Inside Sweden’s Social Democratic Party

At the end of May, Sweden’s Social Democratic Party held its annual party congress amidst record-low polling numbers, a troubled government coalition, and a limited ability to push through Social Democratic reforms. Still, the party is the most powerful party Sweden has seen and its party congress underscored the enormous party apparatus that is still very much in place.


The SAP congress: a lukewarm event

The Social Democratic Party’s 38th congress in Västerås took place against a backdrop of falling support in the opinion polls and a limited ability to push through reforms until later in the autumn. According to the latest polls, support for the party has fallen to 25 per cent.  For some observers it was a stark reminder of the decades where the Social Democratic Party (SAP) was the party that had the greatest influence over Swedish society and the party congresses were events of national importance.

The Social Democratic Party is the oldest, largest and historically most powerful party in Sweden. In the 1930s, the Social Democrats came to power and ruled the country for the greater part of the 20th Century. Social Democratic hegemony reached its zenith in the 1960s and thereafter began a gentle decline. The party has, often in concert with big companies, dominated and had a great influence on the development of Swedish society, supported by a large voter base. One reason for the party being able to retain its voter support over the years was that, despite being formed in 1889 to fight for workers’ interests, it launched itself as a party as much for the middle class. Between 1932 and 1988, the Social Democrats never received less than 40 per cent of the vote in a single election. And in two elections, 1940 and 1968, the party received over 50 per cent of the vote.  As late as 1994 the Social Democrats won 45.3 per cent of the vote. However, in reality, by the 1970s the SAP no longer dominated Swedish politics unchallenged, and since the 2006, SAP has continued to lose voter support. In the last seven general elections, the SAP has only received over 40 per cent of the vote on one occasion: at the 1994 election. The demographic composition of the SAP voters has changed over the years. The Social Democratic constituency has slowly aged: about a third of the S-voters are now older than 65, a far higher share than in the early 1990s, when the figure was around 20 per cent. Another clear demographic change regards education. Today, the S-voter is clearly more highly educated (graduate from university / college). Only 9 per cent of those who voted for SAP in the 1988 election were highly educated, the corresponding percentage in the last election was 30 per cent. Class identification is still strong: about half of the SAP voters say that the description “working class” fits best their own home (although the proportion of Swedish voters that can be classified as working class is below 25 per cent).

Inside Sweden’s Social Democratic Party

To an outsider, the Social Democratic Party can seem like a labyrinth of different bodies at different levels. Below is Mundus International’s explanation to how it all comes together

  • The Party Executive Board
    The members of VU are included in the Party Executive Board (Partistyrelsen), which also has 26 additional members. The Party Executive Board meets ten times a year and is formally the highest decision-making body between congresses.
  • Party Districts
    There are 26 party districts. The chairmen of the districts (Distriktsordförande) count as party heavyweights and are highly active when a new party leader is being elected (or, in the case of Håkan Juholt, dismissed).
  • S-associations are the home of the grassroots
    The party grass roots operate in so-called S-associations (S-föreningar). There are about 2,800 S-associations, all with a strong connection to a local neighbourhood, municipality or cause. They can also be trade unions in the workplace, or connect around a certain theme, such as foreign policy.
  • S-municipalities (S-kommuner)
    This is the forum where members of the various S-associations within a municipality meet. There are about 290 S-municipalities. At this level, the local policies are formulated and municipal-level appointments are made. This is also where proposals that could be applied at regional or national level are screened before they are pushed up the hierarchy.
  • VU is the inner circle
    The Executive Committee (Verkställande Utskottet, VU) is the party’s most powerful body between congresses (see below) and manages the on-going work within the party. It consists of seven members (including the Party Leader and the Party Secretary) plus eight alternates who meet about once a week.
  • The Nomination Committee finds the leaders
    According to Social Democratic tradition, party leader candidates never compete openly for the chairmanship. Instead, the Nomination Committee (Valberedningen) probes the terrain and receives nominations from the districts. In practice, the choice has already been done when the Nomination Committee presents its proposal to the congress. Under special circumstances the Party Executive Board can select the party leader, as happened when Olof Palme was murdered.
  • Ultimately, the congress decides
    Previously, congresses were held every four years, but the 2013 SAP congress decided that, going forward, congresses should be held every second year. It is only the congress that can appoint a party leader, following a proposal from the Nomination Committee. The party congress also appoints the Party Executive Board and the Party Secretary.

Motions of policy can be submitted by individual members, S-associations or district boards. 350 representatives, appointed by the party districts, have voting rights at the party congress. The number of members from each party district decides how many representatives the districts can send to the party congress.

Monthly Policy Review

On the congress agenda: jobs

Leading up to the 2014 election, Stefan Löfven said in an interview with the Guardian that he, if elected Prime Minister, wanted to pursue the old internationalist dream of a “global deal” on employment rights. And in this respect, he wanted to learn from Palme: “He showed us that a man from a very small country could make a difference in the world. That’s something I want to renew right now: that we can make a difference”, Mr Löfven said. Soon after that, he stated one way in which he wanted to make a difference: Sweden should have the lowest unemployment rate in the EU by 2020.

Following suit, over the last weekend of May, 350 representatives from across Sweden gathered in Västerås for the bi-annual Social Democratic Party congress. Only two issues were on the agenda: The first one, how to turn SAP into a spirited and vibrant popular movement, may not be that interesting to outsiders, but the second agenda item, how the Social Democrats should increase employment and reduce unemployment, created expectations both inside and outside the party.

The Social Democrats and the government have been criticised for its 2020 target for unemployment being unrealistic. At his opening speech of the congress, Stefan Löfven countered the criticism by calling the aim for Sweden to have the lowest unemployment rate in the EU by 2020 is a “big” goal. “But we Social Democrats usually don’t have small ones,” he said and added that both Germany and the U.S. have managed to nearly cut their unemployment in half within relatively few years.  He reminded the audience that one of his predecessors, Göran Persson, in 1996 set a goal to halve unemployment despite many critics: “We halved unemployment then and now we’re rolling up our sleeves again,” said Mr Löfven.

A new measure that was launched is the so-called job contract (upphandlingsjobb). The idea is to enable the public sector to demand that those long-term unemployed will get a job or internship as part of procurement. The method has been used in England, in the contract with Crossrail, which is to provide better train services in and around London. The requirement was an apprentice for every three million pounds invested. During a press conference at the party congress, Mr Löfven said that the public sector procured SEK 600 billion each year and he that he now wanted to “put our community resources to work”. Requirements for apprenticeships or jobs for those unemployed have become possible in other EU countries, but not in Sweden, with the exception of a few municipalities. Now the government wants to make employment considerations a requirement in public procurement. This new type of contract is expected to lift 10,000 people out of long-term unemployment. The government also plans to establish a special procurement authority to be in place by 1 September this year.  The authority will assist the public sector in making employment demands of, for example, those long-term unemployed. A commission is currently underway to prepare for the new authority. The idea was put forward in a SAP memorandum ahead of the 2014 elections.

Also included in the party’s agenda for jobs are housing, infrastructure and economy. Mikael Damberg, the Minister for Enterprise and Innovation, said that the job agenda had become “even clearer” after the party’s board supported the proposals that came from a working group, which wanted to see more concrete formulations when it came to future public investments; including increasing the share of the GDP that is invested during the mandate period and to build 45,000 new homes per year until 2030. The Finance Minister, Magdalena Andersson, said the government would target spending on roads and railways, including high-speed networks to connect the biggest cities. Furthermore, the government is looking to encourage investments in projects by the state-run pension funds and at setting up debt-financed projects. “For example, you can look at if you can do the same thing with high-speed railways, these are pretty big sums. It will be more defined in the infrastructure proposal next autumn,” Ms Andersson told media.

School before Netflix

Another strong message from the congress was the SAP push for education. In his opening speech, Mr Löfven called for Sweden’s citizens to make more of an effort and raise their expectations of themselves and their environments. This is required for investments in schools and education to have an impact, and in order to be able to close-in on employment goals. Mr Löfven said. “Swedish students will need to make a little more of an effort. Some need to know that school comes first, not almost first. Before Netflix, before exercise and friends, from primary school to upper secondary school”, said Mr Löfven.

The party also decided to strive towards an equal division of parental leave time. The issue has been up for discussion before. In fact, the former party leader, Göran Persson, was opposed to the idea during his time as party leader, because he saw it as unpopular among Social Democratic voters. Stefan Löfven himself does not seem to plan to push hard to reach the party’s goal of one day instituting a policy of equally-shared parental leave. Speaking to media, Mr Löfven downplayed the decision and stressed that the goal was a long-term one, and did not want to predict when it might be achieved.


The three days in Västerås presented the party representatives an opportunity to do their utmost to show themselves and the world that they have the political answer to the question of how to bring down unemployment to the lowest level in Europe. Punters and analysts were not convinced they managed to the full. There are times where various parties have taken major steps forward during party congresses. However, the 2015 S-congress will most probably be regarded as one where this did not happen. In the words of Aftonbladet’s Lena Mellin, the Social Democratic Party’s 38th congress was “a lukewarm event”.

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