Friday 24 May 2019

Dan O'Brien: Danish lessons for Irish progressives on how to avoid being left in the lurch

A new book by a leading Nordic social democrat should be top of the Labour Party's reading list, writes Dan O'Brien

NO CHOICE: Henrik Sass Larsen says centre-left parties must act on immigration and globalisation.
NO CHOICE: Henrik Sass Larsen says centre-left parties must act on immigration and globalisation.
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

Most readers of these pages have an interest in politics. Most readers will also know a thing or two about the politics of big countries that are important to Ireland - Britain, the US and, more recently, Germany.

But the political dynamics of big countries are different from those of a small country like Ireland. Getting a deep insight into the politics of peer countries - the arc of smaller nations from the Netherlands to Finland - is not easy for a number of reasons, with the language barrier being perhaps the greatest obstacle.

Yet understanding the politics of other similar countries helps us understand our own. What is different and what is similar gives us another dimension when we think about how our own country works.

Denmark is a widely admired country. Scholars of democratisation use 'Getting to Denmark' as shorthand for how all countries might seek to improve their democracies and the efficacy of the many functions the modern state has taken on. As a country similar in size to Ireland, and one with a strong agrarian tradition, it has been used here as a benchmark against which to compare ourselves almost since this State's founding.

Henrik Sass Larsen is a leading member of the Danish Social Democrat party and a former minister. His book, recently published in English as well as Danish, is a fascinating read. Exodus: A Roadmap for the Centre-Left is striking particularly because so many parallels with Ireland leap out from its pages. "Denmark sold off its telecommunications infrastructure, and Danes continue to suffer from a miserable supply of broadband services and mobile coverage" is just one highly topical example.

The book is of particular relevance to those on the centre-left and in the Labour Party, whose support is at historically low levels, a fate shared with many other centre-left parties across Europe. The fragmentation of the vote in many countries and the rise of illiberal parties has sapped even more support from social democrats than from their counterparts on the centre-right. Denmark's Social Democrat party, which dominated that country's politics much as Fianna Fail dominated Ireland's during the 20th Century, is doing much better than Labour, but its support, at a stubborn 25pc of the vote, is well below its peaks of yesteryear.

There is a debate raging across the political spectrum on the reasons behind changing voter behaviour in the western world. It has been particularly intense among social democrats, because differences are wide and deep both on the causes of the change and on how to respond to it. On the one hand, there are those who believe that the centre-left has not been left-wing enough in addressing inequalities. On the other side of the debate are those who focus more on non-economic issues, believing that the centre-left has lost touch with its old working class base.

Sass Larsen is not a fence-sitter in this debate. "The Marxist ghosts of the past are not worth revisiting," he writes, referencing the British Labour Party. He believes that the centre-left has lost out because of its "glaring failure" to respond to two major issues: immigration and globalisation.

Before looking at his analysis of those big issues, it is worth considering the chapter on the relationship between politicians and the media, not least because Sass Larsen's intensely negative views of the press are so similar to the views of many Irish politicians (and others in officialdom).

He accuses the Danish press of being Copenhagen-centric and elitist; having no clue about life in rural areas; being interested only in the Punch and Judy of personalised conflicts and having no interest in the substance of policy proposals; and tending increasingly to blur the line between reporting and opining. These are charges often made against the media in Ireland. They are not entirely without foundation.

What is different between Ireland and Denmark are libel laws and the role of the legal system. In Denmark, Sass Larsen claims that destroying a person's career and good name based on false or inaccurate journalistic claims ends with "a small fine or a wagging finger from the courts, but the publishers can laugh all the way to the bank in the face of these feeble reprimands". Ireland's libel laws, legal system and huge payouts by juries in defamation cases mean that the consequences of getting it wrong for journalists and editors is different from Denmark where individual rights - in this case, the right to one's good name - are given less priority.

The most controversial aspect of the book is its position on immigration. Sass Larsen's views on the subject are very different from those of any Irish political party, never mind any grouping or individual on the left of the political spectrum. "Throughout the old western world, massive immigration has led to extensive social, economic, political and cultural tensions," he states, arguing that if social democrats don't advocate ways of addressing these tensions, they will not get back into power.

Most controversially, he argues that migrants from a "middle eastern/Islamic background" are more difficult to integrate, comparing the history of two groups who arrived in Denmark in the 1970s - Vietnamese boat people and Turkish guest workers. The former have integrated well, while the latter have not, he writes. He goes as far as to call the experiment in integration a disaster and claims that nowhere has it been made successful.

The experience of large-scale immigration in Ireland has started relatively well, but it is far from clear that the lessons from other countries are being learnt. Last year, a study by the ESRI found that some migrant groups have much lower employment rates than others and that there are large differences in some measures of poverty. The prevailing position in official Ireland is to talk up the benefits of diversity and ignore the downsides that other countries, such as Denmark, have experienced. This may prove to be a costly mistake.

If Sass Larsen's views on immigration represent a new and increasingly common position on the centre-left in northern Europe, his views on the role of the state in society and the economy are more traditional.

As an ardent supporter of public provision and the welfare state, he believes that they have been the left's greatest achievement. Nor is he behind the door in warning that his political rivals on the right want to reverse the achievement of which he is so proud. Somewhat predictably, he criticises Ireland for engaging in "grotesque competition" and a "race to the bottom" with its corporation tax (which he erroneously states is 0pc).

The Nordic countries are often looked to by those on the Irish left as the model to which to aspire when it comes to the role of the state in health, education and welfare. But it is not nirvana in northern Europe. Sass Larsen's comments on failings in the Danish public sector will ring many bells here.

"There is a lack of leadership, there is a lack of certainty in planning, there are no incentives for improved productivity, institutions are subject to budgetary whims, there are no incentives for personal initiative, and there is a lack of coherence between political expectations and budgets," he writes.

This shows that even in high-tax societies which plough the most into providing services, getting it right is not easy. Effective delivery of modern healthcare is fiendishly complex. Education policy may not be as hard to design but serves up its own problems, as the continued avoidance of dealing with the unsustainable funding model for third level shows all too clearly.

Exodus is accessible and insightful, providing a window on a country that is not well known in Ireland but which has many similarities. It is very much worth reading by anyone interested in politics and policy-making.

Sunday Independent

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