Social democracy is dying – even in Sweden

The Swedish elections confirm that even in every leftist’s idea of political paradise, labourism is on its last legs.

Nathalie Rothschild

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Sweden appears to have been shaken to the core by results of its general election, which was held on Sunday. This was an historically catastrophic election for the Social Democrats, while the centre-right alliance managed to secure a second term but did not win a majority in parliament. So, the right-wing Sweden Democrats hold the balance of power, having received 20 seats in parliament, and the Green Party – historically a marginal outfit – is now the third largest party in parliament.

Pundits have declared an historical shift, the ushering in of a new political era, a parliament in chaos, and fascism on the rise (in reference to the Sweden Democrats). Social Democrat activists broke down in tears, woolly lefties and liberals changed their Facebook profile pictures to a symbol showing support for diversity. Even alliance voters did not celebrate very loudly, instead expressing mixed feelings about how the continued decline of social democracy (which they generally welcome) has come alongside the rise of a loony, intolerant, right-wing party.

In light of all this, the most profound change in Sweden seems to be the total loss of the calm rationality that the Scandinavian country is known for. Yes, the 2010 elections were indeed significant, with some radical shifts in power. Yet with everyone obsessing over the success of the Sweden Democrats – conjuring up phantasmagorias of white-power skinheads storming parliament and the erection of gas chambers for Muslims – we are in danger of missing what is truly significant about this election: the fact that the Social Democrats’ prolonged death throes have come to their conclusion.

The Social Democrat party, founded in 1889, have been in power for all but 14 of the past 93 years. In 2006, the party had its worst election result ever. With just under 35 per cent of the vote, it lost power to the newly formed centre-right coalition, spearheaded by the conservative party, which had changed its name from the Moderates to the New Moderates and replaced its dark blue M-logo with a light blue one. This year, support for the Social Democrats sank even lower: the party managed to get just over 30 per cent of the vote, only a fraction higher than the New Moderates. Not even entering into a red-green alliance with the Left Party and the Green Party helped drag the Social Democrats, Sweden’s former natural rulers, over the power threshold. (Although the votes cast early, by post and abroad are still to be counted – and these might affect the parliamentary makeup slightly.)

The image of Sweden as a safe seat for social democracy has been shattered. As The Economist pointed out days before Sunday’s election, there has been a growing dissatisfaction with the ‘Swedish model’ recently, and the centre-right government’s tax cuts and tightening rules around sickness benefits and welfare payments appear to have appealed to large sections of the public. There has also been widespread approval of the centre-right government’s handling of the financial crisis. But the third contemporary trend identified by The Economist is the most significant one: what it calls an international ‘malaise in Socialism’, but which would be more accurately described as a crisis of social democracy.

This, of course, is not happening in isolation in Sweden. Instead, as Frank Furedi noted after the Australian elections last month, we have seen a pattern of labour parties across Europe and Down Under losing touch with their traditional constituencies and leading grey, lifeless, technocratic and ideology-lite campaigns.

Some Swedish commentators have pointed out that the Social Democrats have not adjusted to the times, that their socialist, class-struggle rhetoric is out of date and jars in a country with a growing middle class and extended private ownership. But the spectre of communism and class struggle is as non-existent in Sweden as that of fascism. That’s not what the Social Democrats stand for today, even if they did team up with the Left Party that has a propensity for nostalgia (as was evident when party members raised their fists and started singing ‘The International’ on election night).

Instead, the problem is that the Social Democrats, along with their opposition in the centre-right alliance, have lost any real connection with the electorate and increasingly treat politics as a technocratic, managerial job. In the run-up to the election, all of the major mainstream parties demonstrated their belief that debate about big ideas should be erased from the political process. Neither the red-green coalition nor the alliance could even handle a confrontation with the incompetent Sweden Democrats, preferring to dismiss them as irrelevant and as a threat to democracy. All parties vowed not to touch the Sweden Democrats with a bargepole, even if they made it into parliament. Of course, in reality this means that the parties have dismissed the Sweden Democrats’ 300,000 voters, rather than trying to engage with them and win them over. These voters are largely males, young people, unemployed and members of the trade union confederation.

The problem in Sweden is not an irrational attachment to old-style politics, either amongst the apparently over-nostalgic Social Democrats or the allegedly fascistic Sweden Democrats. No, the problem is the broader abandonment of politics itself, as evidenced by the uniform movement towards the evermore crowded centre of the political spectrum and the forming of alliances, which has helped soften the edges around the parties and even out any final remaining differences between them; after all, coalition-building necessitates compromise and the presentation of a unified front. The New Moderates, the Centrist Party, the Liberal Party and the Christian Democrats formed an alliance ahead of the previous election in 2006, and this year the left followed suit, with the Social Democrats teaming up with the Left Party and the Green Party. Clearly, the Social Democrats realised that the days of getting more than 40 per cent of the vote are long gone, so they called the smaller parties for help.

In 2006, the New Moderates’ strategy was to assure the Swedish people that they were not the conservatives they used to be. Their promise has been to deliver a better welfare state, not to slash it. As The Economist pointed out, ‘even on the right, voters and politicians favour consensus, equality and expansive public services’. Sweden remains a big-state society, even if the centre-right coalition is slightly more keen on privatisation of public services and tax cuts than the Social Democrats.

On the big issues – jobs, welfare, education, the environment, immigration and integration – the arguments have been around how to achieve the same, already decided-upon goals, rather than kickstarting a serious battle over what goals Sweden should aspire to.

While the election results show a more even distribution of votes than ever, the first re-election of a conservative prime minister, and a surge in support for previously marginal parties – the greens and the Sweden Democrats – the Social Democrats’ leader Mona Sahlin was also right to say that there were no winners. She might have added that the biggest loser was Politics with a capital P.

Traditionally, Social Democrats have gathered in labour movement headquarters to await results on election night. This time, they met in the Technical Museum of Stockholm, situated in a well-to-do part of the capital. There could hardly have been a better symbol for this election: today, Social Democracy is little more than a technical term, and a relic.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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