Sweden’s welfare state has endured centre-right rule: experts

As Sweden's centre-right government hopes to win another four years in power, fears that conservative rule would cripple Sweden's welfare state appear to be unfounded, the AFP's Nina Larson explains.

Sweden's welfare state has endured centre-right rule: experts

When a right-leaning coalition ousted Sweden’s long-sitting Social Democrats four years ago, many feared the end was near for the country’s coveted welfare state, but as Sunday’s vote approaches, experts say few real changes have been made to the system.

“There have been no dramatic, systemic changes or radical cuts to the welfare state, but rather a marginal re-orientation,” says Stefan Svallfors, a sociology professor at Umeå University in northern Sweden.

Sweden’s cradle-to-grave welfare state has been hailed by many as one of the world’s most successful socio-economic models, offering universal health and child care, more than a year’s parental leave, a solid public education system and an extensive sick-leave and benefits system.

The so-called “Swedish model,” which combines socialist values and virile industry and enterprise is often held up as an example to follow when governments around the world contemplate reform.

But when the centre-right Alliance, made up of Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt’s Moderate Party along with the Centre, Liberal and Christian Democrat parties won the 2006 election many wondered if the system would survive.

They toppled the Social Democrats, who have dominated Swedish politics for the past 80 years and are considered the primary caretakers of the welfare state, and recent polls indicate they are set to win another, albeit tight, victory on September 19th.

Yet observers say little has been done to alter Sweden’s socialist-minded welfare state, pointing out that the model is too deeply engrained in the Swedish identity to allow much beyond small changes within the existing framework.

“Basically, there have not been many changes to the Swedish welfare state,” says Håkan Tribell of the conservative think tank Timbro.

The government “has not changed any of the main principles or reduced the welfare state’s ambitions,” he says.

Ulf Bjereld, a political science professor at the Gothenburg University with connections to the Social Democrats, agrees the government has not yet truly altered the system.

“I think the Moderate Party especially knows there is no support among the Swedish public for radical changes to the welfare state,” he tells AFP.

However, according to Social Democrat chief Mona Sahlin, who is angling to become Sweden’s first woman prime minister at the head of a leftwing opposition coalition that also includes the Greens and formerly communist Left Party, the welfare state is already shifting character.

“The disparities have grown over the past four years,” she said in a recent televised debate with Reinfeldt, insisting his government’s reforms have left the poor and disadvantaged worse off while padding the pockets of the wealthy.

The government has among other things significantly cut income taxes, reformed the unemployment benefit system to make coverage fees more expensive for people in professions struggling with high unemployment, and slashed access to long term sick leave.

According to the left, which has been eager to supply examples of seriously ill people hit by the latter change, some 45,000 people will this year lose their benefits and be forced back onto the labour market.

“You do not become healthy just because you become poor,” Sahlin pointed out.

Reinfeldt meanwhile insists the reform aims to help people move from benefits to work and to create more jobs to help finance the welfare state.

“You can never let down your guard on jobs, or the welfare state suffers,” he said in the televised debate, adding that “when more people are working … we can afford to maintain our welfare ambitions.”

Reinfeldt, who has created headlines by claiming his party is Sweden’s only true “workers party,” has not always been such an outspoken supporter of the welfare state.

For instance, in a 1993 book titled “The Sleeping Nation,” he called for the system to be replaced with a more neoliberal society.

Since then however, he and the rest of the government have toned down criticism of the welfare state, as it is generally understood that Swedes have no interest in dismantling the system.

“They basically went to the elections on leftist rhetoric last time, and that’s what they are doing again,” says sociologist Svallfors, pointing out however that the government’s “politics have not been very left-wing.”

“When Reinfeldt talks about the new workers’ party, for instance, he is not talking about a party for the working class, but for people with jobs, opposed to those who don’t work and are living on benefits,” he says.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


INTERVIEW: Does coronavirus mark the end of neoliberalism in Sweden?

Just before Christmas, Sweden's finance minister Magdalena Andersson declared that the coronavirus crisis marked "the end of the era of Neoliberalism". But for Daniel Suhonen, the leading ideologue of the Social Democrats' left flank, the party needs concrete policies as well as words.

INTERVIEW: Does coronavirus mark the end of neoliberalism in Sweden?
Daniel Suhonen at the launch of his Reformisterna group of Social Democrats last year. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT
The rhetoric Andersson has been using, both in a long interview in the Dagens Nyheter newspaper, and elsewhere, marks a definite shift in tone for the leadership of the centre-left Social Democrats. 
“I think that this marks the end of the era of neoliberalism which was established under Thatcher and Reagan,” Andersson said.
“Going forward, we're going to realise that we need more politics, more collective solutions. My expectation is that the 2020s will be a decade where there is a growing call for collective solutions. This is a paradigm shift.” 
The Social Democrats are seeking to frame the high death rate in Swedish elderly care and the shortages of equipment and staff problems faced by healthcare, as the result of tax cuts, privatisation, and under-investment, arguing that this is the chief message to come from the first report of the Coronavirus Commission. 
Magdalena Andersson is mooted as a potential future leader for the Social Democrats. Photo: Amir Nabizadeh/TT
For Suhonen, who leads Katalys, a left-wing Social Democrat think tank, this is very welcome. 
“She wants to have Socialism a week from now. I'm very happy. She sounds like I have done for the last 15 or 20 years,” he told The Local. 
But he complains that Andersson, in her six years as finance minister, had done almost nothing to counter these problems. 

“Who is guilty of this? In September 2019, one year ago, she was bragging about how she had saved so much money that we were well prepared for the next crisis.  
“But she was only thinking about economic crises. It's a bit of a sad story, because she didn't let the public sector expand when when it could have. We were poor in every sense that mattered in this crisis. We didn't have what we needed to have.” 
What worries him, he said, is that while Andersson is ready to hail the shift in public mood against privatisation, and in favour of higher taxes and higher public spending, she has never followed up with any details of what the Social Democrats might do. 
“In three to four interviews, almost all on the same theme, she says the public mind has changed: no one's wants more privatisation, people want a stronger society, people would maybe accept rising taxes,” Suhonen complained.   
“But she gives no sign that the Social Democrats have those policies. She says, 'the people would like to end privatisation', but she doesn't say, 'we want to end privatisation” .  
Are Social Democrats to blame for starving the state of funds? 
Suhonen pointed out that almost half of the tax cuts over the past 30 years had been carried out under Social Democrat-led governments. 
“During the last 30 years, Sweden has gone from a very clear Social Democratic structure and society, with public monopolies in health care, education and all that, to a very diverse market-oriented neoliberal system,” he said. 
“If what what the state took out from the economy was at the same level today as it was in the year 2000, the public sector would have had 300bn Swedish kronor (€30bn) more every year for public spending.” 
But centre-right Alliance government which ruled from 2006 to 2014 was responsible, he claimed, for just 160bn kronor of those reductions. The rest of the cuts had been carried out under Social Democrats. 
Not a left-wing Social Democrat
Suhonen said his fear was that Andersson was simply positioning herself for a coming campaign to succeed Sweden's current prime minister Stefan Löfven.  
“What you're seeing with Magdalena Andersson is that she knows that this critique is coming. She's maybe one of the ones that want to be the new leader on that day that Stefan Löfven resigns.” 
“She's not a left-wing Social Democrat. She wants to like, have those kind of words in the history of what she has been saying.”
He said that the situation during the past two years, when the Social Democrats have agreed to weaken labour laws and cut taxes for the richest in return for the support of the Liberal and Centre parties, risked undermining the foundations of democracy. 
“It's not the Social Democrats' mission to rule on a neoliberal agenda,” he said. “That destroys how the the political and democratic system works.” 
A historic chance
Where he agrees with Andersson, though, is that the Social Democratic party in Sweden do now have a historic chance to seize control of the political narrative, as their counterparts have successfully done in Denmark. 
Doing so, however, will require bold political action the party has as yet shown few signs it is willing to take. 
“Maybe you can double the number of people that work in elderly care, and maybe you can stop all presentations, maybe you can stop the privatisation of schools,” he said.  
“Of course, I know that the Social Democrats don't have a majority in parliament, but for God's sake start doing this!”
“If the liberal parties don't want this, then call a snap election and make it a referendum about the welfare state and privatisation.”