Sweden will head to the polls on September 9th. The pre-election polls predict that this will be a watershed election for Swedes, perhaps the first since 1917 where the Social Democratic Party does not finish first. The reason this might happen, though, is familiar to anyone following politics in the West. Blue-collar voters, who have traditionally voted for the centre-left, are leaving the party over its views on immigration.
Social Democratic dominance of Swedish politics has long rested on the working-class. The Social Democrats have averaged over 42% of the total vote since the introduction of universal suffrage in 1921, and often some two-thirds of the blue-collar vote. Their strength in industrial regions and among working-class voters has allowed the Social Democratic Workers’ Party to form the government in 80 of the 101 years since the introduction of democracy, often ruling alone. The party’s hegemony was so psychologically entrenched that former Social Democratic minister Marita Ulvskog remarked that the 1976 loss following 44 years on uninterrupted rule “felt like a coup d’état”.
This background is essential in understanding the political earthquake Sweden is currently experiencing. Even if the Social Democrats do finish first, polls predict they may “win” with only 23 to 26% of the vote, their worst result for over a century.
This is all the more striking given that the government has benefited from a favourable business cycle, with declining unemployment and a budget surplus. Sweden has experienced a credit boom with low interest rates, solid wage growth and declining unemployment, as well as benefiting from the global recovery with rising exports. This would normally guarantee re-election, but for the first time in Swedish electoral history, it is immigration and crime that top voter concerns. And Swedes are not happy with the Social Democratic record on those issues.
Only 27% of Swedes believe the country is heading in the right direction, while 50% think that it is going in the wrong direction.1 Other surveys confirm widespread discontent, which tends to be higher outside major cities.2
The meltdown in support for the centre-left is also hitting the Social Democrats’ coalition partner, the Greens. The Greens are a socially liberal party, and only four years ago were predicted to ride the wave of cultural progressivism to become Sweden’s third largest party. Today polls suggest they risk getting less than 4% of the vote, and thereby dropping out of parliament altogether.
The crisis of the Swedish Left has not been driven by a rise in support for the traditional centre-right block. The pro-market Moderate party – Sweden’s equivalent of America’s Republicans or Britain’s Tories – has recovered in the polls but only after abandoning its previous pro-immigration stance and moving toward the right on migration issues. Despite this, polls show it likely to receive only 21 to 24% of the vote, about what it received in the last elections in 2014. Overall, however, the centre-right so-called “Alliance” is weak and disunited, with the Centre Party moving so far to the left on migration that many speculate that they may join the Social Democratic block.
The cause of this shake-up is a new third block, driven by the anti-immigration and socially conservative Sweden Democrats, with historic roots tainted by xenophobia. Defying the historic stability of the Swedish party system, the Sweden Democrats have roughly doubled their vote share in each election since 2002, when they scored little more than 1%. The average of recent polls puts them around 19 to 23%. In fact, this may be an underestimate, since polls have in the past significantly undercounted their vote share.
The rise of populist and anti-establishment sentiment has invited comparisons with Donald Trump’s success – he won despite performing poorly in coastal cities by winning rural voters and blue-collar voters in areas hit by economic deterioration.
This line of reasoning is common in the United States. President Obama famously attempted to explain the cultural sentiments of working-class voters in old industrial towns decimated by job losses:
“They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
Sweden has experienced similar economic trends, such as rising income inequality and deindustrialisation in former labour strongholds. Just as Trump voters were represented by the image of rusting GM plants, can Swedish populism be explained by bankrupt Saab-factories in flyover country?
The short answer is no. Attributing opposition to immigration to underlying bitterness with economics is as common among the Left in Sweden as in America, since they too would prefer not to confront the underlying tension in their movement. Swedish blue-collar workers are generally economically left wing, but right wing in their views on multiculturalism, whereas left wing party elites tend to lean left on both.
Swedish media has written stories on why the Swedish equivalent of “deplorables” or “white van man” have abandoned the Left. The tone of those stories – as with many in America and Britain – is revealingly reproachful. But nothing suggests that these voters are confused on the issues or scapegoat migrants for their own economic woes. The generous refugee migration championed by parties on the Left was not particularly popular in the first place, never really enjoying majority support outside culturally liberal urban areas. Today, opinions towards restricting migration and the generous support migrants receive has hardened among all segments of the Swedish population, and is particularly strong among blue-collar union members.
In-depth polling indicates that the majority who favour restrictive refugee migration policies are fairly well informed.3 Most express sympathy for refugees, but offer specific arguments for restrictive policies. Many offer some version of the view that Sweden can help refugees in other ways. In polls, very few Swedes express fear that migrants take native jobs, but tend to point to crime, pressure on the welfare state and, most importantly, the lack of integration into Swedish society. These views are not unique to low-educated rural voters, although they may be more common among them, but rather are held by many people across social and educational groups.
Another problem with attempting to explain opposition to migration in terms of economic distress is geographic. The stronghold of the Sweden Democrats is in southern Sweden, centred on affluent Scania County. These provinces historically belonged to Denmark and appear to have retained some Danish conservative nationalism. The most plausible explanation for the strength of the Sweden Democrats in southern Sweden is more cultural than economic.
Initially, the Sweden Democrats had difficulty growing outside of this area, despite their attempts to appeal to blue-collar voters in the industrial belt in the centre of the country.4 One reason is that these voters have a long tradition of social democratic values centred around solidarity, anti-fascism and tolerance. To understand this better, it helps to think of Swedish small-town mentality as closer to Minnesota-nice than tough, rowdy Appalachia.
They therefore viewed Sweden Democrats as racist and socially taboo, or at the very least mean. It took Sweden Democrats a long time to break into these regions, where they still meet harsh resistance – although it became somewhat easier as the party gradually (and reluctantly) reformed, kicking out members making openly xenophobic statements. But the growth of the Sweden Democrats owes much to the fatal strategy pursued by the Social Democrats of silencing and antagonising their own core-supporters expressing the majority opinion on immigration.
At the core of it, shifting Swedish politics is simple, and has little to do with either deindustrialisation, racist deplorables or bitter clingers – however emotionally appealing it is for progressives to blame these factors. Sweden’s highly generous refugee policy never had majority support among voters, including Social Democratic voters. Blue-collar voters who dared to express even mild protest were bullied and branded as hateful or ignorant by their own party. The only outlet for that built-up resentment has been the Sweden Democrats, and while in the run up to the election the Social Democrats have moved sharply to the Right on migration and crime issues, the mistakes of the past years may prove difficult to repair for this once invincible party.