Monday 20 September 2010

Three more warnings from Sweden ... for Miliband, Clegg and Cameron

Most international reaction to the Swedish general election will focus on the Parliamentary breakthrough of the far right 'Sweden Democrats'. But the electoral performance of the mainstream Swedish parties also offers some important food for thought for David Cameron, Nick Clegg and whichever Miliband brother becomes Labour leader this weekend.

Labour's next leader: don't take mid-term poll leads too seriously.

The centre-left led in the polls from 2007 until this Spring - holding a 10-15% lead for almost two full years, and then a 5-6% advantage for most of the last 18 months of the Parliament. The popularity of the social democrat-led alliance across the Parliament was not sustained when the voters focused on a choice between governments at the end. ((Wikipedia has a detailed summary of the polls; this should reinforce Phillip Cowley's lesson from British electoral history).

The Social Democrats weak share - down from 35% to 31% is a historic defeat, demonstrates a fragmenting of the party's political dominance. This does in part also reflect the pluralism of Sweden's red-green alliance, which includes a coalitionable left party (in contrast to the German linkspartei) and an electoral alliance with the Greens, who achieved their best ever result.

The key lesson here is that a pluralist red-green left is of no use if it does not have sufficient breadth to form a governing majority. The rise of the far right is an important threat not just to Sweden's increasingly contested sense of identity, but also to the electoral prospects of the left.

David Cameron: progressive is as progressive does.

The Conservatives will be boosted by Fredrik Reinfeldt's victory, which David Cameron's team have studied closely, as Nick Watt of The Guardian set out. "The best idea in 21st century Swedish politics - the Alliance - has held together", Reinfeldt told his party's victory rally.

It may increase the (unrequited) hankering after a deeper electoral arrangement with the LibDems than the "one term only" proposition which Nick Clegg's party has been absolutely insistent upon this weekend.

Nevertheless, the question of whether Cameron is following a path of Reinfeldtian moderation or not remains open. (He has exited the European alliance with his most obvious political ally on the continent). While the Social Democrats warned about the erosion of the Swedish model from having a two-term government of the centre-right, the Moderates continued to govern (in pan-European and especially British terms) within an largely social democratic framework. The overall direction of Cameron's post-Blair, post-Thatcher deficit reduction strategy of progressive austerity remains rather more contested and open.

Nick Clegg: the difficulty of being a junior partner.

The Coalition and Prime Minister were popular was crucial to their chances of re-election. The Alliance won 48.2% in 2006, has won 49.2% of the vote this time.

Nevertheless, the gains did not spread evenly. The Prime Minister's party increased its share from 26% to 30% (a rise of 15%), while each of his three coalition allies appear to have lost support since the last election, with Reinfeldt was helped by his profile and the centrist shift of his 'New Moderates', in part reinforced by his four-party electoral alliance.

The Centre Party did less well, being somewhat squeezed by its Coalition partner. Its vote fell from 8% to 6.5%, as almost one in five (19%) of its 2010 voters melted away. (For those wanting a little more background context: the Centre Party is a pro-European, pro-immigration party who are part of the governing centre-right coalition though they sit in the European Liberal Democrat and Reform party in the European parliament. Earlier in the party's history, they were more usually associated with the Social Democrats as centre-left allies, but are now firmly part of the centre-right electoral bloc).

The Centre Party looks like losing one quarter of its Parliamentary seats, falling from 29 to 22, while the Prime Minister's party gains 10% of seats, up from 97 to 107. The Christian Democrats are projected to have lost 5 of their 24 seats, while the Liberals' vote has slipped only from 7.5% to 7.1%.

(If we project the Swedish change in the Moderate and Centre party shares to Britain, this would be the equivalent of the LibDems slipping from 23% to 18% of the vote with the Conservatives going up to 41% if they could emulate Reinfeldt's party success).

The Centre Party's result - holding four out five voters - will be seen as a pretty good outcome for a party whose poll ratings across the Parliament were usually 30-40% down on its 2006 share. There was some concern over whether the party would make the electoral threshold, though they were assisted in this by their electoral pact with the Prime Minister.

In the end, the LibDems' Swedish sister party are happy to have worked successfully towards the re-election of the moderate Conservative Prime Minister.

That may demonstrate only that the Swedish election may offer a "what if?" future history of British politics in a parallel universe rather than a Swedish model which both partners in the current British coalition will want to emulate.

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