Falling in love with monsters
Prime Minister Frederik Reinfeld appears to have fallen for the monster he set-out to slay – Swedish social democracy
Many writers tend to fall in love with their own monsters. When Thomas Harris wrote “The Silence of the Lambs” the novelist Martin Amis sighed that his friend had” gone gay for Hannibal Lecter.”
Perhaps that's what has happened to Swedish Prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt.
He and his centre-right party have fallen in love with the worst monster they can think of: Swedish social democracy. Reinfeldt – the first centre-right leader to ever win a second term in Sweden – did it by bringing his party towards the centre ground. Reinfeldt swore allegiance to the Swedish model in order to change it forever.
Since he came to power in 2006 Sweden has gone from having one of the world’s most generous unemployment insurances to being below average in the OECD. Inequality has grown faster than in comparable countries and taxes have been lowered significantly across the board.
However Reinfeldt has consistently tried to sell his policies using social democratic rhetoric.
He has copied social democratic slogans and in 2010 he even posed as iconic social democratic leader Per Albin Hansson on some of the election posters. Sweden has become used to its centre-right dressing up like social democrats however at some point one has to ask: when does the face grow to fit the mask?
During a big speech this summer the prime minister laid out his strategy to take on the new social democratic leadership. Stefan Löfven became party leader in January and has given the social democrats a much needed boost in the polls. Reinfeldt's response was all about triangulation.
If the opposition talks about investing in infrastructure - he's going to do it as well he signalled. If the opposition says education is more important than lowering taxes - he's going to agree.
Reinfeldt even implied that he might consider a more expansionary fiscal policy, something that is still taboo within the social democratic party since its experience cutting the deficit in the 1990s. In this move he seems to have identified the new leaderships risk aversion as their achilles heel. Stefan Löfven and his shadow finance minister Magdalens Andersson are respected and popular but they do like to play it safe.
Too safe, many argue.
For example Sweden's largest centre-right morning paper, Dagens Nyheter, has suddenly taken a position to the left of the social democrats criticising both the government and Löfven for embracing the EU wide politics of austerity.
The big test for the Löfven/Andersson duo will however be the budget at the end of September. Reinfeldt's budget has all ready been dubbed “the copy paste budget”, so much of its content is policies originally proposed by the social democrats.
The face is certainly growing to fit the mask.
Has the prime minister fallen too much in love with the social democratic monster whose dominance he set out to crush? Reinfeldt's might actually be starting to cross the line from triangulation “use your tools to fix their car” as former Bill Clinton strategist Dick Morris put it to actually just plain copying the other side. In the long run this won't work.
However it still poses a significant challenge.
There is a growing demand for the social democrats to meet Reinfeldt's politics of triangulation with a politics of articulation. People want a clear set of themes and ideas from Löfven.
So far he hasn't delivered. The budget might be his first chance.
A contribution to State of the Left - Policy Network's monthly insight bulletin that reports from across the world of social democratic politics
Katrine Kielos is a columnist for Aftonbladet, Sweden and Scandanavia's largest daily newspaper
State of the Left
Per Albin Hansson
The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinately challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.