Michael Voss, a member of the Red Green Alliance in Denmark, spoke about the experience of the RGA at a seminar organised by London Socialist Resistance a few weeks ago. This is an edited summary of his speech.
Taking a historic view and using basic criteria, the Red Green Alliance seems to be a successful anti-capitalist party. It was established by the coming together of the Danish Communist Party – or rather the majority of the remnants of the CP, the Left Socialist Party which came out of the New Left of the 60s and 70s, and the SAP, the Danish section of the Fourth International. Later the remnants of a Maoist party, the Communist Workers Party, also joined. What began as an electoral bloc later changed into a full-fledged membership party.
We have managed to keep together for 23 years without any major splits – quite an accomplishment for a left party. This came about because the members were strongly committed to getting away from the bitter infighting of the 60s, 70s and 80s.
Another reason we avoided splits was that a handful of the central leaders who became the first six MPs for the party undertook not to attack each other in public, not even inside the party, when they disagreed. As a group the MPs had a division of labour on issues. If one of them did not agree with the person in charge of, say, work on anti-imperialism, s/he just kept quiet. I think that this was a pretty mature way of handling things through the first years.
The programme of the RGA is clearly anti-capitalist. It even deals with some of the more important principles of a revolutionary programme, and is internationalist and ecosocialist as well. But the programme is not deeply rooted in the party. I will return to the “buts” later on.
Part of our party’s basic programme and strategy is to support and participate in, the day-to-day action of popular campaigns and social movements. But conscious, organised intervention in the trade unions and social movements takes place only to a very limited degree.
My fourth criterion for labelling the RGA successful is its democratic internal life which I think is very important for a broad left party. Our national leaders are elected by the annual national convention made up of democratically elected delegates from the branches. Minorities are guaranteed a proportional number of seats in the leadership.
There is an atmosphere that allows open and frank discussions on all kinds of issues. MPs and local councillors must follow the decisions of the national conventions and the elected leadership of the party, according to party statutes. This is not just a written principle but the way it works in practice.
Before entering negotiations on major issues in parliament, the group of MPs asks for, and receives, a mandate from the national leadership on what to propose, what to make a priority and what will be acceptable – in broad outline, of course. And afterwards they have to return to the national leadership to have any major parliamentary deal approved or not. This principle is accepted by everybody in the party. But formal and principled democracy, of course, has its limitations when different parts of the party have different levels of resources.
The party leadership and MPs’ group have not made any major mistakes in the sense of crossing class lines. There has been no voting yes to rotten deals that include cutbacks and the party has not at any time turned against the popular fights or social movements.
One important mistake, however, was when the RGA voted in parliament in support of the Libya airstrikes. (Less than two weeks later the party withdrew its support for the Danish participation, arguing that the original conditions had been betrayed.) And in some municipalities local councillors, supported by branch leaderships, have voted for cutbacks on the basis of these being the lesser evil – a stance which is in opposition to the principles of RGA parliamentary work.
If we look at the present situation of the party the success seems even more irrefutable. The RGA has been represented in parliament since 1994 with four to six MPs. Denmark has strict proportional representation, and winning a low threshold of two per cent of the vote is equal to four MPs. At the election in 2012 we received 6.7 per cent of the vote and had 12 MPs elected. In opinion polls since May we have fluctuated between 9.5 and 12 per cent. The party spokeswoman is probably the most popular party leader in Denmark.
A party of voters
The membership has increased dramatically recently. Back in 2008 there were 4,500 of us; a year ago, in mid-2011, we had 7,700 members; and today we are 9,600 strong.
So, historically and at present the RGA is a successful anti-capitalist party. However, as I have already indicated, there are some “buts”. I will point to three important flaws or weaknesses of the RGA.
First, there is no activist or militant tradition. In many ways it is a party of voters. The majority of the members are there to indicate their support of the MPs group, but they are not active on a regular level. While an important number of members are involved in party work, in trade unions or in local fights and movements, the work they do in campaigns and movements is not seen as party activity, either by the leadership or by a majority of active members. The RGA does not consciously intervene to build and develop social movements. Instead there is a certain abstentionism in relationship to the movements.
Parliamentary work dominates party life – even though extra parliamentary activity has a high priority on paper, in the party programme or in resolutions of national conventions. And recently the first elements of bureaucracy have appeared after the growth in the number of MPs and members led to a dramatic increase in resources and employees.
Secondly the anti-capitalism of the party programme and the elements of revolutionary Marxist analysis and strategy are not deeply rooted in the RGA. The party membership is not educated in the programme, and consistent anti-capitalist demands and proposals tend to disappear from party agitation, propaganda and parliamentary proposals in favour of simple “defend welfare” demands and Keynesian proposals. This is not based on open arguments against anti-capitalism or for reformism, but justified by referring to “what people will understand” and “what kind of demands we can use to challenge the reformist parties”. Lately a debate on the party programme has opened because leading representatives of the party could not or would not defend some of the principles and some of the wording of the programme.
There are limits opening up to the fundamentally democratic character of the party. When different opinions appear or conflicts arise, the party MPs are in a much more favourable position vis-a-vis the national leadership and the membership because their public role as RGA representatives, appearing in the media all the time, gives them legitimacy.
In addition, most of the people employed by the party are financed by the government and by funding allocated to parliamentary work under the law. So even in this way the MPs’ group has more resources.
Right now there are all kinds of pressures on the party. Although in Denmark today there is a centre-left government which needs the votes of the RGA to maintain its majority in parliament, this does not constitute a stable majority. Very often the government makes agreements with the right wing parties in parliament to get a majority.
In this situation, amidst many behind-the-scenes negotiations and much media spin, the RGA faces a dilemma:
- Will we be made responsible – in the eyes of the working class – for the general neo-liberal policies of the government because we vote, for instance, for the national budget?
- Or will we instead be blamed by the working class for the return of a right wing government if we don’t vote for an important proposal, and by not doing so ensure the defeat of the centre-left government?
Despite these problems I do believe the success version of this story. We have all the possibilities of making the right decisions in a very difficult period. What will decide the outcome will be the development of the class struggle and the movements, the strength and forms of pressure from the outside on the RGA, and the political debates inside the party.
Michael Voss participated in the founding of the Red Green Alliance and was an employee of the party from 1994 to 2005. But he is not an elected office holder, so was not speaking at the meeting as an official representative of the RGA. He is also a leading member of the SAP, the Danish section of the Fourth International which was one of the organisations that initially established the RGA back in 1989. He wrote the chapter on the RGA and Denmark in the book New parties of the Left – experiences from Europe.