A Sunday thought: Does Sweden have an opposition these days? (I’m not the first to ask)
In a technical meaning, yes: There are four parties in the Swedish Riksdag that are not included in the government and therefore, logically, some kind of opposition. But in the substantial meaning of the term, things are more complicated. The Sweden Democrats may not formally be a part of the government’s parliamentary basis, but for a number reasons will hesitate in bringing down the government, the Green Party may do business with the government, the Left Party is not sure if its first task will be to get rid of the party leader and the Social Democrats…
… The once-mighty Social Democrats, who were to Swedish politics what Liverpool F.C. was to English league football during the 1970s and 1980s, are a mere shadow of themselves. Remember that the SocDems only managed to remain Sweden’s largest party by a whisker in last September’s general election, that the party is still some way from presenting an even remotely credible selection of candidates to fill the position as party leader and in terms of policy development …
Oy vey, as they say in Yiddish.
But where exactly did it all go wrong?
One thing which has struck me is that the history of the Social Democrats in many ways mirrors the history of Swedish manufacturing during the 20th century. Consider that Sweden was a bit odd in that the manufacturing and similar centres were spread throughout the country – Swedes talk about a brukskultur and it is worth noting that the combined minds of the Wikipedia haven’t come up with an English or German translation for this. On the one hand, there were a small number of families and corporations controlling mining, forestry and manufacturing, on the other hand they were all over the place. And so were the Social Democrats who unlike any of the other Swedish parties could be found in some force from Karesuando to Smygehuk.
But what happens when you go from a decentralised manufacturing culture to an economy based on services and ICT and with clear nodes in, say, the Stockholm, Gothenburg, Malmö and Linköping-Norrköping regions? This is not just a change of geography – even if, or perhaps especially because, the Social Democrats have lost spectacularly in the Stockholm region in 2006 and 2010 – but also a change of mindset. Note that where the Danish Social Democrats have lost support among their core voters (unskilled and skilled workers), the Swedish Social Democrats have lost middle-class voters. The crises in Denmark and Sweden are, in fact, different, even if they may have been triggered by parallel social changes.
At the same time, being almost continuously in power from 1932 to 2006 does something to an organisation. Sweden may not have been a one-party state, but in many ways, the Social Democrats saw the Swedish state as a natural extension of the organisation. As Jenny Madestam has pointed out: The Social Democrats assume that they are selecting a new prime minister, not a new party leader. But what if the Swedish party system is permanently changing into state where to parties winning 30-35% of the vote are shadowed by six parties hovering between 5-10% of the vote? Strategically, the Social Democrats are in a new situation on the electoral and the parliamentary arenas. And as Madestam points out, they need somebody who can be the leader of the opposition.
Organisational change is a fascinating subject but viewed from the outside it still looks as if the Social Democrats still have quite some way to go in their understanding of the changed environment. And the second problem is going from understanding to implementing organisational and policy change.