Strictly speaking, Mona Sahlin wasn’t a lead balloon of 2010. The Sahlin balloon had already begun leaking visibly sometime during 2008 and to anyone – except people like me – it was obvious during the early part of 2010 that the Swedish Social Democrats had been in serious trouble for some time. In the end, the Social Democrats were extremely lucky to remain the largest party in Sweden after the elections in September 2010.
The post-mortems have pointed to a number of reasons why Sahlin and the Social Democrats after cruising through 2007 and much of 2008 failed completely during the latter part of the 2006-2010 parliamentary term. Sahlin may have been the wrong leader for the Social Democrats but her leadership also revealed a number of challenges to the Social Democrats which the party has to find responses to if it wants to re-emerge as a contender in Swedish politics.
One thing which struck me about the aftermath of the 2006 election was the lack of a serious evaluation of what had led to the Social Democratic defeat in 2006 as well as a real test of the candidates for the position of party leader. Oh, wait … what happened was that there was no competition: Names were mentioned but in the end Mona Sahlin just sort of became party leader.1 And after all, polls showed that the Social Democrats had bounced back – and then some – after September 2006.2
If I look at the various comments following the 2010 collapse in Social Democratic support, several factors are in play and the party needs to address all of them in several ways:
1. Swedish society anno 2010 is nothing like Sweden of the 1960s or the 1930s. The rural-industrial society has given way for an urban service economy. But the Social Democrats are struggling with making inroads into the modern urban society. And even if the challenge from the Sweden Democrats is limited, the SweDems aim for those nostalgic about the old rural-industrial culture.
2. The curious lack of attachment with modern society is reflected in the party organisation which still relies heavily on internal recruitment. Exchanges with outside society is too limited. From the 1930s until the 1990s Social Democracy lived in a sort of symbiosis with the Swedish state but these days the party needs to build its own competences independently of the state.
3. Despite all talk of the Swedish Moderates going to the centre, there are still basic differences between the Moderate and the Social Democratic conception of how a welfare state should be organised. The problem for the Social Democrats is to make their model attractive for white-collar groups – traditional class-based arguments and painting the Moderates as representatives for the upper class no longer work.
4. Strategically, the Social Democrats were stuck between a centrist line and the desire to create a left-wing bloc to compete with the Alliance. One problem was that many voters the Left Party carried the same negative associations as the Sweden Democrats – even if the reasons for avoiding the Left Party were different, the alliance still discouraged potential white-collar and middle-class voters.
5. Sweden was hit by the international financial crisis during 2008 – but unlike what was the case in a number of other countries, the government benefited from the crisis while the Social Democrats lost. Traditionally, the Social Democrats led the centre-right with regard to economic competence. These days, this is no longer so.
6. It is hard to evaluate Sahlin’s efficacy as party leader given the structural and organisational factors. Still, I think that the party would have benefited from an open challenge before the 2007 party conference where candidates were forced to present their long-term plans for the party and their strategies.
7. Much has been said about Sahlin’s lack of analytical powers. Some of this may be due to grudges going back to the 1990s and some to prejudices against women, but Sahlin never really came across as somebody with a vision and a comprehensive set of strategies to implement it in everyday politics. We need a little more than butlers in the metro.
8. In 2010-2011, the party looks set to repeat the mistakes of 2006-2007. Recruiting a new party leader will be an internal process, controlled by the party’s executive committee. The difference is that this time, nobody can name a likely candidate as Sahlin’s successor.
PS: Some links to reports by and about the Social Democrats and their performance in the 2010 election can be found here and here.
My posts on Mona Sahlin can be found under this tag.