As you may or may not have read, the Social Democrats and their allies (post-communists and Greens) lost the general election in Sweden held this past Sunday. The winners were a centre right alliance, led by future prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt (he’ll take over in early October), consisting of Reinfeldt’s Conservative Party (called the Moderate Party), the Centre Party (formerly Farmer’s Union, who have turned fairly market liberal over the past few years), the Liberal Party and the Christian Democrats. This is more astonishing than one might think; the Social Democrats have been in government for all but 9 years since 1932, and this change puts an end to twelve years of left wing rule. I’m obviously pleased.
I’ve seen several British newspapers writing about this result, pondering if it’s a sign of things to come in the United Kingdom. Indeed there are similarities, and I do believe Britain will once again turn to the Tories, but there are also important differences that one should note.
The similarities first. Both countries have seen Social Democratic/Labour governments for quite a while now, and many have grown tired of it. Due to their long period at the helm both governments have given signs of corruption (though one should point out that those signs have been stronger in Sweden, which is perhaps to be expected given the total dominance of the party). Both countries have seen strong economic growth, while many other EU members have been struggling. And finally, in both countries the Conservative Party have elected a leader who’s main ambition has been to win the middle ground, rather than talking about huge changes.
But there are also distinctive differences, even ignoring the Iraq war — an issue which is of no relevance to the Swedish election outcome. While British growth have been accompanied with relatively low unemployment, in Sweden unemployment has been high, although hidden. The Swedish government has refused to count people in job programs (which doesn’t result in getting a job in the end), people who are studying but would rather work, and people officially on sick leave or on early retirement, who could actually work (and who would want to work) as unemployed. So while the official numbers are looking good, and government rhetoric has made it appear as being no problem, about 20% of the workforce have been out of work. This is also the key reason to why the centre-right alliance won the election — while they described a reality where this was a big concern and presented a comprehensive program to deal with it, the government with allies claimed all was well. Many unemployed found this arrogant, and decided to try something new.
I may also point out that a reasonable cause for these unemployment figures is not simply the generous welfare benefits, but also the high taxes on employment. If you have to pay twice the amount of money that the employed recieves in the lowest income bracket and even more in higher brackets, then you may well be tempted to invest your money elsewhere or on other things than labour.
Further conclusions about the shortcomings of the Nordic model may also be drawn, and has indeed been so. If you want to dig deeper into that, I recommend this survey published in the Economist.
Finally, will this change in government result in any big changes? Well, first of all it will bring some fresh air. Change is good, and we seldom have that. Secondly the trend of ever more regulations concerning small and often privat issues may be replaced by a more freedom seeking direction. Thirdly the program for creating jobs should have some effect, and should make it more attractive to start companies and make them grow bigger. Fourth the general climate may become more optimistic. Changes will be small and gradual, taxes will remain too high and public welfare too encompassing, but things should slowly progress in the right direction. And if it does, a centre-right goverment may even stand a chance of becoming re-elected which would perhaps finally brake the dominance of social democratic thinking and the left-wing outlook on the world that is so common in Swedish debate today.
The future will tell. Concerning Britain, I think one should not be too hasty to make parallells even though some may be warranted. The British Labour party have problems of their own, and they are not necessarily all the same. And — worth pointing out — Tony Blair’s Labour Party, and also Gordon Brown’s Labour Party if that is what it will be next election — is substantially to the right of the Swedish Social Democrats. In fact, some would say that they are indeed also to the right of the Swedish centre-right alliance that will now take place in government.