Denmark: Red-Green Alliance’s work on Copenhagen City Council


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Last November, the radical left Red-Green Alliance (RGA) shook up Danish politics by coming first in the elections for Copenhagen City Council. Line Barfod, former MP for the RGA in the Danish parliament, headed its ticket.

Barfod is now in charge of the council’s work in the fields of urban renewal and development, climate, housing and traffic. Under the Danish system, she is known as the mayor of the Technical and Environmental Committee, responsible for this work.

The council is run by seven such committees. The RGA’s other mayor is Karina Vestergård Madsen, in charge of the Social Affairs Committee. The lord mayor, who heads the Economic Affairs committee, is Social Democrat Sophie Hæstorp Andersen.

Dick Nichols spoke to Barfod on May 14, at the RGA’s 2022 annual conference. The RGA is known in Danish as Enhedslisten-De Rød-Grønne (Unity Ticket—the Red-Greens) because it began in 1989 as an electoral alliance of the Left Socialists, Communist Party of Denmark and Socialist Workers Party.

What was the impact of the Red-Green Alliance victory in the Copenhagen City Council elections? My impression is that it caused a big shock among the powers-that-be.

Of course it did! Especially among the Social Democrats and the private companies and the media. Now some media are saying that we don’t use our newfound power to do anything — we’re just sitting in a corner doing nothing. Others are saying we are going to turn the city into a red hell…

Is this an organised counterattack or just an outbreak of nerves?

Well, the media campaign is that we won the election but that we don’t know what to do with our victory, because we’re not very good at being in power, in fact we aren’t very good at anything.

And to answer that?

We point to our actual achievements, but most of all we explain that if we need changes for the long term — which we unquestionably do — we need to change the way the municipality actually works, to make sure that the changes needed can’t just be overturned overnight.

Which is a powerful argument because most ordinary people without vested interests would understand it…

Yes, carefully explained, it becomes a way of increasing our potential majority. For example, what we are saying is that the housing situation today is the result of decisions made 30 years ago. Housing politics is something which has a very long-term impact. So, if we want to have affordable housing in 30 years, we have to make very important decisions now.

Why didn’t the RGA win the lord mayor’s position after coming first in the election, with 15 seats on the 55-seat council?

You need a majority to get the position of lord mayor, and the Social Democrats, who came in second with 10 seats, decided to go together with the right wing. The Socialist People’s Party, which is also a left-wing party, were with us, as was The Alternative, making a total of 23 seats. But the centre party (which in Denmark is called the Radical Left!) decided to go with the Social Democrats and the right wing, so we couldn’t get the 28-seat majority needed to win the lord mayor’s position. We won the second-most important position — the one I have — which is mayor of the Technical and Environmental Committee.

Our other mayor heads up the Social Affairs Committee, so that is very good for us, because we have a green portfolio and a red one.

The big issue, as I understand it, in the elections was housing…

The principal issues were housing, climate and environment.

And what constrains the RGA from implementing its election platform on these issues?

We need to have a majority for any proposal we put forward, so we have to negotiate with the other parties to get a majority. For some parts of our politics, we will succeed and for other parts, I don’t think we will succeed in this 4-year term, even though, of course, we are working hard at it.

What are the main obstacles?

People from other parties on the council are doing what they have always done, and the same goes for the council staff. So, you have to open the door to thinking and doing things in a new way. Especially when it comes to climate and the need to do something drastic and fast.

We have many different ways of doing that, beginning, of course, with the council debates, but one of the things I have done from the first day is to say that when we have from council staff a proposal that they say our committee has to vote on, we must also have two or three alternatives that we can also vote on.

Sometimes it would be illegal for us not to do what they say, but we always have the opportunity to then say that we have to write to parliament to change the law. There will always be an alternative, not just that of accepting staff proposals.

The other parties have their mayoralties. How does Enhedslisten relate to them?

Each mayor has an administration and a committee, and our party has three members of each committee. So, in each committee we are working to get our politics through.

That’s a ground for conflict. For example, the Conservative People’s Party runs the Children and Youth Committee…

Then we try to make alliances with the other parties in the committee so as to say to the mayor: “You have to do this.” Also, if I’m in a minority in my committee, I would have to do what the committee says.

Climate crisis

A lot of the increase in your vote came from young people on the issue of climate. Copenhagen, I imagine, can’t rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, so what do you say to those in the climate movement who are demanding rapid action?

Well, we can do some things. First, we had a proposal that was accepted by the council that we should follow the International Energy Agency’s 10-point plans to reduce oil dependence and cut the use of Russian natural gas. So we are looking at their suggestions to decrease speed limits and at many other ways of decreasing energy use.

Also, we have just passed through council the proposal that, while the Danish government is still finalising the design of its CO2 tax, we will work in the council as if this had already been adopted: so that all council purchases will be done as if that tax were already in place. The council does more than eight billion kronor [$A1.61 billion] in purchasing each year, so that we can use that strategically. As the council shifts its purchasing to the products least intensive in greenhouse gas emissions, the change will have a big impact on the market.

About 15 years ago Copenhagen decided that all food served by the municipality in schools, kindergartens, canteens, nursing homes etc, should be ecological. Those farmers who were still undecided as to whether to shift to ecological farming saw that they could sell ecological products to the City of Copenhagen, and a lot shifted across.

We are also in discussions with companies on how to design and produce reusable and recyclable products, like textiles, products for which the council could provide secure initial demand, and which would then become available in broader markets. The council looks to act as a spur for transition to ecologically sustainable production, which otherwise would not take place. This is very important.

We are also going to calculate the carbon dioxide emission impact of the council budget and the various options for inclusion in it. We are working on how to do this at the moment.

For example, we have to make a decision this spring about an old highway in Copenhagen, about which we’ve been having a discussion for several years. Some say we have to replace it with a tunnel, others say that we can reduce it by half, because its lanes run parallel over two bridges. Under the bridges there’s a small river which is presently in a tunnel, and if we removed that we could also have a beautiful park alongside the river.

We have just had a meeting where we looked at the different solutions and how much they would cost, but we’ve also asked what carbon dioxide emissions each option would produce.

The tunnel solution would involve 140,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide  emissions; the solution of tearing down one bridge and making a park would produce 1500 tonnes.

So, no discussion. When you have those analyses then it’s much easier to make the decision.

We can see that these examples of good greenhouse gas reduction practices can become generalised, into the regions and into the smaller towns, but of course applying any changes needed to meet local conditions.

Housing

Housing puts you into conflict with the underlying tendencies in real estate—privatisation of housing and investment funds buying up housing, empty and occupied.

In Copenhagen about 20% of housing is public housing — we want more than that — and then we have 20% private ownership, then there is 20% which is collective, shared ownership. Until about 20 years ago it was rather cheap to get into this kind of ownership, but then we had a right-wing government that removed the limits that applied to the prices of this class of housing, so now it too is rather expensive. The rest is capital funds, private companies, owning big estates for private rental.

In relation to this last form of ownership, many on the left look to last September’s Berlin referendum that would, if acted on by the regional government, expropriate the real estate companies owning over 3000 housing units and return them to public ownership. Is that applicable to Copenhagen?

It’s not.

Could you explain why?

Because we have had this fight for many years for public housing. Also, because 30 years ago the lord mayor, from the Social Democrats, made an agreement with a mayor from the Liberal Party that there should be no more public housing, and they sold the 20,000 cheap apartments that the municipality owned at that time. They also said that people living in small apartments would have to join them to other apartments so they would become bigger and more expensive. All this because they wanted those who were poor to move out of the city and replace them with people who could pay more taxes, and so on.

And then, about 15 years ago, the Social Democrats found that people who used to vote for them were having difficulty finding housing that they could afford, so they started to relook at building public housing again. When we had a new national Social Democratic government in 2011, the law was changed to allow municipalities to insist that up to 25% of new construction should be public housing.

Has that actually worked? Have private developers complied?

To some degree, but the private developers often “forget” to bring in the public housing companies to be part of their plans. Now we have a new law about to go through the parliament which will enable municipalities to refuse a licence for private developments to operate if the 25% for public housing hasn’t been complied with. The public housing part doesn’t just have to be on the plan but actually built.

And the other part of the Enhedslisten proposal is to increase the public housing stock to 25% or more. Is there any resistance to that?

From the parties of the right, of course. The Social Democrats say we could build more but point to the difficulties. One is that the municipality owns very little in Copenhagen these days. What the municipality once still owned was sold to a publicly owned company, City and Port Development Corporation, so that they would develop Copenhagen. The income from its sales was used to pay for the Copenhagen Metro.

This Corporation was set up under a requirement that it should try to get the highest price possible. So, if they sell a building site for public housing, they’ll get less money than if it were earmarked for private housing. That’s the problem.

How do you propose to tackle that?

We should separate out the two concerns. We should find funding for the Metro in the same way as we find funding for other infrastructure development in Denmark. As to how to develop the city, including housing, it should be decided by the citizens in the municipality based on what kind of city we want, and not that of getting the highest possible profit for its real estate assets.

Do you have support beyond the left for that position?

No.

Not the Social Democrats?

No.

There’s no division within the Social Democrats?

There are some who say that after 30 years of City and Port, we should perhaps evaluate it and see if we should do things differently.

Tactics towards the Social Democrats

So that raises the issue of when Enhedslisten might put a proposal to the council, knowing that it might lose but showing that it is Enhedslisten that is advancing socially useful proposals…

Yes. We haven’t done that yet on housing, but in each of the council meetings we have proposals — primarily on climate — and we will also have one on City and Port.

And prepared to be in a minority?

Of course.

So, you are always having to judge when it is best to accept that risk, because if you just put up propositions that the Social Democracy agrees with and are seen as positive, they will claim them as their own. They are past masters at that game. 

On the other hand, you can’t be seen simply as sectarian «exposers of the Social Democrats», either. How do ensure that everyone knows that positive measures initiated by Enhedslisten are understood as such?

That is always the question. One thing is that we need to be very professional in our communication. And it is very important that we talk to people in a way, so they can understand our communication. Sometimes we would make a campaign about an issue in our own name. Sometimes we have a majority in the council and the communication would be in the name of the council.

Traffic, environment

If you have a permanent hunt for allies to create majorities, it translates into a pressure to dilute parts of the program on which Enhedslisten came first in the election. Does this place you in a difficult position with those you helped you win, who might say: “Look, they won the election — why hasn’t anything happened?”

Of course! There are things we can’t do from day one, and there are battles that we can’t win.  And people will be disappointed sometimes. But what we are doing is explaining that we can’t do everything at once, but that we are fighting all the time for our election program.

For example, we are fighting to change traffic in Copenhagen so that there will be very few cars, with a lot more space for people to use as their own in place of cars. We can only get majority support on council for small steps: it will be this street, then this street, then this street, but not the whole city at once.

And this is in a context of increasing care use in Denmark…

Yes, because it’s getting cheaper and cheaper. It’s crazy, but the government has for several years made it cheaper and cheaper to have a car while collective transport has become more expensive.

Local governments applying penalties on car use often invite—and get—voter backlash. There’s the case of Ken Livingston’s loss as mayor of London to Boris Johnson in 2008, attributed by many observers to a proposed increase in the inner-city traffic congestion charge, and the furore produced in Barcelona by mayor Ada Colau’s program of car-free “super-islands”, which will be used by the opposition to try to unseat her in the 2023 election. How do you propose to neutralise opposition to your proposals to drastically reduce car use?

Well, 70% of those who live in Copenhagen don’t have a car.  Most of the cars running through Copenhagen belong to people coming into the city from outside to work. Yes, those who have a car in Copenhagen would have a problem, but many of them don’t use their car more than once every second or third week, when they’re going outside Copenhagen to visit their summer houses or their family.

So, what we propose would be a problem within Copenhagen for those who need to use their car every day, and some of them have said that they are not going to vote for the Red-Green Alliance any longer because “you are going to take our parking space away”.

At the same time, however, we have passed a regulation, with the support of the Socialist People’s Party and the Social Democrats, which gives people living in a street the right to decide whether it will be completely car-free, or only admit electric cars, or whatever.

Then they can get some funding to carry out the conversion, on condition of council support, after consultation with the police about how the change might affect the traffic situation. If all agree, it will have been the people living there who have decided the future of the street.

Does everyone have to agree?

A majority. In Copenhagen we have a lot of green courtyards — communal gardens — that used to be parking spaces. There are very few of these left because most have been changed into green spaces. That also took place by majority vote of those involved.

So, the resistance to this is going to come from the vested real estate interests, operating on the Social Democrats?

And from those voters who are not very keen on changes. Some of them still don’t understand how important it is to make the changes given the climate crisis. The problem is not so much big business because the main firm operating in real estate is City and Port, and those to whom it sells property have to abide by the regulations on green space and the 25% public housing quota.

And the infamous Lynetteholm Island development?

Well, that was also very big in the election campaign. More and more people have been protesting, including the mayors of the municipalities round Copenhagen, from all parties, including those who in government said yes to this island. Sweden has been protesting very much, and I think there will also come some protests from other countries around the Baltic Sea, because the island risks stopping the inflow of some of the salt into the Baltic Sea, so the Baltic Sea might die. It’s an outrageous project.

But we have just had a new minister of transport and she has looked into this and into the part of building the island that involves excavation and dumping of a lot of sand in another place. They have been doing this for some months, provoking more protests, this time from the locals. The minister has decided that the project has to be suspended for a year and reanalysed, revisited. So that’s a big victory we have there.

How then does Copenhagen City Council collaborate with other councils, within Denmark, in the Nordic countries and globally, given that the problems you confront, especially the climate emergency, go beyond the space controlled by the council?

We are building up collaboration with the municipalities around us, both in Denmark but also in Sweden, because we are so closely connected and we have this common sea (The Sound), and we are negotiating right now to make this a marine national park.

Copenhagen is also part of the C40 group of global cities with their own climate emergency targets and measures. It is also part of international organisations for promoting bicycles and bike lanes, and next year Copenhagen will be the World Capital of Architecture, a new initiative of UNESCO.

We are working on the program right now. And since we have both the Technical and Environmental Committee and the Social Affairs Committee, we want to have a theme that is not just environmental sustainability but also social sustainability, both in a mixed city with affordable housing, but also with the idea that the homeless and others should be part of the city. What we are working on now is not «dark urban design», but «bright urban design», where you make squares and so on where everyone, those who sit and drink a lot of beer, the homeless and people and children playing, all have a place and feel at home.

A feminist council?

You have seven mayors, six are women. Is this a feminist council?

(Laughs). Well, you could say that. We haven’t made a political point about being a feminist council, but some of us are, of course, feminists because of still unequal situation of women. Also, when you look at Denmark as a whole, it’s still mostly men who run the city councils, the parliament and the government. So, it’s a very special situation in Copenhagen, and a good example, if we can use our power beneficially.

So, even though some of the women mayors are right wing, you’ve got some points on which you can take joint positions?

Oh yes. We have a lot of points. Sometimes, for example, the Conservatives will be more green than the Social Democrats. For example, the Conservative People’s Party supported a CO2 tax, while the Social Democrats were very reluctant.

What other areas of council work are important to the RGA?

The question of work and industry in Copenhagen is important — we don’t want jobs here just to be office jobs. It’s very important that we still have industries, that we still have skilled workers. We also want to have a lot of small firms, and are working from the municipality to promote them, especially if they are cooperatives or democratically run.

Also, we don’t have enough municipal support for culture in Denmark, and we want to start to change that. In particular, culture that is accessible or where you don’t have to have had parents who told you about Shakespeare and the classics. The council should help promote popular culture.

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