Swedish left coalition on brink of collapse

Submitted by AWL on 30 March, 2005 - 11:00

Sweden has been governed since 1994 by a loose coalition of the Social Democrats (SAP), Left Party (VP) and the Green Party.

The SAP makes up the largest part of this coalition and, since the 2002 election, holds 40% of seats in the Riksdag [Parliament] (the VP has 8.3% and Greens 4.6%). All cabinet and ministerial offices are filled by the SAP.

The nature of the Swedish political system means that the party with the largest numbers of seats is entitled to form a government but requires majority support to pass legislation. This has led to the creation of unofficial Right and Left blocs, with the Right bloc consisting of the Moderates (conservatives), who hold 15.2% of seats, Liberals (13.3%), Christian Democrats (9.1%), and Centre Party (6.1%).

Although this system gives representation to smaller parties, in recent years it has allowed the SAP leadership to set the agenda for the workers’ movement by promoting “left unity” ahead of class politics.

Despite the unity shown by the VP (which won 12% of the vote in the 1998 election), previous SAP administrations, led by Göran Persson, have taken a right-wing course of privatisation and cuts in public services.

This one-sided unity now looks to have been shattered by Persson himself, who has made public moves to distance the SAP from the VP and instead promote the Greens as the SAP’s natural coalition partners. Persson claims that co-operation between the VP and the SAP has “run out of steam”.

These moves seem to have been prompted by media outcry after new VP leader Lars Ohly publicly declared himself a communist (though he added that the VP was not a communist party).

Swedish state television ran an investigation into organisational links between the Left Party and the Stalinist governments in Eastern Europe. It was also found that, in 2000, Ohly had reworded an official letter of apology to Kiruna-Swedes — victims of harassment from the Left Party after their return home from Stalin’s labour camps in the 1940s — with a number of critical references to Stalin being removed.

Persson may also have been annoyed by recent VP attempts to flex their muscles over defence cuts, in which the VP fought to keep open military bases in its northern strongholds.

The VP was formed as the Social Democratic Left Party (SSV) in 1917 after leaving the SAP. In 1919 the SSV joined the Comintern, and in 1921 changed its name to the Communist Party of Sweden (SKP). In 1967 it became the Left Party Communists (VPK). After the collapse of Stalinism in 1990, the party dropped the word communist from its name and was keen to renounce its political and organisational links with Stalinism. It labelled itself “post communist”.

Most of the Trotskyist and Stalinist left parties support the VP in Riksdag elections, and many are individual members, although the Socialist Party (affiliate of the Fourth International) and KPLM (Stalinist) stand separately in communal elections.

Today, the VP stands on a programme that focuses on class questions, in contrast to the heavily feminist orientated politics of Gudrun Schyman who was the VP leader between 1993– 2003.

Much of the VP’s support has come from blue collar workers (particularly in the industrial northern areas), the unemployed and women. However, despite its left face during election time, the VP has given virtually unconditional support to the SAP’s Riksdag policies. Where it has shared local authority control, the VP has supported hospital closures and thousands of health jobs cuts, cuts in child and elderly care, local transport, schools and youth clubs, often in front of angry demonstrators.

The previous 10 years of SAP rule, supported by the VP, have seen the privatisation of public transport, dental care and the national telephone company, cuts in child benefit, and a pension reform that places considerable faith in the stock market and under which billions of pension savings have disappeared with the bursting of the IT bubble.

Privatisation has become common in education, with many post-16 schools being run by private companies and geared towards work training rather than education. Universities tend to emphasise vocational courses and there is limited access to arts and humanities courses. However, most of these post-16 schools and colleges are subsidised by local authorities to ensure free access for students. Student grants are available for all (as long as you have been resident for at least two years) but are currently only around 2000 SEK (about £150) per month, so studying must be financed in part by employment or loans.

Despite its rightward drift, the SAP can claim some success in government over the last 10 years. The Swedish economy has performed quite well since the mid-1990s, and working class living standards remain among the best in the world. According to UN indices Sweden has the lowest human poverty in the world.

Where the SAP have held local government control, healthcare has remained solely in public ownership (although there have been vast cuts), whereas conservative-run local authorities, such as in Stockholm, pursued an aggressive policy of hospital privatisation in the late 1990s.

The return to power of the SAP in Stockholm and many other previously right wing controlled local authorities in 2002 seemed to confirm voters’ rejection of these policies and, after an almost unanimous victory for the SAP in the 2002 elections, Goran Persson declared: “Neo-liberalism is dead.”

Despite the gains made by the SAP in the 2002 Riksdag elections at the expense of the VP, the new VP leader Ohly was less inclined to give unconditional support to the Persson government and seemed to be inspired by the tough conditions laid down by the Greens as a condition for support.

The VP were a leading force in the Euro currency referendum “no” campaign, and took much of the credit for its success against Persson and most of the Right parties. But, despite a tougher public stance, they have failed to push SAP domestic policy significantly leftwards and now face isolation from their former partners. In response to VP threats to withdraw their support from the SAP coalition, a prominent SAP member replied flippantly “let them vote with the Right in that case”.

The central problem for workers in Sweden is unemployment and job insecurity. The official unemployment figure in January 2005 was 5.5%. However, this does not include the many new immigrants in the “Praktik” system which involves a 30-hour week of often menial work combined with Swedish language classes, in return for local benefit payment that covers the cost of rent but little else.

The total non-working population in Sweden, including those doing “Praktik”, students, and those on long term sickness, is thought to be around 20%.

In the public sector, many are on temporary contracts or work as substitutes with irregular hours. Cuts have been made in many “low priority” public sector areas, such as residential care, and many private sector jobs in the car industry have been moved abroad. Many workers in the IT and communications industries face the same threat.

Key to solving the unemployment question is introducing a 35-hour week with full protection of pay and conditions. Sweden currently has a 40-hour week.

This policy has been adopted by the VP. However, the leaders of the Swedish Trade Union Federation (LO), which has seats on the SAP executive, have done little to push for a shorter working week and instead propose “increased production” as the answer to unemployment.

The LO claims that if wages are raised, more goods will be purchased by workers and thus more jobs will arise.

The idea that Swedish capitalists will respond to higher wages by creating more jobs can be described as naïve at best. The simple answer to creating full employment is a shorter working week alongside the creation of more public sector jobs.

Wages across all industries are negotiated with the unions — they are relatively good in European terms.

Tax rates for those that earn less than 25,000 SEK (around £2 000) per month are 34%, those that earn more than this must pay another 20% (i.e., 54% of total income goes in tax), and all overtime pay is taxed at this rate of 54%. Despite this, corporation tax rates stand at only 28%, and tax on capital at 30%.

These capitalists are restless souls, of course, and the Right, with the help of the media, has become increasingly desperate in finding ways of regaining power. The last time the Right had power was in the early 1990s, and few workers forget that their reaction to an immediate economic crisis was enormous interest rate rises, whilst unemployment reached 14%. The Right subsequently lost the next three elections, with the Moderates suffering particularly.

The Right parties have tried and failed to promote working class resentment against high taxes. However, recently, under their new leader Fredrik Reinfeldt, the Moderates have enjoyed a resurgence in the polls. Further tax rises have not been ruled out by the SAP, as health and state pension costs look set to rise significantly within the next 10 years due to an ageing population and recent low birth rates. The Liberals, meanwhile, have looked to win SAP votes in recent months by claiming that they do not intend to cut taxes.

The key pledge of the Right is to increase employment by encouraging small business, which, it claims, will increase the number of employees and therefore of tax payers.

What they mean in practice is cutting unemployment benefit levels whilst undercutting the right of unions to negotiate wage levels with small businesses. With no enforceable minimum wage in place in Sweden due to compulsory wage negotiations in all employment sectors, a Right government would probably lead to the super-exploitation of immigrant workers.

Indeed, the Right parties have made great efforts to scapegoat immigrants. They have used statistics showing that crime is considerably higher amongst immigrants as “proof” that immigration is a problem (statistics also show that crime is higher amongst all of the poorest people, regardless of race). They aim to drive a wedge between Swedish workers and unemployed immigrants by claiming that Sweden’s welfare system is being abused.

Meanwhile, official unemployment is nearly 30% amongst immigrants. The SAP has failed to offer much prospect of a better future for Sweden’s immigrant population, beyond pledging not to cut welfare payments and vague and often patronising talk about integration. Many immigrants themselves would choose even low-paid work over state support or “Praktik”.

“Persson to resign in the autumn,” was the dramatic headline in the 23 March edition of Expressen (a Liberal supporting tabloid), as media criticism of the government intensified and a new poll showed the SAP’s popularity at a four year low.

It was claimed that the government was slow to react in helping Swedes affected by the Asian tsunami, and should have asked the USA for special help. The media has also focussed heavily on crime, creating a perception that Swedish society is breaking down into a lawless anarchy and blaming this on the “relaxed” Swedish justice system.

In addition, the SAP has been hit by a number of well publicised scandals. Member of parliament Ola Rask was accused of supplying his family with various flats, and Ardalan Shekarabi, chairman of the young Social Democrats organisation SSU, is alleged to have appropriated SSU funds for his own leadership campaign.

It seems that most SAP members want a new leader before the next election, and many are now openly talking about his successor, although Persson is unlikely to go voluntarily.

Mainstream SAP criticisms of Persson have been reflected by government insider Ursula Berge, who wrote: “Basically, we know nothing about what Göran Persson stands for as prime minister. Oh, except for the fact that he’s against the Holocaust.”

One recent opinion poll showed that the vast majority of both SAP and VP voters thought that the parties had drifted rightwards since the 2002 election.

The VP has also suffered from the recent defection of its former leader Schyman, who claimed that the party was doing little to promote greater equality for women. She now looks set to form a new feminist party which will contest elections. Such a party would be expected to form part of the Left bloc in the event of gaining a vote above 4% at the next election.

It is likely that Schyman’s party would split the VP vote, and work even closer with the SAP than the VP and Greens presently do. By so doing it would give greater strength to the SAP leadership.

The VP now faces a crucial decision. Should it rebuild its burnt bridges with the SAP leadership by shifting rightwards and dropping all opposition to the SAP? The better alternative is that it establishes itself as a genuinely independent workers’ party, by sticking to its party programme and election mandate to reverse the growing inequality in Sweden that it and the SAP have presided over in the last 10 years.

The history of the VP suggests that it will opt for compromise with the SAP. Ohly has come under intense pressure from the moderate reformist wing of the party to renounce his “communist” beliefs. Of course, there is a world of difference between renouncing adherence to Stalinism and dropping left policies, but whether Ohly understands that is another matter.

It remains also to be seen whether the VP’s recent “turn to the workers” under Ohly is anything more than electoral opportunism.

Even if the VP promises to return to faithful obedience, the SAP for its part now clearly believes that the VP has outlived its usefulness, and may even try to entice the Centre Party (rural-based social liberals) into forming a coalition with them.

However, in order to do this, the SAP would need to make a decisive break with its “socialist” past, and it cannot afford to isolate its working class trade union base. The SAP’s hopes seem to rest on strengthening its own vote under a new leader, whilst hoping for strengthening of the Greens and Schyman’s new feminist party at the expense of the VP.

By Tim Row

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