Progressive parties in the Nordic countries have also been wrestling with reactionary views towards immigration in recent years, documents Shafi Musaddique

Gaze towards northern Europe and you will see an alternative universe, one in which the left rules.

Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway and Iceland all have social democrat-led governments – an anomaly in the decline of the European centre-left. 

All these countries appear to be the realisation of a progressive, liberal democracy based on a strong welfare state and relative economic equality. When Sweden elected Magdalena Andersson as its first female leader in November, it cemented four out of five female leaders among the Nordic nations. 

But, scratch the surface, and you will find that the Nordic left is less rooted in the liberalism of equal opportunities than the stereotypes suggest. Indeed, decades of economic liberalisation and inflammatory right-wing rhetoric has co-opted a less generous mood. 

A pervasive narrative that non-European immigrants are largely to blame for a surge in crime has seen much of the Nordic left absorb elements of right-wing nationalism. This was witnessed in violence instigated by hardline anti-immigrant groups targeting Muslims in Sweden in recent weeks – the fruition of years of anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy.

Denmark has shifted the most against immigrants, shutting out non-native-born Danes from its welfare state – requiring them to work for 37 hours a week in order to receive benefits. Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has openly admitted that the rules are directly aimed at women from “non-Western backgrounds” living on benefits.

Frederiksen has implemented ‘ghetto laws’ first established in 2010, that seek to break up neighbourhoods, particularly among Copenhagen’s Pakistani and Somali communities, in what Danes have called the “biggest social experiment of the century”.

Areas with higher than average jobless and crime rates, lower than average educational attainment and those with more than half of the population being first or second-generation migrants fall into the ‘ghetto’ list. More than 11,000 social homes are set to go, along with mass evictions of lower-income people, displacing them to areas where they have no prior links. 

The guidelines do not differentiate between non-Danish born residents and native Danes born to foreign parents. To put it simply, Denmark’s social cleansing policies hinge on race discrimination; high crime neighbourhoods with similar problems but occupied by mostly white Danes would not qualify as a ‘ghetto’.

Former Social Democrat Housing Minister Kaare Dybvad phased out the term ‘ghetto’ – seemingly believing that a change of labels is the way of applying a ‘tolerant’ touch when, in reality, the Danish centre-left has maintained previous right-wing policies. 

Sweden, too, appears to be copying Denmark’s playbook. Prime Minister Andersson has vowed to clamp down and deport “immigrant criminals”. It later turned out that an illegal immigrant, among the very people she has pursued with her rhetoric, had cleaned her house. 

Ideological Shape-Shifting

Britain’s left can heed the lessons of its Nordic counterparts.

According to Home Office figures, the Labour Government deported nearly 21,000 people in 2005. In 2019 to 2020, Priti Patel’s Home Office deported 13,000.

The Nordic left’s loosening grip of its identity, ideology and vision is a lesson for the British left, unable to catch the shifting of the sands. 

Working-class voters have moved towards the right at home and abroad through a growing antipathy towards immigrants and outsiders. In the Nordic countries, there are consequently more and more examples of the left pandering to this bigotry in order to win votes – sacrificing its principles in the process.

Though the UK Labour Party has condemned the Conservative Party’s reactionary policies on asylum seekers – notably its latest promise to deport certain asylum seekers to Rwanda – it has also failed to make the case for a new, tolerant and liberal settlement. Instead, Labour stands on the precipice of lurching right for short-term gain.

This is the strategy of Denmark’s ruling Social Democrats, harvesting voters from the populist Danish People’s Party. 

Nordic progressives used to win 40% or more of the vote – a share of the pie that has reduced in recent years, forcing them into coalitions with opponents, by virtue of their countries’ proportional voting systems.

Perhaps this is why ideological shape-shifting is more acceptable in these countries – the blurring of lines between political parties, involving coalitions and policy haggling – is built into their democracies.

But there have been new attempts from the left to reach a right-wing base without pandering to anti-immigration sentiments.

Sanna Marin, Finland’s popular Prime Minister, has focused on improving paternity rights by increasing parental leave for new fathers, from 2.2 months to 6.6 months. Critics argue that she must widen her appeal beyond urbanites – however, at a time when the UK Conservative Party thinks of itself as the cradle of ‘family values’, leftist policies from the Nordic countries point to an opportunity for Labour.

Meanwhile, there are those who continue to celebrate diversity in the Nordic countries – wrestling with perceptions and stereotypes of history that have cast these nations as mono-ethnic states, much like in Britain.

“A multi-ethnic Denmark is not an option to be accepted or rejected; it is existing fact of life, for better or worse, [but] integration is much less problematic than the rhetoric of politicians on the national scene would have us believe,” says Richard Jenkins in his study of paradoxical identities, Being Danish

The Swedish city of Malmo, pigeonholed by journalists who have overplayed the ‘immigrant crime’ sentiment, hosts an annual festival celebrating Turkish, Indian, Middle Eastern and Chinese food, packed with multi-ethnic locals. 

And, as the author Micheal Booth describes in his book, The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind The Myth Of The Scandinavian Utopia, Malmo’s diversity is a cause for celebration by all. When its migrant population is not targeted by hate, it can be – and is – “a city at peace with itself”.

Europe’s left, as in Britain, must settle on its place in a diverse, globalised world – establishing how it can appeal to socially conservative voters without sacrificing the cause of progress.


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