The Art of the State, Swedish Edition

Gunnar Wetterberg, head of the political department at Swedish peak-level union SACO, blasts the present Swedish government for adopting ill-prepared policies. His main example is the changes to the unemployment insurance, which to the government’s big surprise has led to an exodus from the system but he also quotes tax policy and sickness insurance as cases.

To a political scientist the question must be: Is Wettermark right, and if so, why does the present government put less emphasis on the preparation of new legislation?

Let us for the sake of argument assume that Wettermark is right and note that he presents two possible explanations: 1) The parties in the governing coalition disagree so much over policies that decisions are made without preparations and 2) the parties think that they hold all knowledge of policy alternatives and their consequences in advance.

With regard to 1), I think it is correct that the parties have different positions on a number of issues, even though my colleagues Camilla Sandstrm and Thorbjrn Bergman have shown that Swedish politics is more polarized between the blocs while the right-wing seems to have become better coordinated. Still, if a coalition disagrees over an issue, the usual strategy is to put the question into a committee to keep it off the agenda.

2) is more interesting but I will have to note that the tendency in Denmark during the last decade has been to throw all kinds of policy issues into the garbage can (in the decision theory meaning of the term) which is constituted by the annual budget negotiations. It is a very Swedish complaint to say that a policy is bad because it hasn’t been prepared over several years by a committee.

I would add some extra explanations to get a broader view. First, in the run-up to the 2006 election, the “Alliance” put great effort into presenting a common platform before the election and emphasise that the four parties would keep their electoral promises. This does not make much room for additional committee work on proposals afterwards.

Second, I’m convinced that in the back of their heads, the party leaders remembered the fate of earlier centre-right governments – in 1979 the centre-right was only returned with the most marginal of majorities and in 1982 and 1994, the centre-right governments lost elections only to enter long periods in opposition. The probability that the four parties would only stay in office for one term was large. If the parties wanted their policies to have an impact after the 2006 election, they would have to move extremely fast so that the Social Democrats were presented with faits accomplis in 2010. There wasn’t any time for setting up committees on tax policy and social insurance.

Still, that the government acted rationally doesn’t mean that the implemented policies were appropriate. The property tax turned into a mess – but the government still managed to put the Social Democrats in the defensive – while changes to the sickness and unemployment insurances may have backfired both politically and with regard to policy effects.