Interview: Uffe Elbæk on alternative politics

Denmark’s political scene has been rocked by the creation of a new party, Alternativet, headed by charismatic ex-Culture Minister Uffe Elbæk. We talk to him about doing politics differently.

by Sam Richardson @SamRich91

Photographer: Pascale Mueller

Pascale Mueller IMG_0496

It’s natural to be skeptical in politics. Every politician and political idea claims to be ‘new’, yet the same old arguments continue to go round and round. Whilst Denmark has had a number of new parties formed in recent decades, they tend to reflect splits within the traditional parties over key issues, like immigration for Dansk Folkeparti and taxes for the Liberal Alliance. In a crowded party system, persuading voters that you really represent something different is a daunting challenge for any politician, and actually getting votes is doubly difficult. Ironically, genuinely new ideas tend to scare people away.

In this sense, Uffe Elbæk’s new party is a politician’s worst nightmare. Not only do Alternativet (The Alternative) have a radical green agenda, they’re proposing a complete rethink of how politics is done. They refuse to place themselves in Denmark’s political spectrum, question capitalism and the welfare state, and want to reach beyond politics into a mysterious ‘fourth sector’. With a somewhat clichéd name and apparent addiction to media buzzwords – ‘open source’, ‘network-based online platform’ and ‘dogmas’ are just a few – the party has taken just two weeks to utterly bewilder voters and the national media. Explaining themselves to the public will take a miracle.

Elbæk may well be the man for the job. Innovation runs like a thread through his career – from setting up Aarhus’s KaosPilots alternative Business School in 1991 to his appointment as Minister of Culture in 2011. It’s not been a smooth ride – Elbæk’s time as Culture Minister ended amidst criticism for hosting government events at an organisation in which his partner worked, although he was later cleared of misconduct.  September saw him leave Radikale Venstre, his party for 15 years. He’s now back in Aarhus to meet potential voters.

“We could have written that manual so easily…[but] people will feel much more motivated if they can be part of the process”

 

Given his creative background, one might be confused by Elbæk’s new-found determination to end Denmark’s ‘growth philosophy’. “My feeling is that people, on an emotional level, really can understand that we can’t continue our way of living. Of course if we do, we will pass a tipping point from which there is no return”. The Alternative are first and formost a radical green party. They want to craft “a new type of sustainable balance…economically, socially and environmentally.” Or, as Elbæk more bluntly puts it, “to make sure the life quality of the citizens goes up, and the [use of] national resources goes down.”

Denmark’s got no shortage of environmental advocates, far-left party Enhedlisten being the most vocal. So what else are The Alternative offering? “What we’re building right now is a very solid platform” Elbæk answers “we came up with a manifesto; we came up with a very clear values; we came up with five political topics which we think are key elements which we will decide next summer.” What the party didn’t come up with, however, was any policies.

Pascale Mueller

Politics without policies is of course an oxymoron. But Elbæk sees method behind the madness: “We could have written that manual so easily”, he explains, “[but] people will feel much more motivated if they can be part of the process”. The Alternative’s politics are ‘open source’; anyone is welcome to suggest policies and help build the party’s manifesto. If you’ve ever used Linux, the computer operating system, or Mozilla Firefox, the internet browser, you’ve used open source software designed collaboratively by volunteers. Elbæk promises “several popular political laboratories…both, on a digital platform, but also face-face, in physical meetings”, the policy suggestions from which will be edited down into a paper and voted on at the party’s first meeting in June 2014. After that point, Elbæk assures me, “it will be strictly policy.”

Beyond The Alternative, Denmark is waking up to the possibility of open source development: if you visit Copenhagen’s Medical Museum you’ll find an interactive exhibition on ‘biohacking’ – where volunteers create new drugs and medical equipment. The idea of medicine created by amateurs will no doubt make many feel distinctly queasy, but it is a growing trend. Other projects of a less life and death nature are also organised through digital media; Smart Aarhus is a collaboration between the Aarhus Municipal Council, Aarhus University and various businesses to find solutions to societal problems. Elbæk claims The Alternative can be a driving force in wider innovation: “the party is one element, but there’s also a movement and potentially also co-ops, and media and whatever, which can be built on that platform.”

“What we try to do at The Alternative is be very clear about what is to be discussed, and what is not to be discussed”

 

Elbæk’s inspiration also comes from abroad. “If you look on a global scale and what it happening in Europe, than we are not the only initiative that has seen the light of day.” He mentions new political parties in Portugal and the UK, as well as the Purpose movement, a New York-based collaborative social initiative. What’s interesting, argues Elbæk is that “with all these new initiatives, the political incentives all have the same drive; we want to create another kind of political culture.” With ambassadors in several countries, and a website in both English and Danish, The Alternative hopes to cross borders, Elbæk explains; “from the way we think of the Alternative, we are a global movement.”

For all its talk of world domination, The Alternative still needs to gain the trust of Danes. Elbæk sees the party’s natural initial supporters as the young and retirees who are able to “think out of the box”. But he’s also aware voters could be put off by the potential of the party’s open structure to generate extreme policies; “what we try to do at The Alternative is be very clear about what is to be discussed, and what is not to be discussed”. Equality, environmentalism and support for the current left-wing government are not topics for discussion, apparently.  Such dictates might disappoint open-source purists, but as Elbæk says “sometimes you have to make very tough decisions, and you have to see the bigger picture.”

Pascale Mueller IMG_0522

Still, The Alternative face an uphill battle to break into Danish politics. Firstly, they must collect more than 20,000 signatures, in order to stand in elections. Elbæk’s prediction of 8-10 MPs within five years is highly ambitious, although the Liberal Alliance, founded in 2007, now has 9 parliamentary seats. However the Alliance is heavily bankrolled whilst The Alternative has, Elbæk confesses, “no funding, at all.” He’s happy to make an impact “I’ve come here to see that these questions will come on the table, at least in people’s homes.” That’s assuming, of course, that voters can understand The Alternative’s message.

What Elbæk’s gambling on is The Alternative’s unique model appealing to Denmark’s cooperative traditions. “What is happening there right now” says Elbæk, “reminds me of what I would call the first social innovation in Denmark, when we got the co-op movement, the folk high-school movement, we got the corporation movement, one hundred years ago…the background of the welfare state as we know it today.” One could question whether many Danes see it that way, or will take part in crafting The Alternative’s politics, beyond the circle of arts students and intellectual-types now trickling into the meeting hall behind us. Nevertheless, the media storm Elbæk’s created is not without cause; there’s no denying his vision is exciting: “what is happening now…is maybe the first call for a new social innovation wave, which maybe will be the background for a new society.”

___

Sam Richardson is a journalism student and freelancer, and Society Editor of Jutland Station. He’s worked at the BBC, The Times, Daily Telegraph and Islington Gazette newspapers, and studied History at Oxford University. You can see his portfolio here:  http://flip.it/CNH5t