Despite the rosy picture of Scandinavia presented to us by self-styled socialists like Bernie Sanders, it is clear after the latest election that the same instability and political polarisation that has affected other countries worldwide has finally reached Sweden.
Sweden is yet another country where the traditional, mass parties have suffered defeats after years of carrying out right-wing policies. It is not clear who, if anyone, will be able to form a government. We have to be prepared for more attacks against the working class – and we urgently need to build a movement that is ready to fight back.
Uncertainty and instability
“No matter what the final result will be, this election should be the end of the right-wing and left-wing blocks.”
This is how Sweden’s Social Democratic Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven, described the political situation on election night. He will not resign, but continue to rule – for now – together with his partners in the Green Party.
We have never before seen such an unclear election result. Based on the preliminary vote count – with the final count to be completed on Wednesday – the difference between right and left is only one seat. No matter what happens, we will see an unstable government that will be forced to make great compromises in order to rule.
The right wing, including the racist Sweden Democrats, now hold a stable majority in parliament. Every government that proposes any left-wing policies – whether it suggests improved trade union rights or increased spending on social welfare – will get voted down.
But both the right-wing Center Party and the Liberals have repeatedly excluded the possibility of forming a government with the tacit support of the Sweden Democrats. Even the Moderate Party and the Christian Democrats have said that they will not form a government that includes the Sweden Democrats.
The Social Democrats have had their worst election result since 1911, with 28.4 percent of the vote. This is the price they are paying after decades of turning to the right and offering open invitations to collaborate with the right wing. They are now dead set on forming a bipartisan government with the Center Party and the Liberals, but it is far from clear if the latter will accept.
At the same time, the traditional right-wing parties only got 40.3 percent, which is their second-worst result ever. The conservative Moderaterna got 19.8 percent, which is 3 points fewer than the result that forced their previous leader Reinfeldt to resign in 2014.
The political chaos that will ensue in the coming weeks, no matter the outcome, will result in one thing only: more right-wing policies. The working class will have to prepare for additional attacks, and the left wing within the labour movement has to prepare to resist the right.
The crisis of social democracy and the 'welfare-state'
Since the economic crisis that hit Sweden in the 1990s, the old Swedish ‘welfare state’ is in ruins. No matter who has been in government, the standards of living for the working class have steadily gotten worse. Constant cuts, privatisation and an increased pressure on the working class are beginning to take their toll.
In 1980, Sweden was the most equal country in the world in terms of wealth distribution. Since then, the situation has worsened. Sweden is now the country in the OECD where inequality has risen most sharply. Before the capitalist Ingvar Kamprad (founder of IKEA) passed away – and his four kids inherited his vast fortunes – two people in the country owned as much as half the population. Now that figure has risen to five, thanks to this generational shift.
The romantic idea peddled about Sweden in the international media and by reformists is completely incorrect. It has been a long time since everyone in the country got access to high-quality welfare.
The old reformist idea of social partnership and class collaboration is dead in a period where the other part of the equation – the capitalist class – has been on a warpath against all the hard-won reforms of the past. The real picture is one of cuts of over 25 billion euros over 25 years. Meanwhile, in relation to population, over 300,000 jobs have been lost in the welfare sector since 1990.
The welfare state was built in Sweden during a historical period that has proved to be the exception. The postwar boom allowed the ruling class, not just in Sweden but in all advanced capitalist countries, to make far-reaching concessions to the working class.
Sweden could go further for many reasons: the country was not bombed back to the stone age during the Second World War, but had an intact industrial base that benefited from exports to a ravaged Europe that had to be re-built. The enormous strength of the working class as a result of the militant class struggle that built the labour movement during the preceding decades was another factor, as was Sweden’s proximity to the Soviet Union, and the implied threat of revolution from below.
The truth is that many more reforms could have been won, but the Social Democratic Party always held back the class struggle and did everything to prevent it from threatening the capitalist system and private property.
The Swedish economy currently sees some growth, but the gains are concentrated into profits for the filthy rich capitalist class. The biggest companies on the Stockholm Stock Exchange saw profits of around 25.1bn euros last year. The capitalists are making vast profits at the expense of the Swedish working class, and they are sitting on piles of money that either lie idle or are stashed away in tax havens. Sweden’s 187 billionaires have more money than the net wealth of the Swedish state plus the entire pension system put together.
The Social Democrats have been in power during most of the period in which living standards for the working class started to take a major turn for a worse. There was a time when they were perhaps the strongest social democratic party in the world. During their 40 years of uninterrupted rule, they saw election results of 40-50 percent. But during the last 30 years, because of its right-wing policies, the party has lost the majority of its active base and a large part of its support within the working class.
When the Social Democrats came to power in 2014, after eight years of right-wing rule, many hoped that they at the very least would undo the counter-reforms that the right-wing had carried out. On the contrary, they kept the right-wing policies and carried out additional counter-reforms – among them a harsher immigration policy, a state inquiry into restricting the right to strike, and raising the pension age. At the same time, cuts have continued up and down the country, because there simply hasn’t been enough money in city finances to keep up with increased costs.
The Social Democratic election campaign started out on a note of being tough on crime and continuing its harsh policies against immigration. But defections from the party and miserable results in the polls forced them to do a 180-degree turn with a “plan for security in the workplace”: abolishing laws that have aided increased casualisation, demanding collective bargaining agreements when the state buys a service from private contractors, and the end of zero hour contracts conducted via text messages, among other things.
It was a case of too little, too late; although it did stem the big fall that we saw at the beginning of the election campaign. After four years of continued right-wing policies, there was no real reason to expect that things would be much better with another Social Democratic government – this time in collaboration with the right wing. Löfven made it clear already in 2014 that he wanted to form a coalition government with the right-wing Center Party and the Liberals.
Four years of additional right-wing policies would be a catastrophe for the Social Democrats. If they were to form a coalition government, Löfven and the party leadership would gamble the future existence of the party itself. We have to say to all serious activists that no doubt exists within the left-wing of the party that it’s time to drop the idea of any compromise with the right-wing. The only way out for the Social Democrats is to make big leaps to the left, and replace Löfven and the rest of the party leadership with people who are prepared to fight for real reforms.
The popularity of the left-wing leader of British Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, shows that there is an enormous potential for a Social Democratic Party that takes up the fight against cuts and austerity. We can only hope that the left wing of the party learns the lessons of this electoral defeat and takes up this necessary struggle.
If this doesn’t happen, the Social Democrats risk going in the same direction as their counterparts in Europe – and continue their fall far below the already historically low figures they received in this election.
The party that has gained the most from the decline of the Social Democrats are the racist and nationalist Sweden Democrats, to whom they lost the most voters, according to the exit polls.
The latter's 17.6 percent vote share is less than many polls had predicted, but still represents an increase of 4.7 percent since the last election – meaning they continue to be the third-biggest party in parliament.
This, however, is not an indication that people in general are moving to the right. On the contrary, the disastrous figures for the Social Democrats show the unpopularity of right-wing policies.
According to the exit polls, this was the third election in a row where the most highly-ranked issues among voters, in order of importance, concerned the welfare state. The four most important issues were healthcare, schools, equality and social welfare. The issue of migration was only ranked eight.
What we see is political polarisation. There is an enormous discontentment with the current situation, and according to a poll by the SOM Institute, over half the Swedish population think that things are moving in the wrong direction.
The parties of the establishment are seen as responsible for the bad situation and are losing ground, while parties further to the left and right are strengthened. The rise of the Sweden Democrats, in a distorted way, reflects this discontent.
Since 2015 almost all parties and the media have constantly argued that it’s impossible to reconcile the increasing number of immigrants with improvements in the welfare state. The Social Democratic and Green government, and the parties of the traditional right wing, have carried out migration policies that are only marginally different from those advocated by the Sweden Democrats. At the same time, they have done everything to keep the Sweden Democrats away from any position of power.
In this way, the Sweden Democrats have been given a big influence over the policy agenda, while still being able to present themselves as an anti-establishment party.
But it could have been different. In other countries where a clear left-wing alternative has existed, the right-wing parties lost ground. The Left Party could have been that alternative.
The Left Party: far from its potential
The Left Party has also been strengthened somewhat since the last election – from 5.6 percent of the vote to 7.9 percent. But in the light of the discontent that exists in society this modest increase should give pause to any party that calls itself socialist. Given the enormous disillusionment with the Social Democrats, it should have been the Left Party and not the Sweden Democrats that grew massively.
The problem is that it’s not clear what the Left Party really wants. The leadership has made big fuss over the slogan: “the Left Party makes a difference”, through pointing out the various minor reforms that they have been able to negotiate with the Social Democratic and Green government. They have gone as far as to say things like: “During the last four years the Left Party has shown that it’s possible to move in the right direction.” (Göteborgs Posten, 17 August 2018)
Yet most workers haven’t experienced things moving in the right direction, nor have they witnessed any real change. While the Left Party has bragged about adding 10bn to welfare (“the left-wing billions”), the queues of people waiting to receive care in the hospitals have only gotten longer, and sick leave has increased dramatically due to workplace related stress. The meagre resources allocated have not been anywhere close to sufficient to meet the increased needs. In their eagerness to show results from their negotiations with the government, the Left Party is making the mistake of defending the right-wing policies of the Social Democrats from the left.
During the election campaign, Jonas Sjöstedt, the leader of the Left Party, stressed increased inequality, that the rich are getting richer, which he has connected to the need to raise taxes on the rich to finance better welfare. This is all well and good. But he has missed the most important thing, which is to concretise what the raised taxes should be used for. Minor reforms like introducing a patient's cost ceiling within a one-year limit for dental care, or forcing collective bargaining during public procurement are indeed important demands, but are entirely insufficient in and of themselves.
The net sum of the tax hikes the party proposes represents 54bn krona – which will only be introduced “eventually”. (Dagens Industri, 6 September 2018) This should be compared to the tax cuts of the right-wing Reinfeldt government, that amounted to 140bn krona during their eight years in power.
With a constant lack of hospital beds, tens-of-thousands of teachers who have left the profession because of worsening conditions, increased sick leave and so on, the Left Party is setting its horizons far too low.
The Left Party should have differentiated itself as a fighting party, that takes up the struggle for the major reforms that they presented in previous elections: stopping privatisations, resisting participation in imperialist adventures; and fighting for 200,000 new jobs in the welfare sector, a 30-hour work week, an end to casualisation and so on. It could could have explained that capitalism is the reason for environmental problems, unemployment, lack of housing, and the like – and that the only solution is socialist policies. Such platform would be tremendously popular and give the Left Party a clear profile as a party that wants to break with decades of cuts and counter-reforms.
If the Social Democrats continue to move to the right and, what would be worse, form a coalition government with right-wing parties, the discontentment with the Social Democrats could lead to a situation where the Left Party grows to become the biggest workers’ party in Sweden. But this requires the Left Party to a clear opposition and adopt a much more radical policy. Unfortunately, it is instead preparing for some sort of collaboration with the right wing.
The Left Party and the question of government
Sjöstedt should clearly say that he excludes any coalition with the right-wing. Instead, he has repeatedly said that negotiations with the right-wing Center Party and the Liberals might be on the agenda. For example, in an interview in the big tabloid Aftonbladet he said on 2 July:
“We will act to ensure that we get a government without any right-wing parties. But we might end up in a very complicated situation this autumn, and we are always ready to negotiate if we can pass left-wing policies. We don’t close the door to do that also with other government coalitions than the one that exists today.”
The argument seems to reflect the understandable sentiment shared by many people: “Anything but the Sweden Democrats!” But a coalition government with the right wing would only become a reality if the Social Democrats and the Left Party agree to carry out policies that attack the working class. This seems to be Löfven’s idea, but it would be extremely bad if Sjöstedt adopts it too.
The reason that the Sweden Democrats are making inroads among working-class voters right now is that all other parties are seen as part of the establishment that has carried out counter-reforms during the last three decades. If the parties of the labour movement enter into a coalition with the right-wing it would be the worst possible outcome, in which we get right-wing policies at the same time as the Sweden Democrats gets stronger. This is exactly what the last four years have seen. Those who want to fight austerity and cuts will be left with no one representing them in parliament.
The Left Party has gotten stuck in a parliamentary straight-jacket that prevents it from showing any way forward. In the aforementioned interview, Sjöstedt actually takes the argument even further:
“I think it’s unlikely that we would enter into government with right-wing parties. But we will always be prepared to negotiate to pass left-wing policies.”
Unlikely? Is that a yes or no? Sjöstedt offers no clear answer.
To support, or even worse, enter into government with right-wing parties would be a fatal blow to the Left Party. Rather than hesitate, the Left Party should present a clear opposition to right-wing policies, no matter who carries them out.
Class struggle on the order of the day
Poverty is sharply on the rise amidst the ruins of the welfare state. Close to a quarter-of-a-million pensioners and as many children are living in poverty. According to Eurostat, 1.5 million Swedes are “at risk of poverty”.
Sick people are dying while waiting for surgery, the unemployed are forced into pointless and humiliating ‘training’, and an increasing number of people find it impossible to even see a doctor. The basic security associated with getting help when you get sick has disappeared because the authorities in charge are preoccupied with a wild goose chase for people trying to ‘cheat’ the system.
In many workplaces, casualisation and temporary employment agencies have become the norm rather than the exception. Both wages and working conditions have become drastically worse, while trade union leaders have replaced collective struggle with horse-trading and negotiations.
Because the right wing has a majority in government, the next government will inevitably carry out right-wing policies. With a Social Democracy that has opened the way to restricting the right to strike, and right-wing parties that have demanded attacks against labour laws, we will see more and more severe blows against working conditions and against the trade unions. We will also see more attacks against the sick and the unemployed.
On top of this, we have to add the unstable economic situation internationally, where a new crisis could be triggered at any moment. This will hit Sweden particularly hard, as a small country dependent on exports, with an economy affected by a housing bubble and the world's third-highest level of private debt.
This is an explosive mix: a volcano of class anger that is only waiting to erupt. We can already see it in the struggle against the closing down of the maternity ward in Sollefteå, where people are now occupying the hospital; in the demonstrations for increased resources by “Preschool Rebellion” and “Health Care Rebellion”; and in many minor battles on the industrial front. Something big is about to happen.
In particular, the young generation can see clearly that the society in which their parents grew up have started to get destroyed. Many young people are facing a future of casual jobs, difficulties in finding a place to live and have seen nothing but counter-reforms. Among 18–21 year-olds, the Social Democrats got only 20 percent, while the Left Party got 12 percent. There is a radicalisation within an entire layer of youth, which is preparing to fight back.
Meanwhile, the trade union leaders consider it more important to maintain good relations with the bosses and the state than to organise workers at a grassroots level. These leaders regard strikes – the only effective means that the workers have to fight back – as undesirable. But this can’t last forever. Sooner or later the working class will come to understand the necessity of struggle.
It’s time that the working class rises up and fights the parasites. This election is only another nail in the coffin for Swedish class collaboration. The Marxists will continue to argue for militant struggle from below, and explain the necessity of building a revolutionary socialist alternative to get rid of capitalism.