In hindsight it is easy to see where the Swedish Social Democrats lost their possibility to mobilize against both neoliberal and racist opponents on the right: in January 2012, when internal criticism and liberal media forced the Social Democratic party leader Håkan Juholt to resign. He had been given the impossible task to save the rapidly declining party, and he used socialist ideology and intellectual reasoning to ignite the left and younger flanks of the party. Just ten months later he had to resign.
This short phase in the history of the Social Democrats is still processed in public discourse and Juholt is referred to as a slightly embarrassing and laughable figure among leading Social Democrats and the liberal media. However, in 2014, a book was released by journalist Daniel Suhonen – Partiledaren som klev in i kylan (The party leader out in the cold) – describing these intensive ten months, pointing towards a strong connection between the right fraction of the party and Swedish lobby organisations from the private sector, who identified Juholt as a threat towards the status quo. The book was turned into a play in 2015, and a film is currently on its way. In other words, for many on the left, the forced resignation of Juholt is remembered as a loss of an opportunity to mobilize against increasing privatization, racism and class inequalities.
Juholt was replaced by the more right leaning Stefan Löfven, now the current Prime minister, and a typical representative of the post-political pragmatism, where political consistency and platforms have been replaced by ever-changing assessments and voter polls. Refugees became the first victims of this flexible politician, where his motto “open our hearts” from early 2015 quickly changed into a closed border and a closed ear to experts who told him that the economy was stronger than ever and the refugees a much needed resource in an aging population (Hansen 2016). The sentiments of the (imagined) voter were more important.
The parallels to the mobilization of Labour in the UK by Jeremy Corbyn are quite clear, with one difference of course: Corbyn did not resign. In the Swedish media, his steady progress up to June 2017 was either ignored or met with epithets such as “the left extremist party leader Jeremy Corbyn” (SvD, editorial 2017-06-04). It is, however, one thing if liberal and conservative media portray Social Democrats as extremists; it is a completely different thing when Social Democratic media does it too, as was the case with Aftonbladet, where Corbyn was seen as one of many “white, angry, old men…who just like Trump does not stand for anything, only against something.” (Aftonbladet editorial 2015-08-16) with nothing more than a populist “twitter campaign” (Aftonbladet editorial 2016-07-26).
But after Corbyn’s mobilization of the British left this June, the editorial tone of Aftonbladet has changed to homages and direct appeals to leading Social Democrats to follow Corbyn’s example (Aftonbladet editorial 2017-06-11). Corbyn is hence now treated with more respect and even used as a good example. However, the response from the Social Democratic party has been almost non-existent. Instead, Lövfen stated, during a parliamentary debate with the leader of the Left Party, that the Social Democrats are a middle party today and should remain so to ensure “a stable rule of Sweden” (Aftonbladet 2017-07-14). Finance minister, Magdalena Andersson, was equally reluctant to comment on Corbyn’s success, and all she said was that the outcome will be bad for stability because it would lead to a more complicated Brexit (Aftonbladet 2017-06-14). Rather, the party still clings to some very unpopular tax subsidies for the middle-class and continued legal profiting from tax-based private health care and education, introduced by the former neoliberal government.
The strange thing here is that polls show a majority discontent with these reforms, mainly due to some serious problems with private health care companies and schools (poll 2017; poll 2016) but this kind of discontent does not seem to persuade the party to change its policies even though the next election is just a year away. Meanwhile, the only parties gaining votes are the Swedish Democrats (a fascist party which is now the second biggest party with 18,4%) and the Centre Party (a neo-liberal party with 11,3%), mainly caused by a voter-move from Moderaterna (conservative/neoliberal) after their party leader Anna Kinberg-Batra announced a possible alliance with the Swedish Democrats (SCB 2017-06-01). So, things are moving on the right hand side, while the left side is stable; except it is not the left anymore, but the middle.
The frustration from the Left Party (measuring a small increase to 6,3 % in May 2017), and the few leftist Social Democrats still remaining, is obvious. With 31% of the voter support, the Social Democrats are in a good position to turn to the Left party for parliament support (as they used to do until the late 1990’s). All they need, is a political mobilization – one that is just waiting to happen, very much like Labour’s platform and Corbyn’s rhetoric. It is, however, not likely to happen. The focus on stability, or what is defined as stability, is too important for the party. Instead of going for a majority government in the next election, with or without the support of their former allies the Left Party, the Prime Minister clearly aims for a minority government, with support from one or more of the liberal parties: “I could very well place myself in a corner and hold up placards on how I would like it to be in the best of worlds. Everyone wants to do that. But that is not relevant. What counts is what we can get support for in the Swedish parliament. If you have a majority you can do a lot, but if you don’t get that, you have to talk with the others too.” (Aftonbladet, 2017-06-14)
Strategy and pragmatism is of course an unavoidable part of politics. The problem arises when it is all that politics is; it is such emptying of political content that has led some voters to look for content elsewhere: the populist and fascist parties on the right side present an imaginary alternative mainly because they take up the fears of insecurity and uncertainty already pronounced by middle-parties and conservatives. They do not provide any new or different economic reforms, they only provide a sense of security against imagined threats. The mobilization of the right is hence not revolutionary or radical, it is rather a reinforcement and enhancement of the status quo (the borders are already closed, structural racism and sexism is already part of our society, refugees are already sent back to certain deaths in Afghanistan and Syria, privatizations of the public sector has been going on since the mid-90’s, income differences are skyrocketing, etc.). The dangers implied in the Social Democratic focus on stability and security can hence not be underestimated.
Just as Theresa May’s effort to use the rhetoric of stability failed, the Swedish Social Democrats may well fail for the very same reason. The outcome would be quite different though: instead of a left wing mobilization, there would be a right wing mobilization. Where refugees and socialist reforms are defined as uncertainties, the neoliberal and national conservative status quo is the beneficiary of a call for stability and security.
Note: The title quote is from Margot Wallström, Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs
Sara Edenheim is a senior lecturer at Umeå Centre for Gender Studies, Umeå University, Sweden and associate professor in History at Lund University, Sweden.