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The narcissism of
small differences
in Sweden's elections



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

Comments directly to

September 16, 2006

LONDON - The most successful socialist society on earth goes to the polls on Sunday. It is not the socialism of Lenin, and certainly not of Mao. Nor, at the other extreme, is it the New Labour type of Tony Blair. Yet it is the socialism that the dreamers, thinkers and writers from Voltaire to George Bernard Shaw to Galbraith always imagined - a successful mix of human endeavour with human compassion, where the doors of a classless education are open to everyone, where it is not too difficult to get ahead, where you can make money, but you have to share it - with those who are not having it so good today and with yourself at some future age when you might be ill, infirm, lonely and unemployed. On the other hand, if you don’t miss a step and you die comfortable you can leave every penny to your children, and the state won’t demand its cut.

Why then is the coalition of four opposition parties running a close finish with the incumbent Social Democrats? It’s partly because they have made clear that they are no longer saying what they said at the last election when they were trounced, that Sweden was overtaxed - the Swedes know that in this well administered state you get what you pay for. Tax cuts would mean hospital cuts, and cuts for one’s ailing mother in the old people’s home. The conservative-liberal opposition this time has decided it can’t overthrow socialism - it can just say it will make it run better. And that is going down with the electorate very well.

Indeed, there are no great issues in this election. The macro economy? It is hard to knock when Sweden has the highest growth rate per head of any major country in the industrialised world, when inflation and interest rates are low, where productivity is high and unemployment is falling. Sweden’s role in the European Union? Sweden voted to stay out of the Euro and with its successful growth rate only a few visionaries want to see another plebiscite.

Europe’s “big” issues? - the admission of Turkey, the re-writing of the constitution, free movement of labour for new eastern members - it’s all a yawn and barely discussed. Membership of NATO? Sweden has long been against it whilst always secretly cooperating with the U.S. from the days of the Cold War when it asserted (falsely) it was being monitored by Soviet submarines to cooperation with the recent programme of rendition.

The UN? Sweden will always play its part. Immigration? Let them come. The Swedes pride themselves on not being like Denmark with its rightist anti-immigrant party. The doors are wide open to all Europeans, and the Poles are happily flooding in to work at half the Swedish price, but not to put down roots - they can be home in 90 minutes, courtesy of their low cost airline, Wizzair.

So perhaps we are left with the narcissism of small differences - like making an issue out of Prime Minister Göran Persson’s new grand house. Old time socialists don’t like material ostentation and they will punish the Social Democrats by staying home on polling day. Nor do many voters like the way he gives the impression that, as Heidi Avellan, the editor of the daily, Sydsvenskan, puts it, "being prime minister is simply a law of nature".

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Still, there are lots of smaller issues. Conversations among the politicians and academics of this university, high tech city where 55% of the voters have a degree, gives a good feel for what they are. Professor Cecelia Henning asks, “Why should the state subside jobs to get unemployment down. Better to encourage entrepreneurship by cutting the taxes on small businesses”.

Even in Lund youth unemployment is an issue and voters like the opposition idea of cutting taxes for the low paid and halving payroll taxes for firms that take on chronically unemployed youths. And many want to see the upgrading of schools. “Why can’t we have streaming in the classroom, as we do with the football teams?”, asks Tove Klette, one of the leaders of Lund’s opposition liberals

“The trouble with the Social Democrats”, she concludes, “is that they play on Swedish arrogance and ignorance - that we are simply the best in the world, even if the streets are dirty and many of the schools are going downhill. We don’t even look at our neighbour Finland, even though they have the best schools in Europe. We don’t think about Iraq. The Social Democrats have bought the people off. We’ve stopped thinking. If a Swede meets a tiger in the woods he is not frightened because he thinks if it is allowed in the wood it must be alright!”


Copyright © 2006 By JONATHAN POWER


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


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