The Lowdown: Social Democrat party congress

The Lowdown: Social Democrat party congress
With the Social Democrats gathered at their party congress in Gothenburg in western Sweden, The Local catches up with political scientist Ulf Bjereld to find out more about the party's chances of regaining power in 2014.

Why are the Social Democrats gathering in Gothenburg?

Formally speaking, the Social Democrats hold an official party congress every four years. But this gathering in Gothenburg is what’s been called a sort of “extra congress”, which has been held in between the formal party congresses. So in practice, the party has a congress every other year, and on Wednesday they decided that their official party congress will be held every other year from now on.

Why is this congress important?

This is the last time the entire party will gather at a congress prior to the 2014 parliamentary elections, so this is when the Social Democrats will decide on the policies that will serve as the basis for the campaign to reclaim power.

In many ways, this congress is the kick start for the Social Democrats election campaign. It’s also a sensitive time for the Social Democrats and the other parties on the left, which have reclaimed the initiative from the centre-right parties in public opinion polls.

The question is whether they will continue to expand their lead or if the Alliance parties will make a comeback before the election.

What are the main issues facing the Social Democrats?

The issue that’s been debated the most and that remains contentious is the question of profits for companies operating in the public sector such as healthcare providers and free schools.

Everyone in the party is more or less in agreement that the current system has been too generous for companies who derive their income from tax-payer money.

Leader Stefan Löfven and many other members believe that companies should be allowed to make some sort of profit, but there are still factions in the party that would like to see profits banned entirely. The debate now, however, is really finding a way to regulate profits that satisfies everyone within the party and is palatable for voters.

Jobs and employment is another key issue. The Social Democrats talk a lot about the need to create jobs, but they need to come up with some credible, concrete proposals. They haven’t done that yet.

Another issue that will get some attention is education. Traditionally, the Liberal Party (Folkpartiet) has taken the lead on this issue, and Education Minister Jan Björklund was quite strong when the Alliance government came to power, laying blame on the Social Democrats for poor performance.

But more international studies have shown that standards at Swedish schools are falling, so it’s harder for Björklund to make that argument, giving the Social Democrats a chance to raise their profile.

What does this congress mean for party leader Stefan Löfven?

This congress is hugely important for him. Bear in mind he’s been in power for a year, but only after being voted in by the party’s governing board, not the members themselves, after former leader Håkan Juholt stepped down.

Löfven has been criticized to some extent for keeping too low a profile since becoming leader, but part of that is just his style. He’s not the fiery and bombastic type. So this congress is a chance for him to demonstrate his leadership, and many members want to see him take charge and lead on striking compromises that can unite the party’s different factions.

At the same time, however, he needs to listen so he doesn’t alienate members unnecessarily.

For the most part, however, he has strong support among the Social Democrats’ rank and file, and they want to give him a strong mandate when they formally elect him leader on Thursday.

He would only face a real challenge to his leadership if the Social Democrats fail to regain power in the next election.

Will the Social Democrats win in 2014?

It’s too early to say, although public opinion is heading in the right direction. They will likely campaign differently than they did in 2010 when they had a formal cooperation with the Left and the Green parties. There’s nothing to indicate they will have a similar arrangement for 2014, but nothing has been decided yet. I don’t think it will happen, but all doors are open.

Ulf Bjereld is a political science professor at the University of Gothenburg and also sits on the board of the Religious Social Democrats of Sweden (Socialdemokrater för tro och solidaritet)

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