Sweden, its social model and the centre left’s return to power

web images file svenskaThe Swedish Social Democrats have returned to power. After 8 years of Frederik Reinfeldt’s conservatism the temptation for the European left to rejoice is palpable. The spectre of a minority government, the rise of a hard right nationalist party and a splintering of a left agenda however do not bode well for a country that many have pointed to as a beacon of European social democracy. CHARTIST’s web editor finds himself in Sweden and asks some questions.


For the last ten years or so, the British left has looked across the North Sea with a gooey and adoring eye usually found in the socket of a love struck teenager. And do you know what? well it should. Sweden and its Nordic counterparts like Norway, Finland and Denmark have shamed the anglo-saxon neo-liberal model (like ours) with its balance of relatively low levels of economic inequality, high productivity and low public debt–a totemic example of social democratic welfare states and wage bargaining systems being viable within an open market economy. This is a slightly romanticised version. This is not meant to belittle the considerable achievements of Sweden, but ‘Model Sverige’ has come under considerable strain in recent times courtesy of its own growing affection, from both the right and the centre left, with political neo-liberalism. With the return of the Social Democrats to power last week – the party that formed the political spearhead of the Swedish social model’s advance – there are however a number of pertinent questions.
Will Stefan Lövfen be stuck with a weak coalition that will likely only last a year or so? Will he decide to form an unofficial pact with the Left Party on individual bills? Will he shed the neo-liberalism of his predecessors Reinfeldt and Persson? what will this mean for Sweden’s internationally adored social model?

The return of the Social Democrats to power

The Social Democrats have agreed, as they have before, to go into alliance with the Green Party. This – at a total of 137 seats – doesn’t get any where close to the 175 seats needed for a majority in the Rikstag. Even with the much more radical Left Party (20 seats), New Prime Minister Stefan Lövfen is still way short of passing anything in parliament. This is why there are some very confident predictions that this government will fall within a year or so. All the other parties in the Rikstag are either members of the just-defeated centre-right coalition  or the Swedish Democrats, the hard right party currently basking in the light of their sweeping gains at the polls. The Social Democrats decided before the election not to enter into coalition with the ex-communist Left Party who were deemed to extreme. This is rather regrettable on one point: the Left Party had made a key plank of its election platform to remove all profit making from the organisation of Sweden’s famed welfare state. Truly radical and ridiculous stuff! In recent times both healthcare and education in Sweden had been subject to a great deal of privatisation initiatives with some very controversial results. One of the more recent examples (are you listening Mr. Gove?) presented one of Sweden’s privately run ‘Free Schools’ closing down in the middle term because it ran out of money (I’d love his face at this development. But then again, not really). The creeping influence of for-profit firms in healthcare has also been highly controversial and a source of protest within the Social Democratic party itself. One question post-election is not so much why Lövfen refused has to invite the Left Party into a governing partnership (the reasons of political positioning are fairly clear if not unfortunate), but how will he get by without the Left Party if he wants to get anything passed? The Left Party’s 19 Rikstag members are votes they won’t feasibly get anywhere else. The members of the old centre-right  coalition will happily sit on their hands and wait for the government to fall.

Defending the social model

Sweden’s social model has changed a great deal. In the early 90s its collective bargaining system came under severe business-led assault when the largest employer organisation bolted from long-standing national level bargaining. The pressure felt by its totemic wage bargaining regime, healthcare and schooling systems is all a result of a rising affection with neo-liberalism over a 20-year plus period. This was seen in the last Social Democratic administration led by Goran Persson, so there would be live questions as to the intent of Stefan Lövfen’s new Social Democrat administration even it had the parliamentary arithmetic on its side. Without it the ability of the Social Democrats to defend the Swedish welfare state, that so many Europeans admire, is all the more brought in to question.
Nonetheless It is worthwhile challenging some of the more intellectually grounded critiques of Sweden’s social model. The Economist for one, has always had a bug bear with this sort of political experiment.  To this end it deems Reinfeldt’s past 8 years a roaring success of neo-liberal reforms, despite some of the ludicrous public policy failures that Swedish neo-liberalism has brought to the country. With many countries already in the thrall of neo-liberal nonsense (Hallå Britain!), or having it forced down their gullets by the Troika and the Euro-pact, countries like Sweden and Denmark may just be the last stand.
Scandinavia, as ever, always food for thought.

CHARTIST’s web editor was in Sweden for a work trip and took the opportunity to speak to some academics and anyone willing to speak to him in alarmingly good English.