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The failure of Sweden's Red-Green alliance

The failure of Sweden's Red-Green alliance

Published: 27 Oct 2010 11:18 GMT+02:00
Updated: 27 Oct 2010 11:18 GMT+02:00

The uneasy alliance between Sweden's Social Democrats, Greens, and Left Party was doomed from the start, argues former Social Democratic politician and communications consultant Niklas Nordström.

Rather than propelling the Social Democrats to power it appears that the electoral alliance with the Greens and the Left Party only served to antagonise traditional voters. Talk of a new political identity is futile unless it is based on our own values

I was born and raised in northern Sweden, rugged country with strong labour roots. Up north, the Social Democrats easily hit 50 per cent in the polls. Many years ago, however, I moved to Stockholm. Here, the party struggles to attract one-fifth of the vote. Moving between these very different realities, I’ve gained a deeper understanding of the challenges that now confront the party.

Across Europe, middle-of-the-road voters are leaning to the right. The social democratic parties have been taken to the electoral cleaners in country after country and Sweden is no exception. In the 2010 general elections, Sweden’s Social Democrats registered their worst result since 1911, garnering a mere 30 percent of the vote.

This was hardly a shock. We Social Democrats have meandered into the proverbial political wilderness – with neither a compass nor a map.

In Sweden part of this ill-defined journey has involved holding hands with the Greens. However, this relationship has been fraught with political and ideological dilemmas.

It more or less boils down to disparate views on economic growth. The Social Democrats and unions have always agreed that the redistribution of wealth requires, well, wealth. The party has also contended that economic growth is the key to developing new and greener technology for a more sustainable future.

Sweden’s Greens, however, increasingly percieve economic growth to be incompatible with their lofty environmental aspirations. The global financial crisis only served to cement this view.

“To this day, no country has proven that it is possible to couple economic growth with responsible natural-resource management,” said the spokesperson of the Swedish Green Party, Maria Wetterstrand, earlier this year.

In this election cycle, one can pinpoint two specific events related to confused coalition politics that severely undercut support for the Social Democrats.

The first was in October 2008. Mona Sahlin, leader of the Social Democrats, unveiled the Red-Green alliance. The move, which explicitly excluded the Left Party, was unpopular in her party's inner circle. Sahlin immediately backpedaled and welcomed the reformed communists into the fold.

The second was in May 2010. With just six months until the elections, all eyes were on the Red-Green alliance has it shaped up to present its budget. The global financial mood was shaky, not least due to the situation in Greece, and people expected a responsible, sensible plan.

The Red-Greens' budget failed to deliver and they took a fatal blow in the polls. The public trusted the reigning centre-right government when it came to sound economic policy, and had doubts about the opposition’s level of economic competence.

These were two crushing setbacks from which Red-Green alliance never fully recovered. The Green Party did improve its share of the electorate, but it mainly siphoned voters from the Social Democrats. The strategy to attract young, environmentally aware, urbanites who would have traditionally voted centre-right simply never panned out.

Indeed, many traditionally social democratic voters directly cited a wariness of the Red-Green experiment. According to the polling institute United Minds, 32 percent of those who turned their back on the Social Democrats did so mainly because of the collaboration with the Left Party. Roughly 44 per cent said that the Left Party had gained too much influence over policy; whilst 45 per cent cited the Green Party’s influence.

Distrust of the Green Party was especially high in historically Social Democrat strongholds. I have experienced this suspicion firsthand when talking to family and friends in northern Sweden.

“They want to take away our way of life. They want to close our factories, take our cars and our snow scooters. They want to restrict hunting and travel. We have absolutely nothing in common. Their values aren’t my values. Why are we in bed with this party?”

In the cities, it is instead the Left Party that raises hackles. Their stance on taxes and economic issues as well as their radical foreign policy were anathema to middle-class voters. Moreover, many people had deep misgivings about whether the party had genuinely come to terms with its communist past.

This inability to appeal to the middle classes and wide demographic swathes of the electorate is reflected by the fact that only 22 per cent of gainfully employed voters pulled the lever for the Social Democrats in this year’s elections. The party is instead increasingly perceived to be close to – and are indeed mainly attracting – the jobless: the unemployed, people on long-term sick leave or others who depend on the state. This is not a position from which we can help them.

The bottom line is that the Red-Green alliance served to do little more than drive wedges deep into the heart of the Social Democratic voter base. The results were unsurprisingly disastrous.

The time has come for unflinching introspection. We social democrats – in Sweden and across Europe – should not look to clone or cosy-up to the policies of our real, perceived or imagined allies. Rather we must shape a modern political identity grounded firmly in our own principles in order to remain the leading force in progressive politics. It is only then that we can craft and convey a policy agenda that speaks with conviction to people from all walks of life.

Niklas Nordström is a member of the Stockholm County Council and partner of the Prime Group, a Stockholm-based communications agency. He is also affiliated with The Arena Group, a progressive Swedish think tank.

This article was first published on the website of the Policy Network, a progressive London based think tank.

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Paul Rapacioli (paul.rapacioli@thelocal.com)

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Your comments about this article

18:21 October 27, 2010 by eltechno
Nordstrom probably has fingernail clippings that know more about the problems of the Social Democrats than I will know in several lifetimes, but in this case, I suspect he is too close to the problems. So here's my long-distance analysis.

My grandfather who came from Smoland in 1899 was a Social Democrat for one simple reason--he thought Hjalmer Branting was a political genius. Morfors would go on to organize several agricultural producer cooperatives, and was a district-level official in the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota. The point here is my that view of the Swedish Social Democrats was colored by him--Branting's theories of how to make socialism / cooperative commonwealths work, their willingness to die to save their movement and save the lives of Germany's Social Democrats, etc. etc.

So in 1995, I spent some time in Stockholm with a Soci who was so dedicated, her apartment was littered with rose-themed stuff. To my utter horror I discovered that the Social Democrats of Sweden had become much like the Democratic Party in USA. (Gah!) Not in every way, of course, but in some VERY important ways. 1) They had drunk the neoliberal kool-aid. The economic thinking that drove Swedish prosperity had been been abandoned in favor of an adoration of petty stock speculations. 2) Since the Social Democrats had abandoned their Producing Class base on economics, they only way they could distinguish themselves was to come up with ever more novel ways to advanced the nanny state. Now there's a recipe for disaster--crazy economics combined with being a pain in the ass.

I wish you guys luck! I truly miss the political party of Branting and Olaf Palme. The whole world does, in fact.
18:44 October 27, 2010 by kamikaze101
It's nice, but too little too late! Next time they will be lucky if they got 25% of the votes!
21:54 October 27, 2010 by here for the summer
Thanks for the enlightening writing. Very good to see real political articles like this.
00:35 October 28, 2010 by Nomark
I think the author has over-analysed what happened.

Speaking as a voter who could be persuaded to vote for a left-of-centre party if the circumstances demanded it, I was turned off the red-green alliance primarily because of Sahlin and Orly. Neither represented credible government figures. I know that I'm not the only person to feel that way. Furthermore, the failings of the Sahlin/Ohly were very pronounced whenever one compared them with super popular Freddie.

An interesting gedanken is to imagine what would have happened had the Social Democrats had a strong and competent leader of substance instead of hapless Mona. IMO the alliance could well have won since the public would have been reassured that the strong leader would have suppressed the lunatic wishes of Ohly and the Greens. The minor parties would not have walked away under these circumstances since the allure of government is enough to make most politicians do u-turns.

Note to the politicos - we floating voters aren't too bothered about policies as long as they are moderate (with a small m). One can get equally good government from left of centre government as a right of centre government, as long as the people at the top are competent leaders.
00:58 October 28, 2010 by Toonie
The time has come for unflinching introspection.

Quite right. If social democratic thinking had become sclerotic, at least there would be the possibility that it had hardened around something. But in the UK, and I suspect in other European countries, it has been hollowed out. Its politicians seem obsessed by tactical, soundbite politics, desperate to disown their multiple roles in, and responsibility for, current economic difficulties. They feverishly seek 'narratives' where they lack feasible policies. They look away as Conservatives and Liberals adopt more radical policies that often outflank them on the left. Many Social Democrats are in denial (have been for far too long) and need their thinkers to come to the fore, while their short-term strategists and soundbite merchants take an extended vacation.
16:23 October 29, 2010 by james_g
Good thoughtful article and (so far...) good thoughtful comments!
02:33 November 1, 2010 by jazzIIIlove
I feel really happy to read this article, it's highly enlightening...Good job thelocal.se!
07:58 November 1, 2010 by xguild
I can't speak to the Swedeish version of Democrats, though suffice to say the great problem of thinking from the left is that its usually not done with an accountant present. If their is a way to describe the difference between an American Republican and An American Democrat is that Republicans are crazy on camera, but wise on paper, while Democrats make for good TV but don't seem to know how to hire good accountants.

At the end of the day running a government requires not just ethical policy, but a strong sense for business because frankly the large majority of policy in any government boils down to managing the books. In the US democrats have failed to do this and it seems the same problem has taken place in Sweden. Social nanny states are great for the people, we all love our benefits, but at some point you have to pay the piper and he doesn't accept credit.
12:21 November 1, 2010 by Alf Garnett
Sorry to say but the current day Social Democrats have none or very little resemblance to the ideal for which the party was originally created.

They have lost themselves to the politically correct do-gooders of the modern day & seem to be more interested in gaining recognition for their goodwill, on their own they are almost a replica of the Moderates.

As long as they attach themselves to their current politics & allies they're signing their own death warrant.
03:23 November 17, 2010 by rymagnusson
@xguild Actually the Republicans have been the worst in terms of fiscal malfeasance in the US. The two presidents who had the least growth in terms of US debt were Carter and Clinton. In the Reagan and Bush administrations, the US budget deficits increased because of tax cuts for the upper class and expanded militarization.
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