The lesson of the Swedish Social Democrats is not the one you think

Like other left-wing parties, the Social Democrats adopted a harder line on immigration. Support plummeted. 

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Appearing on every international list of words that cannot be translated into any other language is the Swedish word “lagom”. The best way to try and describe its meaning is as a hybrid of “average” and “perfect”. It epitomises a culture that elevates uniformity to the level of national pride. Lagom has always reflected commentaries about the Swedish political system: perfect in its lack of excitement.

And yet, as the Swedish election campaign is heating up, one cannot help feeling that this time around, lagom does not cut it anymore. The country’s elections in September are already shaping up to be a prime example of trends that have changed the continent’s political landscape, from the rise of the populist far-right to the demise of the traditional left.

For most of the 20th century, the country was considered a social democratic “one-party state”. But the latest round of polls put the Social Democrats on an averagely European 24 per cent, roughly on par with the conservative Moderates and not far ahead of the far-right Sweden Democrats. This is particularly unsettling for the ruling left-wing coalition of Social Democrats and Greens.

On the face of it, the Social Democrats’ downward spiral follows the same pattern as in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and France. The traditional alliance between working-class voters and well-educated urbanites, which has sustained the left for over a century, has fractured. While the party has further strengthened its appeal to young urban professionals, many traditional working-class voters, and particularly men, have deserted the party towards the Sweden Democrats.

And yet, the Swedish case differs from others. The lacklustre Social-Democratic prime minister, Stefan Löfven, has presided over the most sustained economic growth in Sweden since the crisis of the 1990s with employment at record-high levels. Even as inequality is growing, those deserting the Social Democrats for the far-right are no “left behinds”. This trend is probably best reflected through the surge of the Sweden Democrats in Östermalm, Stockholm’s richest neighbourhood. Voters’ anger, just like in many other European countries, is more cultural and draws on the perceived demise of the “Swedish Model”.

The Swedish Model has often been hailed as one of the world’s most successful forms of post-war social democratic redistribution, creating the egalitarian “folkhemmet”, or the “people’s home”. Even though the folkhemmet has never been the egalitarian paradise it claimed to be, its sense of a cohesive national community fuelled by equality and solidarity has long defined Swedish self-perception. Nonetheless, this image of a small, homogenous society did not survive Sweden becoming an increasingly multi-ethnic and individualistic society.

In this context, the social democratic failure to hold on to voters has been often framed as a backlash against Sweden’s immigration policy, with its implications for integration and the changing image of a country that is no longer white and homogenous. This was compounded by the Sweden Democrats’ successful domination of the political debate around the Red-Green government’s handling of the latest arrival of refugees into the country, which has been the largest relative to the number of inhabitants in any European country.

As a reaction, the Social Democrats did what other parties of the European Left have been flirting with: they hardened their rhetoric on immigration while appealing to a nostalgic view of Sweden’s traditional Social Democracy.

This began with a controversial interview in December by the finance minister, Magdalena Andersson, who suggested immigrants should try going to another country, as Sweden’s capacity has been exhausted. In April, the prime minister, Stefan Löfven, continued along the same line. At first, he shifted his attention to stricter immigration controls. On 1 May, a day usually reserved for the Social Democrats’ show of strength, Löfven made a speech that attempted to “relaunch” the party’s campaign by calling for the “revanche of the strong society”, using the 1950s slogan to appeal to social democratic nostalgia. In an attempt to win back alienated voters, it seems, Löfven is trying to make the left-wing ideal of social solidarity overlap with the far-right view of a homogenous, white Swedish society.

The Social Democrats seem in step with centre-left parties all over Europe, as a growing number of voices called to get tough on immigration and follow the “will of the people”. And yet, it was precisely at this moment that the Social Democrats dropped in the polls to their lowest level in over a decade.

At the very least, this should serve as a warning for left-wing parties that feel the pressure to embrace a prohibitive immigration policy. Firstly, they do not work. Research shows that voters lost to the far-right will not return to the social democratic embrace. Having rejected their traditional party affiliation, these voters state they would rather switch to other conservative parties rather than go back. And in many ways they shouldn’t. The hardening of rhetoric on immigration by social democrats is little more than the left following the far right. Voters who state “immigration” as their primary concern will always choose the real thing rather over the forced imitation.

Secondly, and even more importantly, the left only thrives when it represents society as it is rather than when it harks back to an idealised past. The Swedish attachment to the folkhemmet model runs the risk of looking back to a past that cannot be revived rather than working with the present’s multi-ethnic and polarised society. However, to remain relevant in an age that is as polarised as it shows a desire for social cohesion, the left needs a new vision of a folkhemmet that is based on multi-ethnic solidarity rather than a narrow national ethnic vision. To do so they will need to stop looking back to the past. This includes refusing to take cues from the far-right, which will nonetheless continue to snap at their heels.

Dr Itay Lotem is a postdoctoral fellow in Modern Languages and Culture at the University of Westminster.