, alongside the greater pressure to compromise in order to secure left participation in government.

Alternative views of the right-wing

Despite working occasionally with the centre-right, Vänsterpartiet maintains a taboo on working with the far-right – even if they sometimes vote the same way. Likewise for the German left, parties on the far-right of the political spectrum remain untouchable, although events in Thuringia in 2020 – where the liberal FDP and centre-right CDU worked together with the far-right to replace Die LINKE at the helm of state government – were given as a sober reminder that other parties cannot be trusted to maintain such a principled line.

In Denmark, however, while Enhedslisten’s updated approach to Social Democracy had already been discussed, it was not until late in the workshop that a more contentious issue emerged. It was revealed that Enhedslisten decided many years ago to categorise the Danish People’s Party – a party viewed by many outside, and indeed inside, Denmark as being of the far-right – as merely another party of the “bourgeois” right, along with many others.

The decision to not view them as far-right made it possible for Enhedslisten to work with the Danish People’s Party when expedient, including on policy, voting, budgets (such as the 2020 Copenhagen budget), and even (as in Bornholm after the 2021 local elections) government formation. This disclosure came as a shock to many, including some Swedish participants, who had been targeted by the Danish People’s Party’s racist policies in the past, and further sharing of perspectives on the far-right was proposed.

Shared challenges, differing experiences

Another topic that attracted attention was the question of how to deal with the bureaucratic state apparatus, taking the different administrative and public service structures in each country into account. Concern was raised that left reforms might be stymied by the influence of other parties within the administrative apparatus, and there was broad interest in the possibility of future collaboration looking at how the left can best work with existing bureaucracies, and – where necessary – reform or replace them.

Indeed, it was clear that all three parties had encountered many of the same challenges – albeit at different times, and in different ways – and participants agreed on the need for left parties to stabilise their support, appear as credible and responsible actors (especially on economic issues), and to convince the public that the left can be an alternative to social democracy, not just its support act.

There was also discussion about how the left could make the best out of government participation, avoiding the pitfalls that face smaller parties, taking more credit for left policies adopted by government, and better explaining its support for governments carrying out sometimes objectionable policies. It is important to not just pick the most “worthy” goals, but to pick those that are winnable and able to unite the largest numbers in support. With clear, well-defined goals and effective communication is it possible to better control the narrative around left parties.

What next?

The workshop was a great success, bringing together significant experience from the three countries in focus, and allowing participants to understand better the political discussions, challenges and responses relevant in the various contexts, identify common issues as well as lines of disagreement, and gauge opportunities for closer cooperation. There was also strong support from participants for continuing this discussion into the future, both at this level, and through more direct transnational exchange.

The political terrain has also shifted significantly since the workshop. September’s election in Sweden saw the centre and right – propped up by the far-right – enter government by the narrowest of margins. In Denmark, a narrow red-green parliamentary majority elected in November was rejected by the Social Democrats, who instead formed a “government across the centre” with the centre-right Liberals and Moderates. In both cases, the left has suffered an electoral setback, and been forced into opposition.

Finland – which did not feature in this workshop – will head to the polls in April, and it is unclear at this point if the current centre-left government will be returned. After this, it will be barely a year until the European Elections of 2024. Considering the challenges and setbacks that much of Europe’s left has suffered in the past couple of years, and the challenges the left faces in combating the multiple crises – climate, energy, cost of living, housing, security and more – this workshop provides a strong basis for continuing this useful collaboration in 2023 and further into the future.


[1] The workshop was held under Chatham House Rules. We therefore do not attribute statements to individual participants.