The Centre Party: Eager beavers bet on jobs

Ask many an urban Swede for a quick run-down of the Swedish political groupings and you’ll often hear the Centre Party referred to as the “farmers’ party”.

These days, however, you won’t find much talk of manure and grain prices at Centre Party meetings; the buzz words of Maud Olofsson’s self-described band of “eager beavers” are entrepreneurialism and the environment.

Nor will you find many in the party talking warmly about Social Democrats – despite years spent cooperating with Social Democrat governments, most recently with the administrations of Ingvar Carlsson and Göran Persson between 1995 and 1998.

Today, figures from the party are focusing more on getting cosy with representatives of the Moderates, the Liberals and the Christian Democrats – the other three parties in the centre-right Alliance. The four parties have announced agreements on a whole range of issues, from property tax (they want to abolish it), through to nuclear power, something the Centre Party has long wanted to do away with (the Alliance will keep it – at least for the life of the next parliament).

Olofsson (or simply ‘Maud’ to Centre activists) has been one of the most prominent faces in the Alliance, despite leading the second smallest party in the grouping. She beams out from the party’s election posters, which even declare that the party will take Sweden to “Maudern times”. With Maud’s approval ratings many times higher than those of her party, they have clearly decided to make the most out of their asset.

Olofsson has had a key position in the Alliance from the very start, when the four party leaders announced their new partership from the front lawn of her house in Högfors, Norrland, in autumn 2004.

Dressed in their best woolly sweaters, the leaders declared that they would work together to throw the Social Democrats out of office, and provide a coherent alternative government.

Since then, the parties have forged deals on a range of policies, including abolishing payroll tax for a whole range of jobs in the service sector and phasing out property tax. For the Centre Party’s economic affairs spokesman Roger Tiefensee, tackling Sweden’s unemployment is a central plank of the party’s election campaign, and to do that business-friendly policies will be needed.

“Making people and businesses grow – that’s the core of what the Centre Party’s about,” the 38-year old spokesman says as he meets me between TV and radio interviews just a few weeks before polling day.

He says the turning point for the Centre Party – the point at which it left cooperation with the Social Democrats behind, and re-evaluated its focus on rural issues – was the 1998 election, at which the party polled only 5.1 percent of the vote, its worst ever showing.

“We realised that if the trend were to continue we’d be out at the next election, so we started to discuss what we are about.”

But even if this led the former Farmers’ Party to look towards free-market economics and focus on business-friendly policies, the no-nonsense, homespun image of the Centre Party has remained. Olofsson frequently receives journalists in her kitchen in Högfors, and Tiefensee refers to the party’s philosophy as “kitchen table democracy”.

“Democracy starts with a discussion round the kitchen table,” he says.

But while the image is disarming, the Centre has not been afraid to court controversy. The most clear recent example of this was when it suggested creating special employment contracts for people under 26, which would make it easier for employers to get rid of younger workers. The idea is that if workers are easier to fire, employers will be more likely to take a risk on them.

A similar proposal in France caused riots on the streets of Paris. In Sweden, far-left activists have used the policy as a pretext to vandalise Centre Party local offices. Hardly surprising, therefore, that the other Alliance parties have found the issue too hot to touch, but Tiefensee says it was right to air the idea:

“Young people should get the opportunity to show that they can do a good job,” he insists.

“The unemployment rate among young people in Sweden is very high. If you include students who are looking for jobs, Sweden’s youth unemployment rate is one of the worst in Europe,” he argues.

Tiefensee doesn’t claim that the policy will become reality, but he says he is glad that it has provoked debate.

“We wanted to put forward a measure that we knew would be discussed. Now it is on the agenda, and we’re satisfied with that.”

But Tiefensee says that he would like to discuss going even further in liberalising Sweden’s employment market.

“In Denmark, with their so-called Flexicurity, there is even greater flexibility. We have said that we want to look at this and come up with a new Swedish model. Maybe if you have that kind of programme you don’t need a youth contract scheme.”

So, are we talking about ditching the Swedish Model?

“I think the Swedish Model is a common base for all political parties – it’s a bit of Swedish culture. But a model has to be renewed all the time.”

If the Alliance has agreed to disagree over the youth contracts, there have been areas where disagreement has become more public.

Following the publication of a very critical report into the government’s handling of the tsunami crisis, the Alliance fell out very publicly over how to hold the government to account. The Centre Party’s MPs demanded for an immediate vote of no confidence, while the other Alliance parties wanted to wait and see how things developed. Tiefensee now admits that it was not their finest hour.

“We could have handled that much better, both as the Alliance and as the Centre Party. It is very important with questions like that that we speak with one voice.”

But Tiefensee insists that the four parties have learnt their lesson.

“We will see the Alliance working much more closely together and prepared to get into office as a group. If you look at the Greens and the Left Party, they want to get into office, but Social Democrats say they are seeking a mandate to rule alone.”

The leaders’ meeting at Högfors, and a subsequent get-together at the home of Christian Democrat leader Göran Hägglund in Småland, certainly helped create the impression that whatever their differences on the fine detail of policy, here were four people who could work together. But what about at other levels in the party – have the economic spokespeople been cracking open a bottle of wine at informal get-togethers?

“We have certainly met up at [Moderate economic spokesman] Mikael Odenberg’s house to negotiate,” Tiefensee says.

“This is very important – we get to know each other before we get into government, so that government can function better from the start.”

“We are better prepared now than any party or grouping has ever been before taking office.”

But while the parties’ agreements are no small feat, there are still inbuilt tensions in the relationship, as Tiefensee tacitly admits when he expresses his aim for the Centre Party “to be Sweden’s third biggest party” – a position currently held by the Liberals.

“It is very important that we speak with one voice, but at the same time we are four parties,” says Tiefensee.

“We have common policies in some areas, but we each have different issues that we can add.”

The issue that the Centre Party thinks it can add to the mix is the environment. The party is proposing tax breaks for cars that run on alternative fuels, something it hopes will make green motoring even more popular in Sweden, which already has one of the highest rates of green car ownership in Europe.

“We want to use carrots, not sticks,” Tiefensee insists.

As for the nuclear issue, the party seems to have kept faith with its agreement with Alliance partners to keep Sweden’s nuclear power stations for the next parliament. Surely the recent security scare at the Forsmark plant (where one former chief at the plant was quoted as saying that it could have gone into meltdown) put strains on this agreement?

“For some in the party, yes,” admits Tiefensee, “but for me and the party leadership it showed that it was good that we’d made this agreement, because at the core of this is a focus on looking for alternatives.”

The ultimate hope, of course, is that this unity will give the Alliance the lead it needs to oust the Social Democrats from power. If so, the Centre Party should get three ministers in the cabinet if it maintains the share of the vote it acheived at the last election, and more if its exceeds this as it hopes. But with the election far from being in the bag, Tiefensee says he’s taking nothing for granted:

“Our old leader Gunnar Hedlund said ‘you have to shoot the bear before you can sell the skin’. But we’re really focusing on winning now.”