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'Almost nothing was achieved under Sahlin'

The Local · 15 Nov 2010, 16:15

Published: 15 Nov 2010 16:15 GMT+01:00

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Swedish Social Democracy yesterday became slightly more like a normal European political party. Its leader accepted the consequences of a disastrous election performance and resigned, thus finally concluding a rather weird period in which everyone in the party was looking at each other and waiting for someone else to act.

Mona Sahlin thus notches up a series of records, including that of being the shortest-serving Social Democratic leader ever, and the first of the democratic era not to become prime minister.

Back in September, the Social Democrats suffered their' worst election result for nearly a century, which will probably presage their longest spell in opposition since they first entered government in 1920.

Immediately afterwards, I was very surprised at the party's apparent willingness to keep Sahlin as leader (and at her willingness to carry on). My inference was that you should never underestimate the Swedish labour movement's loyalty to its incumbent leader (or, indeed, Sahlin's own toughness).

Remarkably, no party figure of any significance ever called for her to go.

But things began to unravel a couple of weeks ago. Even then, the criticisms were coded. Aftonbladet, a newspaper generally supportive of the Social Democrats, described the leadership question as "the elephant in the room", but left it at that.

The same day, the head of the party's youth wing - displaying, incidentally, the sort of timing, judgement and luck that bode well for her own political future, and which consistently eluded Sahlin - called on the entire party leadership to put itself up for re-election at a special party congress. Again, she avoided direct criticism of any individual; but her call soon picked up support from high places in the party.

Last week, and without getting clearance from the party's executive committee or party board, Sahlin declared that she too agreed with this "obvious" step, and that it should be undertaken at a special party congress to be held earlier than expected, perhaps in March next year. Uproar ensued, with Social Democrats openly applauding or criticising her move.

A telephone meeting with the chairs of the party's regional units on Friday was adjourned until they could all physically meet, yesterday. Then she announced that she would not stand for re-election.

If you ask me, the bottom line is this: West European social democracy has deep-seated problems; the Swedish party is scarcely alone in experiencing hard times at the moment.

Still, the Swedish case does seem to have peculiar difficulty in changing to address these problems - or, to use the usual social democratic parlance, to "renew" itself. The core of this difficulty is leadership, by which I am not chiefly referring to any personal qualities that Sahlin herself may or may not have.

Sahlin's own period as party chair involved an almost complete lack of leadership. Perhaps this was partly a reaction against her predecessor's rather heavy-handed style. But it may have more to do with the party's institutions (defined in a broad sense).

She did manage to pull the Social Democrats' education policy towards a position that was more in line with most voters' views. She was also responsible for the decision in 2008 to build a pre-electoral coalition with the two other left-of-centre parties (even if she was forced by her party to include the Left Party in that alliance, which proved electorally catastrophic).

But with regard to other substantive policy areas, especially economics, nothing was achieved - and, even worse, it never became at all clear what Sahlin WANTED to achieve. The manner in which she was selected as leader never involved her having to declare her candidacy, never mind set out a platform for where she wanted to take the party.

The policy-review commissions that she then launched were soon marginalised by inter-party negotiations with the Social Democrats' alliance partners. Her reaction to the election defeat in September was to call yet another investigative commission, with 50-odd members, fairly junior leaders and a leisurely timetable.

Another odd element in this strange saga is that both Social Democrats and journalists have repeatedly tried to distinguish between debate about policy and debate about leaders - as if the two are not inextricably connected. Political alternatives are packaged and presented by individuals. Their rival packages serve to shape views in a party (or any other organisation) about direction. Choices can then be made.

A rather interesting intra-party conflict broke out late last week, as Sahlin's authority slipped away. One former Social Democratic minister launched an amazingly personal attack on the party's shadow finance minister. He responded by trashing the policies that he had previously defended and setting out an alternative economic policy that pitched squarely for the political midfield.

Story continues below…

That may be precisely the sort of open debate, with various leadership contenders positioning themselves through outlining their own manifestos, that the party now needs - and which the previous leader-selection process bent over backwards to avoid.

We will see if the new selection committee, which the party council will confirm on December 4th, interprets its mandate in a different way, one that condones a debate between competing candidates - as would be taken for granted in, say, the British Labour Party or even the Danish Social Democratic Party.

In yet another twist to the tale, there is at present no front-runner to replace Sahlin, with, for example, as many as ten possibilities listed in Monday's Dagens Nyheter.

Dr. Nicholas Aylott, a UK-native, is a senior lecturer in political science at the School of Social Sciences at Södertörn University in Stockholm.

The Local (news@thelocal.se)

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Your comments about this article

10:03 November 16, 2010 by RobinHood
The title is untrue. Mona Sahlin continued the work of Göran Persson, proving to Sweden that the party has become morally and ideologically bankrupt, and irrelevant to modern Swedes. The party is now just a cozy club for members and their supporters, who are unfit to find work elsewhere in society, other than within the party apparatus, or in public service. Those who are fit to get a proper job (Bodström) do so, and want nothing more to do with the party. The party avoided difficult decisions, such as immigration and the Greek founded fear of free spending socialism, and established itself as the Swedish party of envy and no. It ran for election with a campaign based almost entirely on tax increases, and criticisism other party's policies, but offered few sensible policies of its own. It even put into its manifesto a call to the US to unilaterally close its military bases. Ridiculous. Last week, at its moment of crisis, it announced its intention to fit compulsory alcolocks on vehicles in Sweden. The party has completely lost touch with reality, if it were a person, it might soon announce him/herself to be Napoleon.

The Swedish people have not so much abandoned the party as the party has abandoned the Swedish people. Swedes who look for a sensible centre left party to represent their views are left washed up on the beach, while the party elite is enjoying a night at the theatre. The party is geared for the socialist of the 1970's, and has nothing in common with the modern socialist Swede. Swedes do not want to constantly hear about tax increases for the "rich", and anti-US dogma, they have moved onwards and upwards from that old clap trap. A picture of a crowd gathered in Göteborg at the May day jamboree this year said it all; a collection of mostly elderly people and a sprinkling of teenage firebrands. This separation of Swedish people and party will continue as its traditional hard-core support literally dies away, while more and more highly educated, and politically savvy young voters become enfranchised. At the moment, these bright young people say there is only one natural party for them.

The party is at a cross roads. Turn slightly right and follow the modern electorate, or stick to its traditional values, and become irrelevant. Bodströms exit is a powerful indication which way the party will turn. Expect the appointment of a non-entity leader willing to bow to the will of a powerful party hierarchy, and unable to make the necessary ideological leap to catch up with the electorate. Sadly, Sweden is about to resume its default position of one-party rule. It wasn't a good thing when the Social Democrats had it all their own way, and it won't be a good thing now they are irrelevant. Sadly and incredibly, any clever young thing who might be able to change the party, probably hasn't paid his/her television license, or bought a bar of chocolate once, and will be hounded by the press until he/she resigns.

Oh Sweden.
13:22 November 16, 2010 by Nomark
RobinHood - that was very well written.
16:04 November 16, 2010 by McChatter
Indeed, Robin Hood, well written.

Tax increases for the "rich" have a nasty habit of hitting the "poor" as well and since the "poor" are now getting used to having more money at their disposal (thanks to the Alliance), they are not taking kindly to talk about tax increases.

The social democrats nearly had the perfect society where the individual was taken care of from the cradle to the grave. He/she didn't have to worry, the state (the social democrats) took care of things. And he/she didn't have to think. The state did that for them as well. Actually the state preferred it if the people didn't think. This "workers' paradise" has been falling apart for the past 10-15 years. The state is no longer 'delivering the goods' and people started to question the state and found that the state had no real answers.

Now the social democrats must take a long look at the future and ask themselves: where do we want to go? Getting rid of the unions' crippling power over the party would be a step in the right direction. Cutting down the number of committees within the party would also help to make the party more transparent (and thus more understandable) for the voters. Above all, they must stop being so arrogant ("we know what's best for you") and start seeing the voter as someone with his/her own rights and responsibilities and make his/her own decisions.

As someone recently wrote on a Local thread: it would be wrong to have a block of parties representing those who work and a block of parties representing those on welfare etc. It is up to the social democrats now to have the courage and conviction to take some basic and very far-reaching measures. That is, if they want to be a party to be reckoned with in the future.
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