Stefan Löfven, the leader of Sweden’s Social Democrats, did not attend this year’s Almedalen political pow-wow until it was his day to speak.
He explained that he had been on the mainland studying the event from a distance in order to prepare for his speech.
So when “King Stefan” finally arrived, the excitement among many Social Democrats was palpable. He and everyone else knew that he this was his chance to place himself in the historic social democratic tradition.
This was a movement that used to refer to Hjalmar Branting, the first Social Democrat leader to become Prime Minister, as “the chieftain”.
Although Löfven was not the new “chieftain” he had to appear Prime Ministerial. He also had to prove that he had strong ties to the party and that he was a Social Democrat in his heart.
His speech in Visby on Saturday thus had three purposes: to charm the Social Democrat party, to attack the government, and to appear worthy of being Prime Minister.
As with the previous speaker, Annie Lööf, this was Löfven’s first time speaking in Almedalen as party leader. And he began the charm offensive directed to his own party immediately when he arrived at the Visby airport.
He attacked the government and he claimed he “felt inspired” after seeing a photograph of Olof Palme speaking in Almedalen.
Löfven also chose to speak in the afternoon, rather than during a traditional evening slot. Some journalists were overheard joking that he had to speak in the afternoon “because most of his listeners are old and in bed by seven”.
This may have been an unfair accusation, but nevertheless, he draw a huge crowd and people were quite curious to hear what he was going to say.
Löfven continued the charm offensive to the faithful by paying homage to Palme’s widow Lisbet who was in the audience, and to his two predecessors Mona Sahlin and Håkan Juholt.
It was a bit of a twist that he didn’t know if Juholt was in the audience, and exemplified the fact that most Social Democrats don’t want to talk about the tumultuous period when Juholt led the party for ten months ending in January 2012.
The message of Löfven’s speech carried nothing new, however, and could be classified as very middle of the road Social Democratic.
During the press briefing prior to the speech, he had promised that the Social Democrats would invest in research and innovation, instead of focusing only on budget cuts to tackle the financial crisis in Europe.
Löfven wanted a “social Europe” where the fight against unemployment was prioritized. This was the main message of his speech and it pleased his audience.
He outlined his vision, calling it “a sustainable freedom” as the alternative Fredrik Reinfeldt’s description of the Moderates as “the modern worker’s party”.
Löfven said he’s going to achieve this freedom by focusing on full time employment, no budget deficits and an active policy for innovation and research. While he welcomed Reinfeldt’s proposal for a job pact to solve youth employment, he also accused the government of “pushing reforms into the future” because they want to introduce this pact in 2014, conveniently ahead of the next election.
Overall, the major impression was that Löfven delivered a good speech and that he managed to impress his own party.
He will be leading the Social Democrats into the next general election. But as one person placed high up in the ranks of Prime, one of Sweden’s largest communication agencies with strong ties to Moderates, pointed out: “together with what party?”
Ahead of the speech, veteran journalist KG Bergström, who has spent decades covering Swedish politics, said that he thought Löfven would seek a mandate for a Social Democrat-led government and that “he might let in the Green Party”.
But Bergström was certain the new Social Democrat head would break with the past and shut out the Left Party from any future Social Democrat-led government.
Contrary to their stance ahead of previous elections, the Left Party has invested a lot of prestige in wanting to be in government. So when Löfven proudly declared that it was the Social Democrats that introduced rules to balance the Swedish budget, he was also aware that the Left wants to abandon those rules.
This is his headache, as well as an electoral gift to Reinfeldt.
David Lindén is a PhD student in history at King’s College London who is serving as the acting political editor for Länstidningen in Södertälje for the summer 2012. Follow him on Twitter at @davidlinden1.