“The working class against racism”, a protest to show that despite many union members in Sweden voting for the right-wing anti-immigration party (SD) in 2010, the working class is not racist and most workers still oppose SD.   -By Johanna Sköld Right-w …


“The working class against racism”, a protest to show that despite many union members in Sweden voting for the right-wing anti-immigration party (SD) in 2010, the working class is not racist and most workers still oppose SD.


-By Johanna Sköld

Right-wing populist parties strengthened their position all over Europe in the May EU parliamentary elections. The Scandinavian countries are no exception. Despite the fact that most of these parties are also skeptical towards unions and advocate policies that would not be advantageous for workers, many of their voters come from the working class, are members of unions and would previously have voted for the social democrats. An important question is therefore how to approach these kinds of parties. The labour movements in Scandinavia have dealt with this question in different ways, with very different outcome.

In Denmark, Dansk Folkeparti (DF, Danish people’s party) was founded in 1995 by previous members of a populist anti-tax party. Between 2001 and 2011 the party held around 13 % of the votes and was a supporting party for the conservative-liberal government. The government had to give DF certain concessions, and this lead to much stricter immigration laws. The Social Democrats chose to not take a fight against these laws and instead adapted to the immigration policies of DF, hoping to regain the voters who had left the Social democrats for DF. The strategy must be considered a failure, as the voters did not return, and the entire immigration debate in Denmark has shifted to the right and almost all Danish parties now support the strict immigration laws.

In Norway, Fremskrittspartiet (FrP, the Progress party) was initially an anti-tax party. It wasn’t until the mid-80s that immigration started to become their main issue. Up until the 2013 elections FrP had strong support (around 13 % of the votes) but were kept out of power as no other parties wanted to cooperate. This changed last year, when the conservative party chose to form a coalition government with FrP. The Labour Party in Norway has taken a firmer stand against FrP than in the Danish example, but not necessarily on immigration issues, but have instead been focusing on FrP’s tax and labour policies. Even though it hasn’t gone as far as in Denmark, the immigration debate in Norway has also shifted towards FrP’s stricter views.

In Sweden, Sverigedemokraterna (SD, the Sweden democrats) have a slightly different background as they initially had a much stronger connection to fascist and neo-Nazi groups. In 1995, they started to downplay that background in order to become a “respectable” party and made it into the national parliament in 2010, then with 5,7 % of the votes. All other parties refuse any kind of official cooperation with SD. However, as the elections resulted in a hung parliament, they still have some influence. The Swedish parties, including the Social Democrats, had mostly used the tactic of ignoring or demonising SD ahead of the 2010 election, but once they got seats in parliament the other parties had to take the debate. It is often said that other parties should try to widen the debate and criticise not only the immigration policies, which the Social Democrats and others have tried by bringing up issues such as feminism and family politics, where many people would disagree with SD:s very conservative policies. As SD is foreseen to increase their support in the upcoming elections, this tactic has probably not been enough.

The Swedish Union Confederation LO has published a report on how SD’s policies are a threat for workers. Many trade unions in Sweden have barred active Sweden Democrats from union posts.


Despite different approaches, the support for the right-wing parties doesn’t seem to decrease in any of the Scandinavian countries. The results of the different approaches can possibly be seen in the way the general debate on immigration has completely shifted in Denmark, whereas the debate and the immigration laws in Sweden have so far not been as affected. This implies that the Danish tactic of closing in on the right-wing populist party in regards to immigration is not a good option if you want to fight them, but there doesn’t seem to be an answer as to what actually works.

What research has found is that populist parties in general flourish when there is no big difference between the other political parties, when all parties have converged into the middle and the populist party can frame itself as the only true alternative to “the establishment”. This is just what has happened, at least to some extent, in all Scandinavian countries. Here, the labour movement and the social democratic parties have an important role to play. There are obviously other actors, notably the media, who are also responsible for this development. However, right-wing populist parties would hopefully not seem as attractive anymore, if the social democratic parties dare to move away from the political middle and instead become a credible alternative for workers and others who are not happy with the situation of the diminishing welfare states in Scandinavia, but who don’t blame immigrants for everything that is wrong.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
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Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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