September 14th is a date a large section of the working class population in Sweden are looking forward to. Finally there’s a chance to get rid of the ruling right-wing coalition that has been in government since 2006 with devastating effects on the welfare state and general equality in Swedish society. But even with a much needed change of government next month, there’s no guarantee that the general shift to the right of politics will change – major challenges are waiting for the working class and labour movement over the next few years.
Sweden has traditionally been a bastion of social democracy. The social democratic party, Socialdemokraterna, has usually polled between 35-45% in most elections and came to dominate the political landscape for sixty years from 1930 to 1990. This was the era of the post-war boom and the economic upturn. In Sweden this was translated into a strong welfare state with a general shift of power from capital into the hands of labour. Pushed by a strong left-wing trend within the trade union movement during the 1970s, a radical proposal to gradually socialise the economy by putting company profits in union hands as shares, was put forward in the general election in 1976. This scheme, named “workers’ funds”, proved to be the high tide of reformism in Sweden. The election turned into a gigantic battle between right- wing forces and the labour movement. There was even a large demonstration of 250,000 people against the proposal, a massive mobilin thon bpport of middle- and working class people a tax break on income from work was also introduced. This had the twofold effect of gaining support from a layer of the working rrent situation of the Social Democrats today – most analysts agree that there has been a constant retreat of the labour movement since that time, with political reforms that would limit the power of capital taken off the agenda.
The other party is Vänsterpartiet – the Left Party – a reformed communist party that has generally supported the Social Democrats in government. Its profile can be characterised as a broad left party. It had an upswing in the 1998 general election scoring 12% but its vote has usually hovered between 5-8%. Although not a class-based party in the same way as the social democrats, it has major support among public sector workers.
The Social Democrats ruled as a minority government between 1994 and 2006 with the support of the Left Party and the Green Party. The early years where marked by drastic cuts in the welfare state as a response to the deep economic crisis between 1991-93. This represented a radical shift of policy within the labour movement which included entering the European Union, as well as laying off tens of thousands of public sector workers. Despite this the social democratic government in general retained the trust of the working population which remembered the disastrous right-wing government of 1991-93. The Social Democrats could effectively explain that the cuts were a necessary evil and within a few years the reform agenda would be brought back. This helped them to win the elections in 1998 and 2002.
Move to the Right
However, by 2006 the public had clearly become tired of a government that did not deliver on the major issues and with unemployment still not dropping below 6% a general feeling of frustration began to spread. The main right-wing party presented a young energetic candidate for prime minister who promised that the right had renewed themselves and would now focus on cutting red tape in the welfare state and most importantly, on job growth. Their focus on tax cuts was abandoned and instead they presented themselves as a young, dynamic team against the “old guard” of the social democrats. The result was a large victory for the right-wing parties.
Of course, the representatives of the bourgeois only know one type of politics and it was quickly revealed that the new right-wing government was no different than the previous one. Within months, cuts to unemployment insurance and sick leave benefits was announced, with a rhetoric that it was about cutting red tape and ending welfare dependency. Tax cuts were also introduced, the lion share of which went to the richest. But in order to win the support of middle- and working class people a tax break on income from work was also introduced. This had the twofold effect of gaining support from a layer of the working population but also driving a wedge between workers and unemployed. This was an important strategic decision by the right-wing as they realised that continued support from a section of workers was key to staying in power.
The electoral defeat of 2006 plunged the Social Democrats into disarray which severely hampered the ability to effectively mobilize against the welfare cuts. A demonstration called by the major trade union federation, LO, was called in December 2006 against the cuts in unemployment insurance but only managed to gather 8,000 participants. There were repeated calls for a general strike against the cuts but it did not materialise. Over the next two years opinion polls showed a swing towards the Social Democrats but without any possibility to mobilise there was no shift in the power balance. Added to this was the election of a highly unpopular former minster as new leader of the social democrats. Although the election of Mona Sahlin was a breakthrough since it was the first women to lead the Social Democrats she was too much associated with the former government and proved to be a burden. The Left Party did not benefit from the attacks on the welfare state either, partly because of a lack of connections with the working class but also due to a smear campaign regarding them still being a “closet communist” party.
All of this meant that the labour movement was far from prepared for the 2010 election. A negative focus on personalities and a lacklustre campaign prevented the newly formed red-green alliance to build momentum for changing the government, despite the fact that a majority of people did not approve of the right-wing government policies. At this time the general capitalist crisis was hitting Sweden in full swing and unemployment had gone through the roof. However, as the crisis was less severe than in other European countries the right-wing government boasted that their policies had held the worst at bay.
Of course, the main problem was the lack of an alternative. Very few people could point out any major, concrete reforms proposed by the red-green alliance that could decisively change the direction of Swedish society.
Rise of the far-right
The elections of 2010 was a major breakthrough for the far-right and the xenophobic Sweden Democrats (SD). The SD had evolved out of some small neo-nazi groups in the 1980s it had for long been a marginal phenomena until the years around 2004-5. Styling themselves as a socially conservative party with the main focus on reducing immigration the party entered the parliament in 2010 with 5.7% of the vote. Swedish society has always had racist undercurrents but this was the first time a political party could translate that into popular votes. While SD have taken votes from all parties and classes, it is clear that they enjoy strong support within the working class. The combination of a major capitalist crisis that has left tens of thousands unemployed together with the ideological, and organisational retreat of the labour movement, is a major factor in explaining the success of SD. This can be seen in the fact that the party enjoys massive support in rural towns where the closure of industrial sites have left a major impact on the local economy.
At the other end of the political spectrum is the Feminist Initiative party (FI). The FI was founded in 2005 but catapulted into the centre of politics by getting 5.5% of the votes in the European Parliament election last June. Their policies include a radical program for ending discrimination against women and lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals (LGBT). Its main support comes from the progressive middle class centred in the large cities and universities. While their policies are very close to the Left Party they refuse to define themselves on the left-right spectrum. Instead they argue that they bring a whole new dimension into politics, much like the green parties argued when they had their breakthrough in the 1980s. Another complicating issue is that the main spokesperson of FI was the leader of the Left Party between 1993-2003 and her resignation was forced by major tensions within the party. The result is a complicated relationship between FI and the Left Party that have included some very nasty (and utterly unproductive) verbal attacks. Still, FI has attracted support from people that would otherwise support the Left Party and there is a small chance they will be elected to the parliament. What is clear is that while the Feminist Initiative is not socialist a majority of its members and voters define themselves as left-leaning. Instead of petty bickering socialists should engage with FI. But this engagement must work in both ways: the labour movement must take into consideration the broader definition of oppression and realise the complex structures that cut across the economic classes in society. FI, on the other hand, must see that advancing the feminist and LGBT cause cannot be done without a radical socialist program for equality.
The election outcome is far from clear. Most polls currently show a razor-thin lead for the red-green opposition parties. While the right-wing parties are trailing behind, the real problematic issue is the far-right Sweden Democrats that once again might end up holding the balance of power in parliament. This would most likely result in the continuation of the right-wing minority government which would be a disaster for workers as yet more welfare cuts and the privatisation of strategic assets would further increase inequality. Such policies would most certainly lead to more racist tensions. We have seen signs of with the mainstream right-wing politicians picking up some of the demands of the SD.
Another possibility is a broad coalition, mostly likely between the Social Democrats, the Green Party and one of the right-wing parties. While such a left-right coalition would put an end to the programme of privatisation it would effectively mean be a status quo government. The recent experience in Denmark is that such a government would mean disaster for public support for the workers’ parties, where support for the Social Democrats has fallen drastically to below 20% while the Socialist People’s Party have been more or less eradicated.
Build support for socialist policies
A red-green government means a much-needed breathing pause for the working class, and a chance to start building momentum for more radical polices. Over the last year radical local initiatives from grass-root activists in Social Democrats and Left Party have surfaced, most important is that several municipalities are now to introduce experiments with a six-hour working day with full pay. A reduction in the working day would be a major change in the balance of power between the classes and for the first time in a long time it is being debated seriously within the labour movement.
As contradictions within capitalism intensifies over the next years so will be battle over the labour movement, we are already seeing the first signs of shifts within social democracy around Europe and there is a big chance this will happen in Sweden too. Socialists must work both within the labour movement but also among the social movements and new political parties such as Feminist Initiative to promote socialist policies. A red-green government opens up new possibilities for class struggle in Sweden!