Jobs at heart of leader debate

Sweden's next prime minister appeared in the first televised leader debate of the year on Thursday evening, and jobs was one of the key issues of the night.

But whether it will be the incumbent Göran Persson or the challenger Fredrik Reinfeldt who will have the task of reducing unemployment is still far from decided. The ruling left coalition is neck and neck in the polls with the conservative opposition alliance and last night’s debate will have done little to persuade the waverers either way.

Persson’s hint that he would consider raising both housing benefits for the elderly and the early retirement pension was the only indication of new policy that he revealed.

Fredrik Reinfeldt, the leader of the Moderates, attacked the social exclusion which he said had been created under the Social Democrats. Persson rejoindered by saying that in fact Reinfeldt’s own policies would lead to more people falling outside the social safety net.

“I fight unemployment, not the unemployed,” said Persson, who time and again criticised the conservatives’ policy to cut spending in order to be able to cut taxes.

“What you stand for is nasty class politics,” he said.

But the leader of the Moderates repeated accused Persson of pushing through policies which have increased social exclusion.

“There are many people who you don’t care about because to you they don’t look like they’re unemployed,” he said.

The three key issues of the debate were jobs, benefits and schools, but both acknowledged that the hot topic of the election would be unemployment.

Reinfeldt said he did not share Persson’s view that all is rosy in Sweden’s garden. Many new jobs are temporary or labour market schemes. Instead, real new jobs are needed, he argued, and for that there must be lower taxes, a greater difference between working and being on benefits, and better conditions for businesses.

The Moderates’ leader repeated the proposal to cut taxes for service sector firms, which Persson described as the oddest thing he’d ever heard.

Persson evidently sees the Moderates’ plan to reduce social benefits as their Achilles’ heel, and he took any opportunity to criticise Reinfeldt for it.

Responding to a question from a viewer, the prime minister said that he was considering increasing housing benefits for the elderly and the early retirement pension.

“But I can’t give any promises tonight about by how much,” said Persson.

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