What’s the point of protesting?

When Sweden's labour movements take to the streets on May 1st this year, they will for once have something other than a socialist government to protest against. But, argues Captus's Nima Sanandaji, they overestimate the influence of ideology on politics.

This year, for the first time in a long time, the Swedish left has something other than a socialist government to protest against on May 1st. Harsh criticism of all aspects of centre-right policies is to be expected, mixed in with traditional Marxism, feminism and left-leaning environmentalism.

May Day demonstrations are perhaps the most predictable events in Swedish politics. The same message is repeated year after year: the US is bad, as are the Moderates, businessmen and oil companies. Socialism is good, civilization is a threat to the environment and gender is a social construction.

If it were possible to communicate a message to the May Day demonstrators, it would be that government policies are on the whole not so different under the centre-right than under the Social Democrats. The left is not willing to abolish capitalism and hurl Sweden into poverty; the right is not going to implement large scale welfare reforms – millions of people have become dependent on government jobs and handouts.

Politics is not so much determined by ideologies as the interplay of interest organizations. The unions that organize large parts of the May 1st demonstrations are themselves the strongest interest organizations in Sweden. Their support for the Social Democratic Party is equivalent to hundred of millions of kronor during each election year.

When it comes to expressing solidarity with workers around the world, the unions are good at painting signs to brandish during demonstrations, but they are no less good at shutting foreign workers out of the Swedish labor market (remember Waxholm?). The reason is simply that it is in the interest of unions to monopolize the working market, and that interest comes before socialist ideology.

The hundreds of government agencies and the thousands of bureaucrats that work in each one of them themselves form interest groups, typically wholeheartedly supporting big-government policies regardless of the cost. This might go against the political views of some government employees, but makes perfect sense – a government bureaucrat who criticized public spending would simply be biting the hand that was feeding him.

Even the centre-right parties are interest groups. Ideology plays a role in their organizations, but is often less important than the interest to gain and stay in power. This explains why the Moderates have embraced a view of the labour market in which regulations and union power are regarded as something positive, or at the very least tolerable. An interest organization that wants to stay in power is reluctant to get into conflict with the strongest interest organizations in the country.

When May 1st demonstrators are protesting against massive unemployment, they should remember that the unions who are arranging many of the demonstrations are themselves part of the problem. When they are expressing discontent with failing welfare programs, they ought to remember that bureaucracy is an integral part of all large organizations, particularly those that like the government face little or no competition.

There are a lot of ways to make Sweden a better country. But the black and white ideological viewpoints expressed during May Day rallies are of limited relevance to the public policy debate. The simplest truth in politics is that policies are never perfect, typically leading to unintentional negative consequences. Demonstrators who see socialism as the answer to every imaginable problem easily miss this point.

Nima Sanandaji


‘Don’t mention the E-word’

Europe is still an infected issue in Swedish politics - particularly on the left. The anti-European stance of the Left and Green parties poses a problem for Social Democrat leader Mona Sahlin, argues Jonas Morian of the Social Democratic Press Association.

The recently appointed leader of the Social Democratic Party, Mona Sahlin, has declared that she is negotiating with the leaders of the Left Party and the Green Party on a common platform in order to challenge the ruling liberal-conservative Alliance the 2010 general election.

In the election of 2006, the Alliance stood united and presented a common political platform. The Social Democrats, the Left Party and the Green Party, however, did not seem very united or even well-coordinated. This was a mistake they obviously don’t plan to repeat.

There are, of course, many issues that the three parties disagree on. Some can probably can be overcome by negotiations. But others could prove to be more complicated.

Ever since Sweden held a referendum whether or not to join the European Union in 1994, the ”E-word” – Europe – has been somewhat infected in Swedish politics. All the major political parties agree on that Sweden should stay a member (in accordance to the outcome of the referendum), save for the Left Party and the Green Party.

But being pro-European is no election winning position in Sweden. The EU is still a popular scape-goat for un-popular political decisions, no matter how domestic. ”The EU made me do it”, is a used as an excuse for everything from raising taxes, to allowing TV commercials aimed at children and shipping conscripts overseas.

For the Left Party and the Green Party, insisting on Sweden leaving the EU has proved to be their unique selling point in a political landscape where all the major parties are virtually identical.

And herein lies the problem for Mona Sahlin. Because if a red-green coalition wins the election in 2010, how could a Social Democratic prime minister have Left and Green cabinet ministers who openly oppose the EU and wish Sweden to leave?

One could argue that this has already been the case, since there have been several anti-EU ministers in former Social Democratic governments. But there is a difference between a government made up by one single party, and a coalition. In the latter case, tensions are un-avoidable and tend to come to public attention. In the former, ministers are expected to stay loyal.

A recent survey shows that the current Swedish support for staying a member of the EU is at a all time high; 43 percent. This should give the leaders of the Left Party and the Green Party something to think about.

Jonas Morian is chairman of Socialdemokratiska pressföreningen (the Social Democratic Press Association). He also runs his own Swedish-language blog, PromeMorian