Archive for category Europe

Sweden enters a brave new world

Olof Palme, the last Social Democrat to enjoy a full majority

Today Stefan Löfven, a former industrial welder from northern Sweden, expects to begin moves to assemble a Social Democrat-led government. As the latest in a long line of Social Democrat prime ministers, Löfven assumes not just the trappings of power but an office of both party and state that defined Sweden for the latter part of the 20th century. But the party that led Sweden through its golden age of economic and social prosperity after the Second World War and made the country a role-model across Europe and the wider world is not in good shape.

It used to be said the Social Democrats were in control even in opposition. Now the question is whether they are in control when they are in government. In coalition with the Greens, they no longer have the ability to lead and make others follow. When former Social Democrat leader Göran Persson left office in 2006, Sweden still possessed many of its Nordic economic and social features, from a monopoly on the nation’s chemists to extremely high levels of sick-pay eligibility and a relatively protected public healthcare system. In the past eight years many of the old certainties have vanished, and the country the Social Democrats should inherit is, for the first time in over half a century,  not a land for which they have written the rules.

Since 2006 Sweden has been led by the conservative-liberal ‘Alliance for Sweden’, a joint front of the Moderate, Christian Democrat, Liberal and Centre parties. By far the biggest partner in the coalition were the rebranded ‘New’ Moderates, who successfully overhauled Swedish conservatism under the leadership of Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and proved a big influence on David Cameron’s reinvented British Conservative party.

Elected on a promise to safeguard the Swedish model,  the Alliance for Sweden have fundamentally changed key aspects of the Swedish system. Since the 1950s the country has been famous for extremely high levels of employee protection, gender and economic equality and a robust economy that has weathered global trends.

Since 2006 the expansion of profit-driven free schools has increased educational division, and tax cuts for both the wealthy and the restaurant sector, intended to stimulate employment, have had little impact on the overall prosperity of the country. Combined with an affordable housing crisis in Stockholm and well-publicized scandals involving private healthcare companies, the Moderates look set to limp over the finish line with just two-thirds of the support they won at the previous election.

The complex maths generated by Sweden’s combination of open national lists and a 4% barrier for entry to parliament means that a likely Social Democrat-Green coalition could horse trade with the Left, Liberal and Centre parties to form a majority. Unfortunately for Löfven, the Feminists failed to make it past the finish line, robbing them of a natural ally. Traditionally Sweden has operated as two electoral blocs, with the Social Democrat-dominated left competing with what Swedes label ‘bourgeois’ parties in coalition.

The difficulty for either side in assembling a complete majority has been created by the entry of the far-right Sweden Democrats. The party, which first appeared in 2010 and is rooted in neo-Nazism, was vying with the Greens to become the third largest in national politics, comprehensively pushed them into third place. Both the Greens and the Sweden Democrats had consistently hovered at around 10%, with the Greens promoting their ability to keep the far right from influence to no avail. The Sweden Democrats hit 13% though, making themselves kingmakers if anyone would be willing to work with them.  For now though, unlike in neighbouring Norway where the strongly anti-immigration Progress Party is in a governing coalition, the Sweden Democrats remain political outcasts.

What is happening in Sweden mirrors the fragmentation of European politics more generally, with voters abandoning traditional Social Democratic and Conservative parties in favour of newer voices on both left and right.  In the recent European elections the Greens beat the Moderates into third place, whilst the grassroots Feminists mobilised largely young and female voters to win an MEP. More worryingly for the traditional blocs, the far-right have been able to take votes from both conservatives and white working class voters.

The changed nature of Swedish politics means that a return to pre-Alliance days is firmly out of the question,  and the time when the Social Democrats would haul in upwards of 40% of the vote and make small concessions to other parties are long gone. It also means that the Swedish model so admired by Sweden’s European neighbours is on shaky ground even without the Alliance at the helm.

Government without overwhelming support leaves the Social Democrats with an existential question. Outflanked on the progressive left by Feminists and Greens, but unable to move further right without hemorrhaging their core support, they remain comfortably the largest party but without a clear vision of why they want to be in office. At a time when Sweden’s problems with social exclusion and income distribution risk removing it from the realms of Scandinavia and dumping it firmly within the demographic trends of the rest of Western Europe, Löfven will lead a group with the smallest percentage of Social Democrat MPs since the 1920s.  His government needs to revive the Social Democratic project and make it relevant for the 21st century if the party and the society they created are to survive.

Tomorrow’s forgotten voters

A preferential ballotThe very roughly proportional electoral system for the Euro elections gives us no more nuanced a vote than Westminster, a simple crude X with not even a second preference. As with all systems that don’t let us express the range of our views, tactical voting becomes inevitable, and indeed the dominant debate on Twitter has been about whether the Greens or the SNP are better placed to stop that sixth seat going to UKIP.

It’s a double shame – personally, with a proper preferential ballot paper I’d vote Green 1, SNP 2, Labour 3, Tory 4, Lib Dem 5 on the tactical level if I could (the Tories and the Lib Dems being separated purely by honesty, i.e. both seem determined to grind the faces of the poor, but at least the Tories admit it). That way I know I’d definitely 100% be casting a vote designed to block UKIP. I’d even rather see George Lyon go back to Brussels than whichever swivel-eyed racist happens to top UKIP’s Scottish list.

The SNP would come second for me, incidentally, primarily for fairly poor reasons: the referendum is more important to me than whether one more Labour MEP or one more SNP MEP is elected, and the results from tomorrow will be seen in that light. In terms of values, the third on the SNP’s  list, Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, was “unashamedly enthusiastic about the virtues of the Conservative Party” just 15 years ago. No-one who felt that way that recently can be one of us in any meaningful sense. It’s also incidentally amusing that the SNP leadership promoted someone who described Alex Salmond as “hopelessly out of his depth” and “utterly naive”.

But the absence of a preferential vote of some sort is a shame on a non-tactical level, too. I know SNP and Green voters who have been convinced by the other’s tactical arguments, and who are voting accordingly. I understand why, and I’ve done it myself, but I’d always rather vote my principles first, and a Green MEP in the form of Maggie Chapman wouldn’t be just yet another voice in the European Parliament backing unsafe oil exploration in sensitive waters, like all our current MEPs, just to pick one issue.

Anyway, we’re stuck with a partly tactical election, although attention has been unduly focused on the final seat. Personally I think the final two are in play, and between the two they could go to any of the following parties: Tory, Green, SNP, UKIP, and even the Lib Dems. The nature of the electoral system makes it very hard to predict how votes will divide down for the largest party, the SNP, and polls are also less accurate for the smaller parties jostling in the 6-12% region. My best guess is that the Tories will indeed win a seat, and that it could in fact be between the Greens and the SNP for the last one, with UKIP beating the Lib Dems. But it’s just a guess.

That list leaves out one party, what looks like the one great certainty of this list. The Labour Party will surely win two seats comfortably but be nowhere near winning a third seat. In a way, this should make their less dogmatic voters most susceptible to persuasion to go elsewhere.

If defending the Union is their priority, then a Tory or Lib Dem vote might make more sense. If their priority is stopping UKIP, or indeed if they’re Labour For Indy voters, then maybe a Green or an SNP vote could be considered. If climate change or inequality are the most important issues for them, maybe they’d decide they could make more of an impact again with a Green vote. If they’re racist “Blue Labour” and “concerned about immigration”, well, they can draw their own conclusions. Or, of course, they could stick to their usual party. But, ironically, it looks to me like folk who normally vote Labour are those who should most obviously consider putting their X next to another party tomorrow.

This wooden IKEA is how you sell reduction

Being back in Sweden for the first time in a while, I’ve been able to watch Labour’s devolution proposals unfold from afar. What struck me most is that Labour still want the Scottish parliament to have less control over taxation than Swedish regional government does. Having tried to explain it to a journalist friend inquisitive about the referendum she was amazed that they would even attempt such a damp squib (from a Swedish perspective, some of the logical inconsistences of the Holyrood settlement are painfully obvious)

Within a few days of the independence referendum Sweden will go to the polls for its municipal and general elections, with expected gains for the Green and Left parties and perhaps even the first seats in parliament for the Feminist Intitiative party. The strategy of the Social Democrats in Sweden at the moment is to do absolutely nothing and ride the wave of disenchantment with the Cameronite Alliance for Sweden with whom they actually share a great many polices.

The Swedish Social Democrats, once one of the most respected and successful progressive movements in global politics, has become an intellectual void in the same way as the British Labour Party. Unable or unwilling to act decisively, time after time it produces reforms and reports they fail to either honour its past or develop any coherent vision for its future. Anas Sarwar’s doxological addiction to ‘fairness’ would be well at home in contemporary Swedish social democracy, just as it would be in that erstwhile heavyweight the German SPD. Drifts to the right are one thing, but drifts into directionless tokenism and policy by policy compromise and point scoring are almost worse.

The upshot of this could be that come October of this year Sweden will have a progressive government of Greens, Socialists, Feminists and Social Democrats in which the biggest party lacks any purpose whatsoever. It is strangely reminiscent of what one Labour insider said before the last Holyrood election when a Green-Labour coalition briefly appeared to be a possibility: “It’d be great. You’ve got the ideas and we’d get to be back in power.’

Splitting yourself between two similar but also very different political systems is a fantastic way of exploring political alternatives. The question for both Sweden and Scotland come September will be whether their social-democratic heritage can help to positively influence the future or whether they end up rudderless and unambitious in a tokenistic race to tick the right boxes without knowing why.

Our Friends In The North: The Nordic dream without the navel gazing

It was with trepidation that I sat down to watch Our Friends in the North, BBC Scotland’s attempt to address the Nordicism that has crept into the independence referendum. It is an important part of the debate and the closest Scotland can get to imagining an alternate reality. Alex Salmond doesn’t really seem to get the Nordic countries in anything other than economistic terms, but as a former oil economist maybe that is to be expected. What Our Friends in the North and its host Alan Little did so well was demand answers to the questions created by the rhetoric. It is very easy to project your dreams onto something you don’t know much about, and is easy to imagine the First Minister sitting at home with a big Norwegian flag on the wall like a teenage boy staring wide eyed at a poster of Che Guevara he’s bought off the internet.

The programme asked a fundamental question: Is the Nordic economic model one Scotland can follow? There was some mention of shared heritage and attempts to problematise Scotland’s position bridging the gap between the British and the Northern, but it was largely an economistic view of events.

The excellent Alan Little began by popping off to Finland to find out about Nokia and childcare. There was an admirable attempt to situate Finland as a post-colonial country like Scotland might become. There was discussion of the economic crash of the early 90s due to dependence on the Soviet Union and a mention of how Scandinavian economies are not that diverse, but parallels could be made with the collapse of the largely London-based UK economy after the last financial crisis – in Finland at least the government had the tools to come up with a policy tailored to the country.

The childcare aspect was a detour into social policies, and these are perhaps the hardest to replicate. It also began a theme for the rest of the show that was never explicitly articulated. Many of the people encountered or interviewed were professional women enjoying high levels of access to both professions and childcare. The integration of educated and working women is one of the things that truly divides Scotland from its easterly neighbours, but as gay marriage so happily proved, that kind of equality is about mindset as much as money. You want it and then you fund it, rather than deciding you have the spare cash for such luxuries.

Next up was Sweden, and Alan Little went to speak to The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson. In London. Nelson is a man who knows very little about Sweden and not an awful lot more about contemporary Scotland. He gave the Cameronite line on the country, painting  the Swedish New Moderates and their liberal coalition partners as guardians of a progressive society. He claimed improved economic performance and employment, ignoring the fact that since the Moderates have been in power there have been serious tax cuts and in increase in temporary, lower paid jobs. Youth unemployment has increased and educational reforms, including the Free School concept, have created myriad problems. Stockholm is also suffering from an acute housing shortage due to the refusal of the Moderates to build accessible housing rather than suburban developments.

Alan popped back to Scandinavia to interview Lars Trädgårdh, a Swedish academic who has spent a lot of time in America and become a bit of a talking head for this kind of thing. Lars took Alan up onto the roof of the Higher Education where he works and pointed at the headquarters of the tax authorities. The problem was it isn’t the headquarters of the tax authorities and has not been for quite some time. I know because I used to live in it, but seeing as the tallest building being the tax headquarters is an established narrative trope in any guide to Sweden it seems a shame to get caught up on it.

 There was an assertion that Sweden doesn’t have a generous welfare state, which was a bit of a lie. It has an extremely generous welfare state, but it is built on a more expansive understanding of welfare than state unemployment benefit. This includes paying people to not work when they have young children, wage-linked unemployment funds and more robust attempts at education and retraining than that provided by either the current or previous Westminster governments, or by Britain historically for that matter. Alan Little’s assertion that “This isn’t the Sweden many on the left imagine” is true in part, but it almost seemed like it was too good a discovery to not make a point of. The truth of the matter is that many of the tenets of Scandinavian welfarism find no points of reference in British models or parlance. It isn’t Robin McAlpine’s William Morris inspired consensual welfarism, but neither is it Fraser Nelson’s utopia of hard work and sticks over carrots.

Last up was Norway, though Denmark wasn’t allowed a mention for some reason. Norway is the most prosperous of the Nordic countries, and as Alan strolled around Oslo’s redeveloped waterfront of speedboats and yuppie flats straight into the Nobel Peace Centre everything looked rosy. Norway is undeniably a great place to live, and definitely a much better bet than contemporary Britain by all kinds of measures. He visited a former industrial area reborn through a private business school. At an employment fair members of Norway’s so-called ‘dessert generation’ (because they are young enough to have only turned up for the sweetest part of the country’s journey from poor to rich and are known for wanting to have their cake and eat it) flocked to tables to become investment bankers or recruitment agents. The conclusion though was fairly unambiguous – even a tiny public oil fund would do wonders for Scotland’s economic and social rebirth.

There then came a very important question: why couldn’t Scotland pursue this Nordic model with further devolution? It was a question Little did not try to answer, but looking back over what was said some of the conclusions were self-evident. Could devolution make a Scottish oil fund, help protect Scotland from the economic collapse of a larger neighbour or allow it to radically reform its welfare and monetary policy? Probably not.

The best contribution though came in the show’s final lines. Alan Little is in the privileged position of speaking as a Scot who has gone not just to London but all over the world. He understands the context of change and political evolution, and his final question was the right one to ask. Should we not see the referendum in its broader, European context? Is this cutting Scotland off, or is it a repositioning at the nexus between two sets of neighbours?

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The Scottish Greens’ Nordic Future

Patrick Harvie's Swedish opposite number Gustav Fridolin. Notice the dissimilarities from Alex Salmond and Johann Lamont

Patrick Harvie’s Swedish opposite number Gustav Fridolin. Notice the dissimilarities to Alex Salmond and Johann Lamont

The Scottish Greens’ conference in Inverness last weekend was dominated by one theme, and one question. Why is Scotland not like its neighbouring Northern European countries in terms of living standards, life expectancy, wellbeing and sustainability?

Three of the plenary speakers chose variations on the theme and all of them spoke glowingly about the potential for moving away from the Anglo-Saxon obsession with big economics and moving toward a government and financial system more similar to Scotland’s Northern European peers.

The effervescent Lesley Riddoch has made it her mission in recent years to persuade Scotland of the advantages of decentralisation, localism, empowerment and Nordic levels of public service provision. In the Greens she has obviously found a receptive audience. She was joined by Mike Danson  from Heriot Watt University whose time seems to have finally come after years of proposing alternative economic models of Scotland, and Robin McAlpine of the Reid Foundation fronting the work done by a team of academics and researchers to develop a blueprint for an autonomous Scottish parliament.

The Reid Foundation’s Common Weal project is gaining momentum, and Robin McAlpine paid the Greens a compliment in saying that they already have the policies to make it work. The challenge lies in convincing the SNP and Labour of the validity of such an approach or making sure that the Greens gain enough seats at the next Holyrood election to at least begin to implement it in government with another party.

Talk of the Arc of Prosperity may have vanished from the lips of the First Minister, but over in the Green and Independent corner of the chamber the vision is very much alive, and it is hard to argue against Scotland pursuing such a course when all the evidence suggests it would lead to a decidedly better country for everybody.

The list of potential polices is almost endless, but the Greens are committed to increasing investment in strategic public transport infrastructure, re-regulation of bus services to give local authorities more say, increased basic wages to both help people and increase tax yields for investment in services, municipal energy companies and education reforms based on Finland’s proven globally leading example.

The Common Weal project is a welcome addition to the Scottish political scene with its stress on common consensus rather than socialist revolution, and its use of existing similar states to Scotland which clearly illustrate that it is possible to tackle some of Scotland’s endemic problems in an inclusive and democratic way.

The Greens now find themselves in the strange position of having a more cohesive and coherent vision for Scotland’s future than almost any other party in Holyrood, the SNP included. Next time you’re stuck in a traffic jam on the way to pick up your kids from an overpriced nursery and worrying about the 8.2 per cent price rise your energy company have just foisted upon you, take a moment to consider that Scotland has an alternative modern future ready and waiting.