Published: 22 December 2014
Author: Jonas Ryberg
Sweden?s newly elected centre-left government, consisting of the Social Democrats and the Green Party, failed to pass its budget through parliament in early December. Just hours later, the prime minister, Stefan Löfven, announced that a fresh election would be held in March 2015. This is the first time this has happened since 1958. This failure to pass even modest reforms through parliament signals a new phase in the formerly ?conflict-avoiding? image of Swedish politics.
First, let us look at last September?s election outcome. While the incumbent right-wing Alliance consisting of the main bourgeois parties had their worst performance in decades, this did not really benefit the labour movement. Despite being in opposition for almost eight years, neither the Social Democrats nor the Left Party made any serious gains. Some voters on the left shifted to the new Feminist Party which is led by a charismatic former Left Party chairperson. However with only 3.1% it did not pass the 4% threshold for entering parliament. Instead, the clear gainer from the 2014 election was the racist Sweden Democrats party which almost doubled its performance to 12% and gained a decisive position in parliament with the potential power to decide which coalition of parties could form a government.
Despite this the Social Democrats and Green Party managed to carve out a minority coalition government. But this excluded the Left Party from the coalition, a decision made by leaders of the Social Democrats in order to please the centrist parties. In fact, this anti-Left Party policy has been in place for the last two years – Stefan Löfven, the Social Democratic leader has been very clear that he would like to see a centrist government consisting of Social Democrats, the Green Party and either one of the bourgeois parties, mainly the Centre Party or People’s Party. However, repeated invitations have been met with silence or even outright hostility, as the Alliance have been very clear that they plan to stick together.
A Relatively Progressive Budget
The budget put forward by the Social Democrat/Green government included some very progressive proposals. While not serious reforms in the word’s true sense of the word, the budget included proposals that would ease the burden of the working class. Ironically, the budget was negotiated together with the Left Party, highlighting the dual nature of Social Democrats – part of the party machinery wants to distance itself from the Left Party while others are seeking cooperation. The budget included increased unemployment and sick leave benefits, free medicine for children under 18, regulations limiting profit for private enterprises within the welfare sector as well as increased funding for environmental efforts among many other things. For some activists the budget felt like a ?small revolution? – with eight years of right-wing government behind them many young comrades could not remember a budget that actually offered improvements for ordinary people.
After the initial euphoria the reality of the balance of power in parliament soon made itself felt. The government?s budget failed to get a majority after the Sweden Democrats decided to cast their votes for the alternative right-wing Alliance budget. Thus on December 4th a majority of 182-153 adopted the Alliance budget in parliament. Unexpectedly the government then announced fresh elections to be held next March. The Alliance who had been expecting that the government would resign and make way for a minority right-wing government relying on passive support from Sweden Democrats, was obviously caught off-guard by this move. The main right-wing party in the Alliance, the Moderates, had not even elected their new Chair.
Latest Opinion Polls
The latest polls do show a small surge for the Social Democrats in support of the extra election, but the main change is that the Sweden Democrats are further increasing their support, up to 17% in some polls. However, it seems that this surge is coming almost exclusively from right-wing party voters. Encouraged by the latest polls, the Sweden Democrats have stepped up their tone against minorities, even labelling the Jewish and Sápmi communities as ?not Swedish?. That voters from the main bourgeois parties now are flocking to an outright racist party might hint at a major reshuffle among the right within the coming years.
For the labour movement this presents both a challenge and an opportunity. It is clear that Social Democrat leader Löfven’s strategy of trying to find the ?middle ground? is a major failure, and calls for a new approach are brought forward almost daily among activists and in left-leaning newspapers. If the Social Democrats would bring back confrontation and self-confidence to the political scene again it could be possible to reach voters from the Sweden Democrats, who despite mainly attracting right-wing votes also has considerable support among a layer of workers. Some workers are lured by the rhetoric of the Sweden Democrats for nationalism and for a ?turning back to the old, good days of welfare Sweden?.
Build a Movement for a Pro-Welfare Bloc
While a socialist programme, democratic ownership of the commanding heights of the economy, is necessary for protecting welfare standards and creating a better society in the long run, this seems utterly utopian to many social democrats and Left Party members, never mind for the general public. The best way forward is to build momentum for a shift away from neo-liberalism, using the modestly progressive budget as a base to build a movement for a broad, pro-welfare ?bloc?. The main trade union, LO, have put forward a Keynesian job-creating programme that could be fused together with the Social Democratic budget. A momentum for such a budget, very radical when looking at in the current political climate in Sweden, would create an appetite among workers for further, possibly transformative, reforms. Making the crumbling welfare system as well as the entrenched mass unemployment a priority the discussion could shift away from immigration and ?identity politics?. In this way the labour movement can appeal to workers as a class, despite the fact that a layer of workers have some very reactionary tendencies. This should be a priority among socialists within the labour movement.
However, it will also be necessary to include a discussion on issues with immigration in Sweden as there are major flaws in the current system. One example among many is that large parts of the immigration centres are run by shady profit-seeking ?entrepreneurs?, costing tax payers millions while providing a deplorable service to immigrants. The explosion of street beggars, from being almost unheard of in Sweden to becoming a common sight even in small towns, is another issue that must be dealt with. Without a programme from the labour movement to provide meaningful solutions to the human misery of street begging the only arguments being heard are from the Sweden Democrats, who regularly drum out that street beggary is being carried out by a ?Roma Mafia? and wants it banned, with the beggars deported as quickly as possible. Combining this with the general trend of racism against Roma people this is a highly toxic combination that has lead to assaults and attacks on beggars and a general brutalisation of society.
Next Election Offers Dangers
Without a renewed self-confidence for the labour movement, and a shift to focus on jobs and welfare, which can only be brought forward by activists – both those inside and outside the political parties – the new elections next March will result in the Social Democrats remaining at around 30%, a historic low. With voters to the left of the social democrats being split between the Feminist Initiative and the Left Party there is a serious risk that the Left will fail to increase their votes which would mean that the momentum gained during this Autumn would be lost.
A worst case scenario outcome would be a ?rainbow coalition? where ?democratic? parties cooperate against the Sweden Democrats, or that a technocratic government of the Social Democrats and the Moderates is created. This must be prevented at all cost as it would spell disaster for the next regular elections in 2018, as well as to the long-term possibilities for the labour movement to be a force that actually can deliver on its long-standing promise to bring forward a fair and democratic society, a democratic socialist one.
By Jonas Ryberg, an activist in the Sveriges socialdemokratiska arbetareparti (Swedish Social Democratic Party)
Jonas can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org