If you’ve had nothing but the British (or, I imagine, American) press to go by these last few weeks, you can be forgiven for being hardly aware that a general election is brewing in Sweden. Perhaps the newspapers don’t think it’s important; or that an election there can make much difference to the social democratic consensus that has dominated the country, virtuously but boringly, for years. Visiting the various party booths on Sergelstorg in the centre of Stockholm – almost identical little kiosks (can you get them from IKEA?) staffed by clean young political clones – it is difficult to think of it in terms of a contest at all. Posters carry portraits of smiling party leaders with anodyne slogans against pastel backgrounds. The television coverage is ubiquitous, but polite and low-key.
Most of the popular debate seems pretty small-minded, mainly appealing to selfish interests: a tax reduction here, an increased benefit there if you vote for me. (Sweden, having managed its economy better before the crash, seems to have more money to throw around than Britain.) Pensioners, nearly a quarter of the electorate (people live longer here),are being targeted with offers of a tax cut to bring them in line with those in work, who at present, surprisingly, pay less. In the suburb where I live several of the parties are trying to woo us by promising a high fence along the main road to reduce traffic noise. In the boats out to the archipelago there are posters from the Conservatives (Moderaten) warning of new taxes on our summerhouses if the Social Democrats get in. That seems to be about it.
But there are important issues at stake. The main contenders in the election, to be held on 19 September, are two coalitions: the Centre-Right Alliance and the ‘Red-Greens’, one of which is likely to win an overall majority (Sweden has PR, of course). If neither does, it’s possible that the Swedish Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna) could have some leverage. They are a really nasty lot. Rather like the BNP in Britain, they are trying to whitewash over their neo-Nazi origins, but without much success. Recently one of them claimed that Africans have a ‘gene’ that predisposes them to rape children. In the latest polls they are hovering just above the 4 per cent threshold they need for a seat in parliament. (None of the other minor parties has a hope of getting in.) Apart from that, however, this is a two-hybrid race.
The Centre-Right hybrid forms the present government, having ousted a tired Social Democracy four years ago, after an almost continuous run in power since 1932. The Right had been in before, but never, since the war, for more than one term at a time. Now that looks likely to change. The Red-Greens are lagging behind the Centre-Right in the polls by a good 5 per cent. The Social Democrats alone are recording their worst rating for 13 years, even though the Socialists are not perceived to have done anything particularly wrong over the past 50 years, and indeed are still widely admired for the extensive welfare state, their great achievement and a matter of national pride (the ‘Swedish Model’).
Four years ago the Alliance did not dare to challenge it, insisting that the welfare state was just as safe in their hands. Since then they have done a lot to unpick the Social Democratic consensus: privatising much of what there was to privatise (Sweden went in for nationalisation less eagerly than 1940s Britain), diluting Sweden’s generally excellent education system with their ‘free schools’, and, probably most insidiously, directly penalising the out-of-work – which is the reason pensioners are taxed more highly than workers. (One of the Conservatives’ cheekier ruses in the last election was to brand themselves the ‘true workers’ party’, as opposed to the party of welfare scroungers.) Otherwise, however, Sweden’s core social and welfare structure, like the state-funded parental leave and pre-school provisions that have done so very much for gender equality, still stands. It might not survive a second term, however.
As an Englishman, I feel I’ve seen this all before. One of the first things that struck me when I came to Sweden 15 years ago was how far behind us the country was politically; ‘behind’ in the sense of still clinging to social democracy when it was being discarded in Britain (not to mention America and Chile), and impervious, as it seemed, to the new free marketist fashion. But now history has caught up with Sweden (or vice versa), and we are seeing the Anglo-Saxon 1980s being played out all over again here. Free marketism is entering the public discourse, for example in the serious dailies, as if it were new (which it wasn’t, of course, even in the 1980s), and setting the terms of the debate. The Centre Party (Centerpartiet) has embraced it most purely, and the Liberal Party (Folkpartiet) most Thatcherly, in the form of ‘law and order liberalism’ (the Liberals’ leader, presently minister of education, is an ex-army officer); but it is to be found in all the Alliance parties’ programmes, and even the Social Democrats’. It seems to have taken the latter completely by surprise, which may account for their equivocal response to the challenge: they seem nervous of defending ‘socialism’, or of resisting what seems to be the new historical inevitability. Isn’t this familiar? And now think back to the 1980s in Britain; it was only after a second election victory that Thatcher felt confident enough to wreak her worst. Could that scenario be played out again, 25 years later, in the People’s Home?
If it is, the Social Democrats will take some of the blame, not least for the poor example set by their uncharismatic leader, Mona Sahlin (who will be Sweden’s first woman prime minister if the Red-Greens win); but it’s hardly her fault that ‘personality’ has suddenly become so important, when policy, ideology and practical competence used to be what mattered. (Fredrik Reinfeldt, the present prime minister, certainly wasn’t elected for his charisma in 2006.) There are of course other factors: demographic changes (fewer working classes, as everywhere in Western Europe); reluctance to change horses in the middle of so raging a global stream; hidden grievances, like Sweden’s generous asylum policy, which may account for the Swedish Democrats’ marginal boost; the global rise of consumerism, accounting for the appeals to people’s pockets; and perhaps even, if the neo-liberals and Marxists are right (they agree on this), historical inevitability. Or it may be that, as in Britain in the 1970s, the Swedes have become so used to Social Democracy that they have forgotten what life before it was like. Welfare is most vulnerable when it’s taken for granted.
The Thatcherite precedent, however, may be misleading. Anyone who has lived in Sweden knows that the social values of co-operation, equality, solidarity and fairness are far more deeply rooted in its culture than in Britain’s – though you can still find them there too. As well as this, it is difficult to see such a minority ideology as Thatcher’s taking over in a country like Sweden. There are some pretty fierce free marketists on the Swedish Right – together with disciplinarians like the Folkpartiet leader, and even a number of Christian Democrats (another Alliance partner) who want to get mothers back in the home to look after their children. But none of them is likely to be in a position to hijack the national agenda as Thatcher did. Proportional representation, and pre-mixed coalitions, will see to that. This is a genuine democracy, remember.
That may be the best hope we have that Swedish socialism will survive, in some form, even after the widely anticipated Centre-Right victory on 19 September. I hope so; and not only as a part-time Swedish resident. The world needs some social democracies to survive the present global trend, if only to show that there are alternatives: that it is possible, for example, to combine individual freedom with solidarity and collectivity, and prosperity with class and gender equality; and so to act again as a ‘Model’, when – perhaps – global free marketism falters or implodes. Sweden is currently the best we have.
The left might still just win. Twenty per cent of voters are ‘undecided’. Optimistic Swedish friends remind me that the Social Democrats won last year’s election in Norway, despite some very close pre-election polls. The parties that appear to be doing best in the Swedish polls just now are those that seem to be resisting the neo-liberal tide most convincingly: Vänsterpartiet (mostly ex-Communists, but of the cuddly Swedish sort) and Miljöpartiet (or Greens), junior partners in the Red-Green alliance; and the awful Swedish Democrats. That could presage a late swing; or, if not, be an augury of things to come next time round.