Sweden: only a very Moderate change

The victory of the centre-right coalition over the Social Democrats is a result of the winds of opportunism rather than the winds of change.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Politics

There has been much handwringing in British and other European media and political circles about the result of the Swedish elections. With the Social Democrats out, some commentators are referring to the result as ‘Stockholm syndrome’ and claiming that it has sent ‘reverberations’ and ‘shudders’ around Europe. But how much has really changed in the land of the welfare state?

The outcome of Sunday’s election was a shift in power from a social democrat government to a centre-right coalition. The leading conservative party, the Moderates, had their best election results since 1928. The Social Democrats, founders of the Swedish welfare state that is often held up as a model in the rest of Europe, have been in power for all but 10 of the past 89 years.

So one would expect this year’s election to be an historical landmark, a political turnover with dramatic implications. Indeed, the UK Independent speculated whether this ‘right-wing resurgence’ will be ‘the end of the Swedish dream’ (1). But in fact, the Moderates’ strategy has been to promise very little change and to assure the Swedish people that they are not the conservatives they used to be.

The welfare state has been central to the Moderates’ 2006 election campaign – not in the sense that they have attacked it or promised any major reforms, but in the sense that they have promised only to tinker with it in order to provide a better version. In other words, the strategy has been to beat the Social Democrats on their own territory. The Moderates promised even more funds for welfare than the Social Democrats did. They have said they will not cut down on healthcare and care for the elderly, but on welfare allowances such as unemployment benefits, in order to make it ‘less profitable’ to be out of work. They also plan to cut employer taxes and the large social sector, which employs 30 per cent of the Swedish workforce. One of their main messages is that Sweden needs to be better able to compete in the global market.

Almost a year ago, the Moderates’ communication director Per Schlingmann told Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter: ‘The core of the communication strategy is to clarify that we are a different party now than we were during the last election campaign.’ (2) The 2002 election was a disaster for the Moderates, who only got some 10 per cent of the vote; just weeks before the election journalists producing a TV documentary caught party campaigners making racist remarks.

To really bring the message home that they have changed, the Moderates have not only replaced their dark blue M-logo with a light blue one, but have also adopted a New Labour Third Way strategy, rebranding themselves as The New Moderates. Forty-one-year-old Fredrik Reinfeldt took over party leadership in 2003. He embodies the new-thinking, one could even say more compassionate approach of the party. In other words, this is a blend of Tony Blair’s New Labour and David Cameron’s Tories.

In his speech to the Tory party conference in 2005, Cameron – who, like Reinfeldt, is in his early 40s – said: ‘We’ve got to change our culture so we look, think, feel and behave like a completely new organisation.’ (3) Like Reinfeldt’s New Moderates, Cameron’s Tories want to distance themselves from the past to get a different public image. They want to show that they have had a total makeover.

The Swedish election was hard-fought, with the outcome balancing on a tightrope – but this was not because Sweden has become a divided society, or because the election campaigns involved a great clash of ideas. Rather, the Moderates have moved so close to the crowded centre of the political spectrum that they have been able to dodge the Social Democrats’ predictable punches. The usual accusations – that they are a threat to the Swedish social model, that they are a bunch of individualists who never look out for their peers and care more about their personal bank accounts than collective welfare – don’t really ring true anymore. Because the Moderates, in their new, compassionate guise, even claim to be ‘the new workers’ party’.

The centre-right coalition, consisting of the New Moderates, the Centrist Party, the Liberal Party and the Christian Democrats, have managed to win over a fair number of Social Democrat voters, who, until recently, would never have thought of themselves as being on the right. This is, of course, a measure of success for the light blue New Moderates’ election campaign, where the central message is that you don’t have to be right-wing to be conservative.

In a series of very witty ads, the Moderates tried to break all the stereotypes of the typical conservative voter. In one film, two teenage girls try to impress a guitar-playing guy in the camping grounds of a music festival. Wearing punk-style clothes and Palestinian scarves, they look like stereotypical young leftists. When one girl says she is going to vote for the Moderates, an awkward silence breaks in. Another film shows a group of construction workers chatting and laughing during a coffee break. Everyone goes quiet when one of them takes his jacket off and reveals a Fredrik Reinfeldt t-shirt. A third film shows a middle-class liberal couple with their extended family, including one daughter’s black boyfriend, around a dinner table. Again, an embarrassing silence breaks in when the son-in-law says he is voting for the Moderates. All three ads end with the message: ‘Maybe not everyone is aware that we have changed.’

A more to-the-point ad shows Mayday parades from different decades, with working-class people and hippies marching under red banners. It ends with the statement: ‘After 116 years of demonstrating, it’s time somebody listens.’ It’s strange, the poster claims, that Swedish workers should have to demonstrate year after year. Do the Social Democrats really care about them, or are they just taking it for granted that people will keep going to work every day, regardless of how high their taxes are? ‘Work should pay off’, say the new Moderates.

On first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much new about the message that the Social Democrats don’t care about individuals and their tax burdens. But the poster continues to say that, above all, having a job should pay off for those who earn the least. ‘Sweden needs to be a country where not only directors and some politicians have the right to dream about a countryside cottage or even an estate! Sweden simply needs a new workers’ party.’

This positive message is rather different from one of the Moderates’ election posters in the 2002 campaign: ‘Your grandmother is too scared to go out. Three out of four crimes are never resolved.’ The Social Democrats’ message back then was ‘stronger together’. This time around it was ‘no one should be left behind’. Under outgoing prime minister Göran Persson, who resigned as party leader after the election results were announced, the Social Democrats have built a popular welfare system and they have managed to achieve strong economic growth.

But Persson has also often been accused of being too power-hungry, a practical sin in a country like Sweden, where moderation and humbleness are highly valued virtues. Many commentators have said there is a need for change, that it is not healthy for a democracy to be governed by the same party for too long. But today’s centrist Social Democrat party is very different from the leftist party of the past, which founded the Swedish social model. Overall, there is little variation between the main political parties in Sweden today. The major difference between the Moderates and the Social Democrats seems to be their views on congestion charges – the referendum on those charges was held simultaneously with the general election.

Even on the day of the election, while the Social Democrats were handing out red roses (the party symbol) in central Stockholm, the party leaders of the centre-right alliance were handing out red gerberas in a nearby area. When one person declined the Liberal party leader Lars Leijonborg’s flower, saying she is a Moderate, Leijonberg replied ‘today that is the same thing’.

It is winds of opportunism rather than winds of change that are blowing through Sweden today. The country may have just seen an unusual shift in power, but because the new conservative prime minister has campaigned on the grounds of disrupting the social model as little as possible, and doing what the Social Democrats do, but better – and because the Social Democrats are just a shadow of their former selves – this doesn’t mean much at all.

When all political parties give up their ideologies, then politics is reduced to administration rather than affecting major social change. Of course, governing a country always entails practical policy decisions, but when there is no great social vision underlying the policies, it all comes down to managerialism. Substituting their own ideals, whatever one might think of them, for pragmatism and giving up on winning the Swedish people over, the Moderates now embody a new, vision-less, politics, which, in Blairite fashion, is all about administration, administration, administration.

Nathalie Rothschild works on the editorial team of spiked.

(1) A right-wing resurgence: The end of the Swedish dream?, Independent, 18 September 2006

(2) See Slaget om väljarna, Dagens Nyheter, 8 October 2005

(3) David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative conference, 2005

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Topics Politics


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