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State of the Left is a regular insight bulletin that reports from across the world of centre-left politics.

Each month it combines a Policy Network editorial with a range of political opinion pieces from expert commentators in different national settings. Regular contributors and guest writers ensure insight on key political developments and debate across Europe and beyond, including the US, UK, Germany, France, Sweden, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Ireland, The Netherlands, Spain, Greece, Italy and Latin America.

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Editor: Michael McTernan (mmcternan@policy-network.net)

   State of the Left - September 2014

Not the same old Sweden

Stefan Löfven at the weekend won the Swedish election, reversing the back-to-back election losses suffered by the once hegemonic Social Democratic Party.

The Social Democrats will lead a minority government having only increased their support from 30 per cent at the last election – their lowest score in a century – to 31 per cent. As Katrine Kielos documents in the lead analysis for State of the Left, the election was lost by centre-right Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, who haemorrhaged votes to the far right Swedish Democrats.

The story of the election was whether Swedish society is beginning to fracture and break: Reinfeldt said no; the Social Democrats said yes, blaming growing inequality; the Swedish Democrats said yes, blaming immigration.

The good news for European progressives is that Löfven – a former steel worker – adds his name to a growing group of social democratic leaders in power, including Matteo Renzi (Italy), Manuel Valls (France), Helle-Thorning Schmidt (Denmark), Sigmar Gabriel (Germany), Diederik Samsom (The Netherlands) and Joan Burton (Ireland). The onus is on them now to work effectively together.

The bleaker picture is that having scored 13%, the far right in Sweden may well consolidate and increasingly turn their fire – like UKIP in the UK and Front National in France – towards traditional social democrats, developing a welfare chauvinism to match their anti-immigrant rhetoric. The big structural challenges of loss of national identity and power in a globalised world continue to fundamentally alter party politics, with populism and anti-establishment parties of left and right prospering.  Even the peerless Angela Merkel in Germany is feeling the heat with the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) doing very well in 3 recent Länder elections, possibly causing major long-term effects on the future course of her party.

These dynamics are also at play in Scotland. It is lazy to assume that the Yes campaign was at heart an old and ugly nationalism: it has many strands, but the key locomotive has been a left-leaning politics railing against inequality and the Westminster model with a clear generational appeal. Although the Yes camp lost by a narrow margin, these criticisms will not just disappear without a serious attempt by the mainstream to ease the democratic deficit.

The challenge in all this for social democrats in government goes back to political scientist Peter Mair’s dictum in his book Ruling the Void; finding a space between making big promises to be seen as “responsive,” and the harsh realities of governing “responsibly”.

Maybe a final lesson from Sweden is that mainstream politicians have to turn to small promises to survive: the social democrats stuck to jobs, education and health; all carefully costed and promised with fiscal discipline. It did not set the world alight in campaign terms, but in government it gives them a head start. Something the French Socialists are learning the hard way.

This month's State of the Left  features critical analysis on Sweden, France, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Italy, Canada, Australia.

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