To Stop the Far Right, Sweden’s Left Has to Rebuild a Working-Class Majority

The big winner in last weekend’s Swedish elections was the far-right Sweden Democrats, who came in second place nationally. To stop their advance, the Left needs to rebuild its roots in all sections of the working class.

Leader of the Left Party, Nooshi Dadgostar, at a press briefing at the Swedish Parliament, Riksdagen, on November 22, 2021 in Stockholm, Sweden. (Nils Petter Nilsson / Getty Images)

The Swedish election this past September 11 brought a breakthrough for the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats, preparing the most far-right-influenced government in the country’s history. This can be seen as the culmination of a long process in which the party has held ever more sway, increasingly supported by capitalist interests and a steadily weaker traditional right, which realizes its only route to political power runs through aid from this party.

Yet this also represents a certain reversal of political momentum. As late as summer-fall 2021, the left-wing challenge to the Social-Democratic-led government was so powerful that it could shift the whole political scene. One year ago, the Swedish Left Party brought down — then reinstated — the center-led government in order to stop the deregulation of rents. This brought a remarkable poll rise for the Left and a change of the overall media-political agenda, providing the opportunity to force through a historically large rise in both pensions and sick pay benefits. Yet both the war in Ukraine and other political actors turned focus away from these issues.

Both these successes and the later setback (taking the Left Party from 8 percent in 2018, to 12 percent in polls in August 2021, then 6.7 percent in this election) relates to a long-term Left Party strategy, aiming at breaking the far right’s grip of the political agenda, replacing the Social Democrats as the most important force on the Left and recreating an overall left-wing majority. We will return to this. But let’s start with how the merger of the traditional right and the far-right strengthened the latter and aided its election victory.

The final election result for the Riksdag, determined on September 17, 2022. (Valmyndigheten)

After the Moderates

The election result last Sunday shifted during the night from an expected narrow center-left victory, to a slim advantage for the right-wing bloc. The outcome was so close that not until almost all votes had been counted on late Wednesday afternoon did Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson (Social Democrat) announce her resignation.

But the election was not actually won by the conservative Moderate Party, or their junior partners in the Christian Democrats and the Liberals, who will now try to form a new government. These traditional right-wing parties instead owe their victory entirely to the advance of the far-right Sweden Democrats. Founded in the 1988 by far-right and neo-Nazi figures — and for the last twelve years a parliamentary force — in this vote it became Sweden’s second biggest party, with its 20.5 percent share surpassing the Moderates at 19.1 percent

The traditional right-wing parties’ vote share in fact declined to a record low 29 percent (35.7 percent including the neoliberal Center Party, though it has refused to cooperate with the far right). The incoming right-wing government’s dependence on the far right is not just about numbers, however. The past years have also seen major adaptation on the traditional right, realigning to the Sweden Democrats’ policies.

As late as the run-up to the 2018 election, the three traditional right-wing parties declared they would never cooperate with this party. Now they have narrowly won an election in which they clearly stated that they would. Incoming prime minister, Ulf Kristersson, has faced massive criticism for breaking this earlier promise, made in 2018 to Holocaust survivor Hédi Fried. After the election thousands wrote “Hédi Fried” on his social media.

The only question now is whether the far right will directly join the government or else cooperate with it — surely at the cost of major concessions — by offering its support in Parliament. The pure neoliberal hegemony thus seems definitely to have been replaced by a right-wing populist one inspired by the Sweden Democrats.

The merger will, it seems, result in slightly modified neoliberal economic policies, combined with far-right-inspired ones on matters of law and order, migration, and culture. The strength of this hegemony is underlined by the fact that the Social Democrats have adapted to it in large measure, trying to compete with the Right by “being tough on crime” and on migration, while sounding left-wing (albeit without promising much) on social and economic issues.

Despite this political capitulation, from the outside it might look like the Social Democrats did not do so badly: indeed, they attracted more votes in this election than in 2018 (up from 28.3 to 30.3 percent). But since those gains were mainly taken from other parties within the left-wing bloc, this instead illustrates that the Social Democrats have lost the ability, not just to change society, but even to win elections without the help of junior partners increasing their vote share. The Social Democrats’ grip on the — historically overwhelmingly “red” — working class has been constantly weakened, and increasingly contested by the Sweden Democrats. Since 2006, Sweden has had a right-wing structural majority: a major change for a country that had a left-wing majority in Parliament for all but nine years between 1932 and 2006.

While the Social Democrats used to have an overwhelming lead among workers, based on questionnaires done at the polling stations, they now head the far right by a narrow margin. (32% Social Democrats; 29% Sweden Democrats; 14% Moderate Party; 9% Left Party) (SVT Nyheter)

The Left Party’s strategy has long been based on this insight, realizing that it cannot settle for trying to pull the Social Democrats toward it. The wider left instead needs to conquer and reframe the Social Democrats’ own now-abandoned legacy, and in the long run regain both the political initiative and a broader electoral support, especially among the working class. One of the aims in this Left Party strategy, particularly leading up to this election, has been to replace the dominant agenda pushed by the Right/far-right with one focusing on socioeconomic issues, well-aware that it would be near-alone among all parties in attempting this.

The far right’s grip on the political agenda has been growing for years. But it has also been breached several times when other issues have made themselves more urgently felt. The first time it happened was when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which largely strengthened support for the Social Democratic–dominated government. The second time was summer-fall 2021 when the Left Party withdrew its parliamentary backing for the center-left minority government in order to stop the deregulation of the rental market.

The last time the momentum shifted was when Russia invaded Ukraine in February. This both returned focus to the biggest mainstream parties, and toward defense matters and surging support for a NATO application which the Left Party resisted. Even though the pension rise was pushed through in June, largely when the war momentum eased, an election debate mostly focusing on the far-right agenda returned. The Left Party kept attempting to break with this focus but did so almost alone. Indeed, the election appeared more driven by a polarization between the government and the far right. The fact that the Social Democrats attempted to mobilize left-leaning voters through fear rather than through hope of reforms seemed to have benefited the two main players of that contradiction, indeed at the cost of playing to the Sweden Democrats’ agenda.

Rebuilding the Left

So, apart from the quite successful parliamentary maneuvering described above, how has the Left Party been trying to live up to its ambitions of becoming the dominating force on the left side of Swedish politics?

Especially since the election of new leader Nooshi Dadgostar in October 2020, the party has pushed hard for an ambitious state- and investment-led industrial Green New Deal, challenging the Social Democrats on jobs and the economy as well as equality and welfare provision. This is surely harder than focusing on issues where the Left Party already has voter confidence, such as welfare services. But this is considered necessary insofar as the challenge is not just to advance the party’s own vote, but to try to change the overall political direction of Sweden and start a slow process of increasing the general left-wing vote share. The shift is also considered necessary for objective reasons: without a state- and investment-led economic policy, neither action on unemployment and social divides or the green transition are achievable. And no other political force will push these things through if the Left Party doesn’t do it.

In general, the Left Party’s debate on strategy has not been lively. Rather, it has passed through party congress after party congress with only slight modifications for ten years now. The debate on the industrial New Green Deal and the attempt to grow in traditionally red industrial towns outside the big cities has, however, led to some both internal and public conflicts.

The debate peaked this spring when, faced with soaring gas prizes, the Left Party proposed a temporary price cap on gas and pushed through an initiative in this direction in Parliament together with the right-wing opposition. The party leadership argued this was perfectly in line with the new policy of a more just climate policy, which would shift the burdens of the restructuring of the economy away from the working class, especially outside the big cities, by letting the state instead of the market lead the transition. The proposal was also combined with proposals for massive climate investments and of cutting public transport costs by half, encouraging more such services where possible, and at the same time cutting living costs in a time of high inflation.

Critics maintained that no price caps on fossil fuels were acceptable, also considering this move unjust because high-income earners tend to drive more. This debate did not seem to have much effect on the polls in the spring or early summer, since the Left Party’s numbers seemed quite stable while the Green Party’s support stayed below the threshold of 4 percent needed to gain seats in Parliament. But after the election campaign started, it seemed that the Green Party attracted either tactically or politically motivated voters from both the Social Democrats and the Left Party, and it made it into Parliament with 5.1 percent support. Both polls and stronger results for the Left on local and regional levels indicate that losses to the Greens explains most of the difference between the Left’s 8 percent in 2018 and its 6.7 percent in 2022.

But if that loss could be considered as a necessary evil to make a red-green majority possible, it does not explain the drop from higher numbers, around 10 percent in the polls, or the fact that the Left did not manage to grow outside the big cities in this election (even if that goal was meant to be long-term). This instead seems to be more related to the shift in momentum from a left-dominated agenda, back to a right-wing dominated one, described above, which seems to have made left-leaning voters vote for the Greens and the Social Democrats out of fear, rather than for the Left out of hope.

Working-Class Base

The Left Party’s electoral strategy was, however, meant to both overcome this challenge, and start a process of changing the Swedish political landscape — and voters’ view of the party — in the long term. The first objective obviously did not succeed. Whether this election campaign was a step toward the other goal remains to be seen. There are, however, some signs that it might have.

The political successes of summer 2021, and the massive reforms pushed through from opposition, again showed voters that the Left Party is the only force that pushes through welfare reforms in Sweden today. The party’s focus on industrial and economic policy, as well as on industrial towns outside the big cities, did not bear fruit in this election. But it might have changed how voters and the working class in those areas will view the Left in the future. Both polls from last year, and the Left Party’s increased strength in trade unions, ever more frustrated with the Social Democrats, provide some sign of this.

In other parts of the working class, the Left Party’s breakthrough in this election was substantial. Already in 2018 it boosted its support both among metropolitan young progressives and in the city suburbs, where large parts of its working class, many of immigrant background, live. In this election, all the big cities and several middle-size ones were won by red-green majorities. The Left Party’s support in many of the multicultural working-class areas increased massively, thanks to both radical politics and never-before-achieved grassroots campaigns.

In an election campaign where all the major parties competed with the far right in promising crackdowns on problems related to crime and immigration, the people in the areas most affected by these issues in general turned left. Sweden’s third city, Malmö, is falsely described in international media as a Swedish “criminal caliphate,” due to high levels of gang violence (by Swedish but not US standards) and its many inhabitants with roots in the Middle East. Here, not only did the Left Party grow but the Sweden Democrats’ vote share fell for the first time.

Last but not least: organization-wise, the change in the Left Party has been dramatic over this last decade. Since 2010, its membership has risen from around ten thousand to over thirty thousand. The campaign methods, strength, and activities, both on social media and on the ground and in trade unions, have been strongly developed, and both present party leader Dadgostar and former party leader Jonas Sjöstedt have become quite popular figures, connected to honesty, determination, and sincerity.

What remains to be seen is whether this election defeat will be considered one step forward, two steps back, a few years from now, or as the turning point where Sweden was to the far right for the long haul. The coming years are bound to be dramatic and full of political conflict, regardless. And the post-election debate will be interesting and probably lively.

The Left Party’s Dadgostar put it this way, when the election result cleared on election night:

We want to improve life for people. We will never put people against people. The political establishment is responsible for the failures of society. We continue to organize, regardless. We have fought these last years. We have made sure that three million people have not had their rent raised. We have made sure that the sick benefits have improved. We have pushed through the biggest raise of pensions in modern history. We are very proud of this. We will continue to lead this struggle. We will together build a coherent country, defying those forces who wants to divide us. Values like those will never rule this country. I have your back. I know that you have mine. I love you. Now we move on.

Since then, in less than a week, three thousand people have joined the party.