Now, after months fighting an uphill struggle against an unusually united opposition, the Social Democrats have been given something to smile about. As I enter the party’s offices on Monday morning, the scandal over the Liberals’ spying on the Social Democrats’ computer network has just broken. Neither the media nor the Social Democrats themselves seem to be aware of quite how far the scandal will grow.
While his party colleagues are busy making political capital over the Liberals’ errors, Håkan Juholt, the party’s deputy secretary, says he wants the election campaign to stay focused on the real issues.
“We have created impressive growth impressive growth without adopting the tiger economy thinking of Singapore and Malaysia in the early nineties,” he says.
“We have created impressive growth without making it harder to be sick and unemployed.”
But have they made it harder to get a job? The total number of Swedes of working age living entirely on benefits is over one million, according to a survey published by TV4. If the Social Democrats have been in power uninterrupted for twelve years, why should they be given another chance to sort it out?
“Maybe you have to count the situation twelve years ago and compare it with today. Unemployment is very low today compared with twelve years ago.”
Indeed, open unemployment stood at 207,000 last year, against nearly 340,000 in 1994. But at the same time the number of people of working age on sick leave and sick pensions has been surging – up from just over 500,000 in 1994 to 650,000 last year. Surely that’s not a sign of success?
“But if you’re sick, if you’ve got back pain, of course you should have the right not to be on the labour market. How can you say that a woman aged 55 with pain in her neck should be on the labour market? To describe them as unemployed is not fair, because it they are listed as unemployed they have to take a job if one comes up,” he says.
So you’re not just hiding unemployed people in sickness statistics?
“No, but we’re such a rich country that if you’re sick you can afford to be sick.”
As for those who are officially unemployed, Juholt insists that jobs are coming:
“There are 350 new jobs every day – not jobs that we have created but 350 new jobs, mostly in the private sector. So unemployment is going down rapidly.”
What about the Left Party’s proposal for the state to create 200,000 new public sector jobs?
“Maybe we’ll reach that, but it will take time,” he says.
“Let’s say the goal of 200,000 jobs is a bit like saying we all want world peace.”
Juholt also flatly rejects the Left Party’s proposal to introduce a six hour maximum working day. Indeed, he admits that the left-wing parties are less united than the Alliance, but he says that this does not have to be an obstacle.
“We have a 70-year old history of minority governments. If you study Swedish history, you see that the Social Democratic Party has ruled Sweden with a minority government for all but maybe eight years.”
He also predicts that if at least two of the Alliance parties will be willing to do a deal with the Social Democrats if they don’t win the election.
“They’ve put so much effort into creating the Alliance that if they don’t succeed it will be very easy to come to agreement with two of the parties.” Indeed, he points out that the Centre and Liberal parties have ruled together with the Social Democrats before.
It may be the Liberal spying scandal that is currently obscuring the key issues in the election, but Juholt admits that even Social Democrats have been touched by scandal. A key aide to Göran Persson, Mats Lindström, was earlier this year forced to resign for spreading anonymous libellous emails about Moderate Party leader Fredrik Reinfeldt. And the head of the party’s youth movement Anna Sjödin goes on trial straight after the election, accused of assaulting a bouncer in a bar brawl earlier this year.
The party has also had to face accusations from the left that it has betrayed its socialist roots. Prime minister Göran Persson’s decision to build a mansion (Juholt prefers to call it “a big house”) has caused consternation.
In addition, the accusations that the Social Democrats hand out ‘jobs for the boys’ has also had the power to sting: the husband of a government minister was put in charge of controversial state employment office AMS and the cousin of the prime minister in charge of AMV, another state agency. Taken together with the fact that the party and the powerful union organization LO have such a close relationship, has the Workers’ Party become the new aristocracy?
“That’s a very good question. We’ve been reponsible for the country’s development for 70 years, and need to be in constant opposition towards injustice. That’s a challenge, of course it is.”
“But on the other hand, to change government because you feel it’s time for a change…if you ask people on the streets of Stockholm what will happen in two weeks if the opposition win, they will say ‘it will be the same, but with new people’. It’s no longer like Carl Bildt promising ‘one road to a new future’”.
But isn’t that a good argument in itself?
“Of course, it’s a brilliant argument – our main problem in this election campaign is the feeling that it’s time for a change.”
But don’t you reinforce that sense that it’s time for a change by appointing your own guys to senior jobs in the civil service – Bo Bylund at AMS, and Anitra Steen, now the prime minister’s wife, at Systembolaget?
“I think the appointments system will change. I don’t know how though, or in what direction.”
Have you been pushed into reevaluating this by the Alliance?
“Yes – that’s true.”
Another threat to the apparatus of the Sweden built by Social Democrats in the last century comes from the EU. Several of the monopolies created by left-wing governments face scrutiny at the European level. Is Systembolaget going to have to give up its sole right to sell booze to Swedes?
“I don’t think so. In Europe agrees that alcohol is not like a shirt or a sausage – it’s a drug – then countries should have the freedom to organize the sale of this drug in a way that the country feels is most suitable.”
What about pharmacies, then? Will we be able to buy aspirin at ICA any time soon?
“I don’t want that development, but it’s really hard to foresee what will happen.”
But if the Social Democrats are now all in favour of the EU, why not also join Nato? Juholt’s eyes light up at the mention of the topic – he lists defence as one of his main interests, and was chairman of the government’s Defence Commission.
“Why join an organization already too big for the Unites States,” he asks.
“Nato advocates really want to create a second UN Security Council – a political body for giving mandates to themselves. My political idea is that a mandate should be given by the Security Council. If that is blocked, then the alternatives should be the European Union or the OSCE [the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe].
“Now, maybe Nato will move on to be a college for tactics, interoperability and training – that we can take part in. But if Nato is becoming a forum for political decision-making, then I don’t think I want us to take part in that.”
So, it’s not just that Sweden’s anti-American?
“I think that Swedes are anti-Bush. But Social Democrats have always been supporters of the ideas behind the United States and the transatlantic link, but the present administration has made it harder for Swedes to love the US. Clinton had it easier.”
If keeping Sweden out of military alliances has been a long-standing plank of Social Democratic policy, another eternal policy has been abolishing the monarchy. Committment to establishing a republic remains a part of the party’s constitution. Yet after 70 years of left-wing rule, Sweden’s king is still in his palace. What’s happened there?
“Well, they’re good looking,” smiles Juholt.
“But they’re 100 percent out of political power, and they’re strongly supported by the public. Of course we want to persuade Swedes that there should be a different system, but we won’t be raising that issue in the final day of the campaign!”
Indeed, nobody’s predicting that the royal family will be shunted off on the next Finland ferry on September 18th. Still, scandals aside, there’s still a good chance that that other eternal Swedish institution, the Social Democratic Party, could find itself in a different sort of exile. But Juholt is cautiously optimistic.
“I think we’ll win, but it will be very close. Twenty-five percent have not decided. Those voters who say they don’t care about the election – we’re going to find them and tell them we’re not the same as the others.”