Sweden can be a gloomy place at the best of times, but post-election Sweden feels positively miserable.
Visiting Stockholm and Gothenburg, the two biggest cities, I got a sense that Sweden is now a country where fear and loathing reign. People from both the left and right said they felt dismayed, sad, depressed and shocked over the electoral success of the right-wing Sweden Democrats, which got 5.7 per cent of the vote.
Since the election on 19 September, thousands of people have joined mourning marches, protests against xenophobia and Facebook campaigns such as ‘Sweden Democrats in Parliament? No thanks’. Newspaper columnists are still, two weeks later, asking: How could this have happened in egalitarian, liberal, solidarity-loving Sweden? What will the rest of the world think? And who the hell are those 300,000 people who voted for the Sweden Democrats anyway?
The near-singular obsession with this single-issue party – the Sweden Democrats’ issue being that the root of all problems lies with immigrants – is letting the political elites off the hook. Both before and after the election, obsessing over the Sweden Democrats allowed mainstream politicians to spend an inordinate amount of time and energy telling the Swedish people how much the elite is not like them. Politicians have refused to debate with the Sweden Democrats, and on election night the leader of the Left Party even refused, on live TV, to get his make-up done in the same room as the Sweden Democrat leader. At the big Gothenburg Book Fair last weekend, where the who’s who of Sweden’s metropolitan establishment gather to discuss politics and culture and to sip cocktails into the small hours, the rise of the Sweden Democrats was on everyone’s minds and lips.
But in truth, 19 September was an election with no winners. The Social Democrats, who have been in power for all but 14 of the past 93 years, managed to get just over 30 per cent of the vote. It was the first time they lost two consecutive elections. So with the Social Democrats’ support stagnating, the centre-right alliance securing only a very narrow victory and unable to form a majority government, and the smaller parties doing worse than expected, there are many vital questions all Swedish politicians should be facing up to: Why do people feel disconnected from politics? Why has PR-speak replaced grand, competing, political visions in Sweden, as elsewhere?
The Social Democrats in particular need to face up to their rapidly growing irrelevance. Once a political colossus and long seen as Sweden’s natural rulers, the party’s support has sunk to an all-time low. The party itself realises it is in the midst of a crisis. Why else would its leader, Mona Sahlin, have set up a crisis group the day after the election? Why else would there be internal rumblings about whether or not Sahlin should resign, as well as fierce disputes about whether or not it was a good idea to enter into a coalition with the Green Party and the Left Party this year? Clearly, the Social Democrats are trying to work out how to win back their lost votes. However, they are underestimating the extent of their crisis. This cannot be fixed with better strategising or by appointing a leader with a different personality, because what we are witnessing here is, essentially, the downfall of labourism in Sweden.
Amidst all the self-loathing and outrage in post-election Sweden, there have been a few sensible analyses of the Social Democrats’ downfall. An article in the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter asserted that the Social Democrats party is now just one party amongst many others. Once the democratic world’s most successful political organisation, its epoch of grandeur is now over.
Dagens Nyheter pointed out that the Social Democrats’ propensity for political and ideological renewal, their choice of strong leaders with radical social visions, and their rootedness in social movements and cooperatives all ended in the 1990s. Since then, an inability to forge new ideas, combined with a withering organisation, have led to steep decline. Kjell Östberg, a history professor, told Dagens Nyheter that the downfall of the Social Democrats can be explained at least in part by the decline of its strong organisational make-up.
Membership in Social Democrat-related social movements is certainly decreasing year on year in Sweden, meaning that the historical role of the social movements – pressurising the party to renew itself as needed and providing the leadership with new ideas – is no longer relevant. As Östberg said, the current party leadership ‘appears more geared towards recruiting communications strategists’.
Traditionally, the cradle-to-grave welfare state largely overseen by the Social Democrats also encompassed people’s political lives – from involvement in the labour movement’s children’s organisation Unga Örnar (Young Eagles) and the youth organisation SSU, to membership in the trade union confederation. In other words, the Social Democrats were not just an aloof party. This party was bound up with a political identity, colouring people’s family, community and professional lives.
Today, the Social Democrats can no longer even pretend to be steered by the people for the people. This is not a party built, and supported, from below, but one run by various strategists and PR experts. This hollowing out represents an historic removal of ‘the social’ (the people) from social democracy.
They are not alone in this, of course. The conservative party, the New Moderates – who, after this year’s election, are as big as the Social Democrats for the first time ever, gaining 30 per cent of the votes – has hardly got the backing of a sprawling social movement. It also relies on marketing, PR and image management. In 2006, the Moderates rebranded themselves as the New Moderates, got a new logo and added the tagline ‘Sweden’s only workers’ party’. This year’s televised election debate between the seven party leaders from the centre-right alliance and the red-green coalition resembled a business contract bidding rather than an impassioned political fight over who should rule the country. Meanwhile, the Sweden Democrats, shut out from the media spotlight and dismissed as lunatic racists by the metropolitan elites, appeared actually to be listening to people.
A majority of Swedes still feel duty-bound – and proud – to vote. This year, election participation was up to 82 per cent, compared with 80 per cent in 2006. Yet this does not necessarily translate into political involvement. The election was certainly a heightened drama this year, with two political blocs facing each other for the first time and the spectre of racism haunting Swedes in the form of the Sweden Democrats. All this may have spurred people to go to the polling stations on 19 September. But there was a strong sense that many were voting strategically, against their least favourite party rather than for something. And in the run-up to the election, there were reports of a lack of canvassers as well as a dearth of visitors and volunteers at the traditional huts that the parties set up in squares around the country. This is usually where members of the public get a chance to discuss politics with party representatives.
But Social Democracy is not simply suffering from a communication problem, which could be fixed by recruiting more volunteers or setting up more electoral huts. Instead it is time to accept what for many is a hard truth: Social Democracy as we’ve known it is no longer relevant. It has lost its political purpose and its support base. Instead of succumbing to the breast-beating of the metropolitan elites, devastated over how Sweden’s image as the world’s most tolerant country has been shattered, Swedes ought to put pressure on politicians to face up to their dearth of ideas and their inability to tap into what kind of future people aspire to.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of the online magazine spiked. For her original article, click here.