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.