Opinion: A Swedish lesson for Gordon Brown

So far in British political debates the word “Swedish” is usually bandied about in support of “free schools” by the Conservatives. But you won’t see anything about schools in this post – instead I will highlight a different political lesson from Sweden.

In 2006 the centre-right Alliance for Sweden (which includes our sister party) ended twelve years of Social Democratic government; this was only the third time that the centre-right has defeated a Social Democratic government since the Second World War. An important factor in the victory was that the four parties finally put aside most of their disagreements and produced a joint manifesto; in previous elections squabbling had erupted between the centrist Liberals and the Centre Party on the one hand and the conservative Moderates on the other about tax policy, and between the Liberals and the Centre on nuclear power.

But the key lessons for the Social Democrats were the dangers of complacency and of patronising the voters. The opposition succeeded in making structural unemployment the key election issue, which was ignored until too late by the government because unemployment was falling (if high). But the Prime Minister, Göran Persson, compounded this complacency by getting increasingly on the nerves of the electorate. This was not because of a feeble attempt by Sweden’s most renowned investigative journalist to paint Mr Persson as a class traitor for building himself a nice mansion (with his own money), but because he came across as more and more paternalistic and patronising. Earlier in his premiership Swedes had rather liked his “Father of the Country” airs (as they had liked those of earlier Social Democratic giants like Per Albin Hansson and Tage Erlander), but by 2006 they were getting cheesed off.

This holds an important lesson for Gordon Brown in particular, but also for David Cameron. In the first TV debate both of them had the highly irritating habit of not answering the question they were asked, instead using it as a peg to hang their speech on. (Jim Hacker would have been proud!) In one particularly painful episode a nurse asked about how the leaders were planning to pay for the increasing costs imposed on the NHS by ageing and new expensive treatments. David Cameron talked about saving £200 million for cancer drugs by not raising National Insurance and increasing real spending every year; Gordon Brown banged on about Labour’s care guarantees and how the Tories refused to support them. Only Nick Clegg gave an even vaguely relevant answer, explaining that the Lib Dems would try to save money by scrapping Strategic Health Authorities.

Like the Swedes in 2006, the British electorate in 2010 are in no mood to be patronised. Humility is the only decent response to the great difficulties everyone in the country now faces thanks to the economic crisis. Any politician who fails to understand this could be in for a rude surprise on 6 May.

Niklas Smith is Junior Treasurer of Cambridge Student Liberal Democrats and first got involved in politics as a volunteer for the Swedish Liberals in 2006.

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This entry was posted in Europe / International and Op-eds.

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