Sweden and social democracy: is the old couple about to break up?

By Tanguy Séné | 16 February 2012

To quote this document: Tanguy Séné, “Sweden and social democracy: is the old couple about to break up?”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Thursday 16 February 2012, http://www.nouvelle-europe.eu/node/1427, displayed on 05 December 2022

In days gone by, the Social democrats were seen as the natural rulers of Sweden. But in the past few years the center-right coalition has managed to hold on to power by drawing votes from the middle-class. Does it mean the Swedes are rejecting the traditional, strong Nordic welfare state? Or is it rather a sign of a more European-wide malaise about social-democracy?

The Swedish Social Democratic Party (SAP) is in bad shape. On 21 January, its recently elected leader Håkan Juholt resigned after several scandals (involving illegal use of parliamentary allowances) and a series of blunders.  He had held this job for ten months. At the same time, a Novus poll released in December showed only 25.3 of the Swedish intended to vote for the Social Democrats – well below their score when they were defeated for the second time by the center-right at the last general election (30.9%).

More than a defeat, a downfall

Many European politicians would think this is a very relative decline, and fewer would despise such figures, especially in a proportional voting system as there is in Sweden. Some facts might thus help to understand why, on the contrary, the Swedish social democrats feel they are going through an historical crisis. The SAP has never reached such low voting intentions before. Over the past 80 years, they have been in power for 66 years (only two center-right governments filled the gaps). They were helped by the fact they won more than 40% of the votes from 1940 to 1988. In liberal democracies, few political parties enjoy such a continuous grip on the state: no wonder the Social Democrats feel like they are the natural managers of their country.

However, since they were defeated for the first time by the center-right coalition in 2006, led by the current Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeld, it seems they are on a steep declining trend. They lost even more votes from 2006 (34,6%) to 2010 (30,9%), failing to attract middle-class citizens. Meanwhile, the liberal conservative Moderate party, headed by Fredrik Reinfeld, grew more popular. Does it mean that the Swedish are distancing themselves from their social democratic model?

First, one should clarify what social democracy is. Historian Tony Judt puts it that way: “Social democrats… share with liberals a commitment to cultural and religious tolerance. But in public policy [they] believe in the possibility and virtue of collective action for the public good. … a social democratic vision of the good society entails from the outset a greater role for the state and the public sector”. In that respect, Sweden continues to epitomize the social-democratic state. The Social Democrats have set up a cradle-to-grave social security system, heavily tax-subsidized, with high and universal social expenditures. It is combined with considerable fiscal intervention in labor markets and strong labor unions. One of the typical achievements of the Swedish welfare state are found in living standards and life expectancy: they often top international rankings.

Renouncing the Nordic welfare state?

Some like Gøsta Esping-Andersen call it “the Social Democratic Model”, others like André Sapir “the Nordic Model”. Whatever the name, it has fascinated the European left for a long time. For one thing, it undermines the usual opposition between state intervention and economic performance. In 2010, Sweden recorded both the EU's highest growth rate (5,7%) and a budget surplus (the only member state with Estonia to do so in the epidemic of public deficits). For economist André Sapir, the “Nordics enjoy an envious position, with a social model that delivers both efficiency and equity”, where efficiency is defined as the capacity to generate high employment rates and equity by the relatively low risk of poverty. The Anglo-Saxon model (United Kingdom, Ireland) is seen as efficient, while the Continental model (France, Germany) fosters more equity – but none of them manage to combine both.

So why are Swedish voters swaying towards the right? There are several causes. Of course, the government’s track record over the past few years played a role: as mentioned above, Swedish GDP is growing fast, unemployment is under 8% and keeps falling while it currently runs no public deficit. In addition, the Cabinet seems strongly united, which contrasts with the bickering taking place within the SAP. All of these good results (especially in comparison with the rest of Europe) contribute to the popularity of a right-oriented program: reducing welfare allowances, suppressing taxes for the lower-paid, cutting unemployment benefits in a typical “workfare” fashion. Reinfeld recently proposed raising  the legal retiring age to… 75.

And yet, the current government is a far cry from speaking or acting in favor of the dismantling of the Swedish welfare state. As opposed to to many of their conservative predecessors, today’s Moderates have borrowed much from the social democratic stance, advocating equality and public services. The ambition of Fredrik Reinfeld would be to rather “fix” the model than change it. In 2006 he declared to Reuters: “The Nordic welfare model is in many aspects a good model but it needs more of a choice for individuals”. At that time, he estimated some aspects of it were uncompleted: “We have a strong economy but we don't have the job creation we need. We want more job creation.” So far, the voters seem to have approved of his choices.

One must conclude that by electing a center-right government, the Swedes have not rejected social democracy, but the Social Democrats. The malaise about social democratic political parties is deeper and concerns Europe as a whole – who could have predicted that in a time of economic crisis, votes and polls would have benefited above all to the right in the continent? As Tony Judt shrewdly observes, almost no politician in Europe (from left or right) contests the fundamentals of the social democratic society. Quoting him again: “Social democracy, in one form or another, is the prose of contemporary politics. There are very few European politicians, and fewer still in positions of influence, who would dissent from core social democratic assumptions about the duties of the state, however they might differ as to their scope… The problem today lies not in social democratic policies, but in their exhausted language”.

The European left has indeed to propose an alternative, a coherent project to confront the right’s.  In our recent history, much has been done by the social democrats to build welfare states and fairer societies. Now it is time to shape a new discourse in response to today’s social and economic challenges. Mona Sahlin, a previous leader of the Swedish social democrats (just before Håkan Juholt and Stefan Löfven), has made a telling confidence: “We cannot only be a party for when life is hard. We also have to be a party for people who have jobs and believe in the future.”


To go further

On Nouvelle Europe website

Dossier de décembre 2011 : 

To read

  • JUDT, T., Ill fares the land, London, Penguin Books, 2010
  • TRUC, O., ‘Ces sociaux-démocrates suédois qui ne savent plus où ils vont’, Le Monde, February 11th 2012
  • TRUC, O., ‘Social democrats meet to find ways of saving their Nordic model’, The Guardian Weekly, 7 February 2012
  • ‘In the dumps’, The Economist, January 28th 2012
  • ‘Fading charms’, The Economist, December 31th 2011
  • ‘The strange death of social-democratic Sweden’, The Economist, September 16th 2010

On the internet


Picture: Withering rose, by Laen, on flickr