And what a ride that was: The Swedish Social Democrats – a party which traditionally embodied the image of rational social engineering – spent the better part of 2011 on a veritable political roller-coaster under the luckless Håkan Juholt. Crises and internal conflicts are nothing new to the Nordic Social Democracies but a train-wreck of these dimensions is something unprecedented. One would probably have to look at the German Social Democrats where the position as party chairman turned into a veritable catapult sometime during the 1990s with the rapid succession of chairmen in 2005-2006 at the high (or low) point. Still, Germany with its federal structure is different and the party chairman is not necessarily the party’s candidate for the position as federal chancellor.
But at this point it is fair to ask what went wrong and how big the risks that the Social Democrats will repeat their mistakes. To do so, it will be an idea to look at the challenges, routines and solutions facing or available to the Social Democrats at four different levels and how the party responded and used the available alternatives.
The Social Level
There can be no doubt that the Social Democrats are structurally challenged. The party’s historical base was the numerous smaller and mid-sized communities which again formed the basis of industrial development during the 20th century but the Swedish society has changed as the major cities have become the main economic centres and the population is migrating to the Stockholm, Gothenburg, Malmö/Lund and Linköping/Norrköping regions. Crucially, the Social Democrats lost the fight against the Conservatives in Stockholm and Skåne in 2006 and again in 2010. Magnus Hagevi discussed this in a recent blog post but I would like to elaborate a bit on his argument by adding the shares of the vote won by the Left Party and the Green Party (I also begin my graph in 1970 rather than 1968)
It is obvious that the Social Democrats are facing a long-term decline in their share of the vote: While the party could operate with a target of 45 percent until the mid-1980s, its target share has been around 40 percent until 2006 and these days 35 percent looks like a more reasonable target. This means I am assuming that the party was performing below its potential in 2010 – and this assumption may not necessarily be correct. But another point is that “the left” is not necessarily weaker because of the Social Democratic crisis – the Left Party and the Green Party could attract voters, even if the Sweden Democrats continue to pull working-class voters to the right; a development Andreas Johansson Heinö has hightlighted (and which has parallels in Denmark)
The Institutional Level
Some years ago, the political scientist Ellen Immergut pointed to an overlooked factor which helped the Social Democrats to maintain their political hegemony from the 1930s until the 1970: The Swedish constitutions. Curiously, the democratisation of the constitution in the form of the abolition of the indirectly elected First Chamber and changes to the electoral system. Immergut’s conclusion is that – depending on your point of view – the Social Democrats punched above their weight until 1970 or that the party would have been stronger on the parliamentary arena, had the two-chamber system been retained.
We should note that the Danish Social Democracy faced similar challenges on the electoral and parliamentary level in the 1970s, so a different institutional development wouldn’t have stopped the Social Democrats from sliding into a crisis but we could have seen a different trajectory.
The Organisational Level
The Swedish Social Democrats have always taken pride in having a strong organisational culture. Outsiders might question the conflict between the image of a grass-roots movement on the one hand and the reality of a top-down controlled machine on the other but the party for a long time succeeded in creating the impression of an organisation without visible conflicts.
The problem is that a strong organisational culture which punish deviating opinions and open conflicts is bound to run into trouble when the environment changes or when conflicts emerge. In reality, there are only two ways to deal with this situation: Either let a dominant leadership decide the course and accept that dissidents are either excluded or leave or find some way of making conflict and conflict-resolution legitimate. The Social Democrats did neither following the Göran Persson’s resignation and this effectively meant that the party was drifting, despite the good intentions of Mona Sahlin. The closed nature of the process behind the selection of first Mona Sahlin and later Håkan Juholt only served to disguise the cracks in the walls of the building.
The Individual Level
At some point during the autumn of 2011 it was obvious that Håkan Juholt wasn’t the man to lead the Social Democrats out of their misery, but what was wrong? As the Swedish magazine Fokus has pointed out, Juholt’s first problem was that he represented the countryside and small towns, rather than the Stockholm centre. He was an outsider – not just because he hadn’t been a minister – and to succeed, he would need to create a stable power base in the party’s central organs. It was not necessarily wrong to pick an outsider, but the Social Democrats managed to pick a leader who looked more like a throwback to the Sweden of the 1970s than somebody who could finally bring the party into the 21st century.
Juholt’s second problem was that he lacked the basic skills needed in a party leader and especially one whose task would be to bring about major political and organisational change. Commentators have noted his carelessness with facts and controversial private life but to me, Juholt is fascinatingly like a Danish party leader who enjoyed great success in his first five years in office despite a certain erratic element. Yes, I am talking about Villy Søvndal – the traditionalist who transformed SF into a lean and mean electoral and parliamentary machine and who between 2005 and 2010 couldn’t make serious mistakes (What has happened from 2010 onward is a different story). Søvndal’s advantage was in seizing the moment when SF was ripe for organisational reform and creating a team (Ole Sohn in the Folketing and Thor Möger Petersen and – until his early death – Jakob Nørhøj in the party organisation) which could support him in a competent way. Juholt essentially was an agitator – and by all accounts a good one – but lacked the strategic and organisational skills. His team turned out to be just as erratic as the chairman, something which put the final nails in the coffin of Juholt’s leadership.
Postscript: For a number of bad reasons it has taken me ages to finish this post. in the meantime, the Social Democrats’ Executive Committee (which is no longer deferentially referred to as “the powerful Executive Committee”) has installed the leader of the Metal Workers’ Union Stefan Löfven as new/interim/whatever party leader. Lövfen is not an MP, something which highlights the party’s problems with attracting talent at the top levels.