One interesting fact about the Swedish party system is that the largest of the centre-right parties, the Conservative – or Moderate – Party – is also the most right-wing of the mainstream parties.
On the one hand, this has given the Conservatives good opportunities to profile themselves ideologically, but on the other hand it has limited the party’s chances of attracting marginal Social Democratic voters. In many ways Swedish electoral campaigns have been more about shifting voters between the centre-right parties than attracting new voters from the left.
In policy terms, the 1998-2002 electoral term where the Conservatives – supported by the Liberals and the Christian Democrats – held the majority in the Stockholm City and County Councils, can serve as case in point of what was to be expected by a Conservative government.
The term saw frenzied attempts to sell off council housing, privatise schools and health care services and even outsource core administrative tasks. The councils also engaged in a rather immature sort of demonstration against the national tax equalisation system by deliberately under-budgetting costs.
And finally, the Conservatives were not only a distinctly right-wing party, they were (and were perceived as) an upper-class party, endlessly yakking about tax-cuts for high-income earners in a country where class still is of prime importance politically, and they had great difficulties breaking out of their strongholds in Stockholm and Skåne.
So, how do you turn yourself from a nasty, upper-class Stockholm affair into a nice, classless, national party?
Champagne Work for Everyone and Better Hospitals
The answer is: With a little help from your
competitors friends in the centre-right camp and the Social Democrats.
Then copy Bill Clinton and Tony Blair and – voilà, electoral success is yours.
Since 1994, the centre parties – the Centre Party, the Liberals and the Christian Democrats – have slowly but steadily been drifting rightwards by emphasising small business interests, educational policy and traditional social values, respectively, leaving the road open for the Conservatives to soak up marginal voters.
In 2002, the Conservatives managed to blow it completely by putting their hopes in a candidate with all the charisma of a chartered accountant, but after electing Fredrik Reinfeldt as party chairman and designated prime minister in a centre-right government they started to get their act together.
First step: Identify the Social Democrats’ weak spots, then turn them into political issues. This was not too difficult – unemployment was considered a major problem despite Sweden being in the middle of a boom, and the 2002 election had also shown that unrest was brewing among Social Democratic voters around the country because of the quality of health and other social services.
Second step: Re-invent yourself as the party of social inclusion. Having lots of people on unemployment, sickness or early retirement benefits is not a sign of social inclusiveness, it is the sign of a failed labour market and a failed welfare state. Creating opportunities for those outside of the boom should be a priority.
Final step: Make the candidate look human. He should not appear to be an arrogant brat or a over-sized electronic calculator. An ordinary guy in a dual-breadwinner family living in a semi-detached suburban house looks so much better. Indeed, make the candidate your message. After all, people don’t like the Social Democratic guy.
Oh, and give your partners some crumbles, like promising to abolish property taxes. Even Social Democrats earn their own homes and would like to get rid of a tax nobody understands. Never mind that economists would be banging their heads against the wall in frustration and sheer disbelief – after all, Swedish media had regularly published stories about a Little Guy forced to sell his home for 60 years because of property tax increases and there are more house-owners than economists in the electorate.
Are You Ready to Party Like It’s 1998?
If former Social Democratic voters had expected job programmes and lots of money thrown into social services, they were disappointed.
Yes, the new government made some bold initiatives but they were more of the sort, you would have expected from the Conservatives of the 1980s and 1990s: The most visible parts of the government’s policies were the reforms of the unemployment benefit and of labour market programmes – stricter rules for qualifying, lower benefits, a shorter benefit period and a substantial increase in the insurance fees while lots of employment measure were axed more or less directly. Low-income earners in the public sector left the insurance in droves, much to the surprise of the minister responsible for labour market policy.
Yes, there were tax cuts but the initial relief for low-income earners were difficult to see and rules for damage payments for traffic accidents were changed which meant that insuring your Volvo would get more expensive. A h€%! of a lot more, in fact, and the insurance fee for all practical purposes acts like a poll-tax on car owners.
Yes, a plan for abolishing the property tax was presented but the big winners would be high income-families with expensive houses in the Stockholm region. People in the countryside would actually pay more in property-related taxes if the proposed changes were implemented.
The problem here wasn’t so much whether these policies were legitimate or made economic sense – in my opinion cutting unemployment benefits in the middle of an economic boom makes sense, abolishing property taxes is economically insane – but that the policy initiatives took everybody by surprise: This was Old Conservatism.
Where had the “New Conservatives” gone?