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Home Opinion Not the same old Sweden

Not the same old Sweden

Katrine Kielos - 24 September 2010

Stuck in their comfort zone and failing to face-up to political renewal, the headlong crash of the Swedish Social Democrats offers some telling lessons for Europe’s centre-left parties

It's not easy being a social democrat. When we stick to our political programmes and lose, they say it's because we're outdated. When we try to renew our political programmes and lose, they say it's because we've betrayed our roots. The solution is simple: don't lose. That used to be the genius of Swedish social democracy.

Last weeks general election has transformed the Swedish Social Democratic Party from the most successful political party in the world (governing Sweden for sixty-five of the last seventy-eight years) into a struggling centre-left party like any of the others.

For the first time since the introduction of universal suffrage, a centre-right cabinet has been returned to office. Fredrik Reinfeldt, the centre-right leader, has modernised his party and reached out to the centre ground. He turned himself into David Cameron, before the UK Conservative leader had even turned himself into David Cameron and the formula has proven extremely successful.

The harsh reality is that the social democrats have recorded their worst election in modern history, with the pain of defeat further sharpened by the electoral advance of the anti-immigrant Swedish Democrats. (Immigration was however not an important issue among voters, so the picture is quite complex).
 
The most obvious mistake the social democrats made was their unwillingness to try and understand their new opponent. For the last five years they've tried to frame Fredrik Reinfeldt as a wolf in sheep's clothing. Firstly, this is not how the public see him and secondly it moves the debate from policy to a discussion about ideological intent.

It is however a comfortable strategy: if the social democrats keep telling themselves that the right is always the same old right and won’t change, then the social democrats can keep on going as the same old party that they've always been.

In 2006 the social democrats lost the election on the issue of unemployment. Reinfeldt has however not succeeded in fighting it either. The Swedish economy is recovering quickly from the crisis (GDP is projected to reach 4% this year) and the public finances are in excellent shape; but unemployment remains precarious at just over 8%. Thus, during the election campaign, the social democrats were able to criticise Reinfeldt rather successfully for his belief that tax-cuts can cure any economic problem; but, crucially, they did not put forth a credible economic programme of their own.

Sweden is a small country with a long history of free-trade policy, exposure to foreign competition and international markets. The structural transformations of the economy have always been very dramatic, with the underpinning political principle centered on the belief that a dynamic society is necessary and that it can only be achieved with a strong universal social security net. “Secure people dare” is a famous Swedish social democratic slogan: progressive politics has to be about helping people manage change, not resisting it.

The social democrats used to perceive restructuring as a process of old professions being eliminated by new technology, while new labour markets emerged in new industries. However since the mid nineties a lot of restructuring has taken place within existing industries, yet Swedish labour market and growth policies have not been updated to cope with this.

Understanding this new phase of globalisation was the obvious task for political renewal after the election defeat of 2006, but the work was never done. The party focused on electing a new leader, made advances in the polls, got comfortable and then crashed headlong in the election.

Furthermore, the party did not look over their tax policies in any systematic way and therefore got stuck in debates about single taxes – disconnected from what the taxes should be used for.

The social democrats in Sweden have always been able to explain two things to voters: why an equal society is good for the economy and how the taxes that people pay are directly connected to the quality of the public sector. In this election campaign they failed on both accounts.

The reason was not a bad campaign; it was the lack of political renewal. Hopefully this can be a useful lesson for other parties of the centre-left: don't get stuck in your comfort zone while in opposition.

Actually the Swedish social democrats have never been good at renewing themselves in opposition. They've been good at renewing themselves in government.

That is unfortunately not an option right now. 

Katrine Kielos is lead-writer for Aftonbladet, Sweden and Scandanavia's largest daily newspaper

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Globalisation and Governance.

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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