After the Swedish elections: what hope for the left?
The victory for the right wing alliance was indeed historic. Never before have the Social Democrats lost power in the midst of an economic boom. The SAP’s share of 35.2% of the vote was their lowest since the introduction of universal suffrage in the 1920’s.
There was a large swing of white collar /private sector workers votes to the conservative Moderaterna which enabled them to go from 15.3% in 2002 to 26.1%. Moderaterna also won the votes of more 18-30 year olds than the SAP. Other than that, class distinctions remained with 54.4% of LO members (the large blue collar union) voting for the SAP (compared to 11.1% for Moderaterna), and 46.4% of employers voting for Moderaterna. Despite unemployment being the central theme of the right wing election campaign, the majority of unemployed voters voted for the left bloc (with the Left Party the third most popular party amongst this group).
So why did the left lose power despite the favourable economic conditions? Firstly, the left bloc parties were irreconcilably divided. The SAP was loathed to co-operate with the Left Party whilst it was led by the self proclaimed “communist” Lars Ohly whilst the Green Party were too small to be useful to the Social Democrats. What the SAP wanted more than anything was co-operation with the Centre Party. The Centre Party has strong connections to the farmers unions and has a solid base of support amongst Sweden’s fairly substantial rural communities. Indeed, with 7.9% of the vote in this election they became the third largest party in the Riksdag. There has been a long history of co-operation between the SAP and the Centre Party at national and local level, for example much of the basis for the famous Swedish social-economic model was based on compromises between the SAP and the Farmers Association (the Centre Party’s predecessors) in the 1930’s and the SAP government between 1994-1998 relied heavily on support from the Centre Party. This time however, the Centre Party nailed its colours firmly to the right’s mast. Secondly, it is clear that the transformation of Moderaterna from the unashamed tax cutting neo-liberals of previous years to the soft and cuddly welfare liberals under the media friendly leadership of Frederick Reinfeldt played a huge role in persuading many Social Democrat voters to switch allegiances.
What will the rights election victory mean? The new government will carry out their election promises to cut taxes through cutting unemployment insurance (the current rate, which is the equivalent of 80% of previous earnings where a worker had been made redundant, will be reduced to 60%) and long term sick insurance levels. These policies, appealing as they did to the protestant work ethic, were the basis for Moderaterna calling themselves the “new workers party”. The new government also intends to sell the remaning state owned shares in the telecommunications and banking cartels. Other than this, the prognosis is likely to be business as usual for Swedish capitalism. The new government will not want to do anything to lose the goodwill of the voters before the next election and will be mindful of the fragility of the four party alliance. If the current economic conditions continue then there is little likelihood of any further cuts in welfare or public services. Reinfeldt has made clear however that he favours PFI style reforms within the health service and education and it is likely that quiet and careful moves will be made to open up the public sector over the next five years with the aim of introducing more radical changes in the next term. In any case the Social Democrats have presided over a big increase in the number of so called "free schools" (private schools that are still held to a national curriculum) so any further moves towards the privatisation of education would be along the lines of existing SAP policy.
In the last few weeks of the election campaign there was a noticeable increase in leftist rhetoric from stadtsminister Göran Persson. He publicly criticised "venture capitalists" who were looking to tear apart the welfare state, claimed that a right victory would destroy the "solidarity" of the nation, and made the environment a central election issue. He even went as far as being chummy and friendly with the "communist" Lars Ohly. The reason for this? With the election looking lost, the SAP leadership decided to try and steal the votes of the Left Party and Greens. The Swedish election system worked so that if the total Left and Green vote had fallen below 4%, the SAP would stand to gain the lions share of the vacated seats. With those parties out of the way, the SAP could then attempt to woo the Centre Party back into an alliance with them for the next election. The Left Party vote held out despite a fierce media campaign against them and they won 5.8% of the vote, down from the 8.4% in 2002, but nevertheless entirely respectable given the circumstances. The Greens managed to increase their vote from 4.6% to 5.2% having declared that they would not support a SAP government unless they were part of a coalition. The SAP may well, under a new leader, attempt to wipe the slate clean with the left bloc parties and continue its attempt to position itself on the left whilst in opposition. However the motivations of the SAP leadership should be clear. Their priority is getting back into office at any expense and they see the other left bloc parties as an obstacle to their desire to ally themselves with the Centre Party.
The Left Party and Greens should declare themselves as independent from the SAP and fight the next election on a common Red-Green platform which attempts to win the votes of left wing Social Democratic voters. Such an alternative must attempt also to break the slavish support for the SAP from the big unions and present itself as a genuine working class alternative.