We have a lot to learn when it comes to the loss of confidence in centre-left parties across Europe and the increase in support for the far right. It is not only the British Labour Party that has lost ground in recent elections. Since the crash of economies across the world just over two years ago, confidence on the whole European left has taken a hard knock. But lessons can be learned from the British when it comes to combating far-right extremists in parliamentary elections.
Parliamentary elections in Germany, France, Italy and this country have seen the left badly defeated. Meanwhile, left-leaning governments in Spain, Greece and Portugal are becoming increasingly unpopular, in part due to out-of-control debts, austerity cuts to public services and rising unemployment – all occurring as a result of the global recession. In Sweden, the red-green alliance – made up of the Social Democrats, the Green Party and the Left Party – is the latest casualty, with the Social Democrats losing their second consecutive election, a first in their history and their worst result in nearly 100 years.
Sweden’s rejection of the left-wing coalition for two consecutive terms has brought home the work that “compassionate conservatives” have done to moderate their right-wing language. It is thought that David Cameron’s relationship with his Swedish opposite number Fredrik Reinfeldt, Prime Minister and leader of the Moderate Party, has defined policies on so-called free schools and the deficit reduction plan. The former conservative leader, Carl Bildt, cut and privatised public services in order to reduce the national deficit swiftly.
The election campaign of the Moderate Party has some resemblance to the tactics of the British Tories, with both seeking to appeal to voters by aspiring to take less money from their pay packets. The idea of having more money taken in tax and no improvement in public services is less appealing, as the British Tories may well reflect. In the past four years, the size of the public sector in Sweden has been cut, forcing many people out of work. Now a quarter of young people aged 15-24 have no job. Unemployment and long-term sick leave payouts have been cut, while state-owned assets have been privatised. Even Vin & Sprit, the state-owned producer of Absolut Vodka, was sold off in 2008.
The Swedish model of universal welfare may no longer be the envy of the capitalist world, as the right-wing alliance takes control of the Rikstag for a second term. In their first four years, the right-wing government led by Fredrik Reinfeldt implemented extensive tax cuts for the richest and “trimmed” welfare spending. Some commentators said it was welfare policy that lost the election for the Social Democrats, who called for a rise of taxes and an increase to spending in the public sector. Low taxes and a smaller state have a powerful appeal for the richer middle class.
In the recent election, Sweden’s voting system worked all too well – the far right party, the Swedish Democrats, won 20 seats. Any political party that receives more than 4 per cent of the national vote wins seats in the parliament. In 2006, the Swedish Democrats won 2.93 per cent of the national vote. This year, they racked up 5.7 per cent – 0.1 more than the Left Party and Christian Democrats.
This almost doubling of the vote in the past four years is in line with the rise of the anti-immigrant far right across Europe. The Norwegian Progress Party won 23 per cent of the vote in the last election. The Austrian Freedom Party became the third largest party with a 17.54 per cent share of the vote in 2008. Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party came third in the Dutch election this year.
In this country, the British National Party failed to make a breakthrough at the 2010 general election. A series of court cases, public outbursts and gaffes may have contributed to its failure, as well as the first-past-the-post electoral system. But it was the fightback against the BNP that did most to combat it. In Sweden, there was little effort from the main parties to talk about immigration or to fight back against the far right. Naively, they thought that ignoring concerns would silence them. A grown-up conversation about immigration is required both here and in countries across Europe.
We all face the same problems. Labour has to re-connect with disillusioned voters who don’t think the party is credible on the issue.