The Swedish social-democrat leader, shortly to step down, didn’t buckle under pressure despite a slender parliamentary hold.
He still has two months to go until he leaves his post at the party congress in the first week of November. But it is already time to ask what lessons can be drawn from Stefan Löfven’s near-decade-long leadership of the Swedish Social Democrats.
It certainly came as a surprise when Löfven, party chair since 2012 and prime minister since 2014, announced his resignation. It was expected, after such a stint, that he would step down during the coming legislature period. But straight after a defeat at the general election scheduled for September 2022 or, in the case of victory, a few months later seemed more likely. It is a strategically wise decision, though, giving the Social Democrats an opportunity to fight that campaign with new energy.
Löfven became head of the party very reluctantly. He had been affiliated since his youth via the social-democratic youth association but had spent most of his adult life in the trade union movement. A welder by training, it was as president of the metalworkers’ federation, IF Metall, that he held a post on the executive board of the party—and, in 2012, appeared the only option as its chair.
Löfven has led the party, and Sweden, through a very turbulent time. He was elected prime minister with the smallest possible margin, forming a government—including the Greens, with budgets negotiated with the Left Party—only because the liberal and conservative parties agreed not to coalesce with the radical-right Sweden Democrats. Such a coalition was however a constant threat, which remained after the election in 2018, forcing the Social Democrats to accept a far-reaching agreement with two liberal parties and to distance itself from its former Left co-operation partner.
In June this year, he was forced to resign as prime minister after the Left submitted a no-confidence motion in the parliament, over the introduction of market rents. But he was reinstated when the other parties failed to agree an alternative.
Löfven has not only handled a difficult and unstable parliamentary situation. He has also had to deal with a number of crises: the refugee influx of 2015, when Sweden received 163,000 asylum-seekers in a single year (more than any other European country per capita); the fatal attack by an Islamist who drove a truck through central Stockholm in April 2017; and, latterly, the global pandemic.
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Indeed, remaining in power, despite the parliamentary situation, has been his greatest achievement—although to some he has clung to power ‘at any cost’. Sweden has sustained a social-democratic prime minister despite a right-wing majority in parliament, but the price has been far-reaching compromises with other parties and he has often enjoyed low rates of approval in the polls.
Löfven was born in Stockholm to a single mother who did not have the means to raise him. He grew up as a foster child in a village outside the northern town of Örnsköldsvik. It’s a small place but its local industry is part of a global production chain, and his political activism was international from the start.
There were solidarity projects with metalworkers in Nicaragua and Brazil—he treated his fellow metalworker and trade unionist (and later Brazilian president), Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, to many Swedish saunas. He was for many years international secretary of the metalworkers’ federation, as well as a member of the board of the European Metalworkers’ Federation and of the Olof Palme International Center. He has never been a good speaker but tends to deliver better speeches in English than in Swedish.
A worker, a trade unionist and a very humble personality, following one of his first press conferences as party leader he cleared the dishes from the tables after lunch. Last winter I participated in a small ceremony to inaugurate a commemorative plaque at Blekingegatan 57, where the late Austrian social-democrat chancellor Bruno Kreisky lived as a refugee in the 1940s. Löfven and his wife, Ulla, turned up in the small crowd that had gathered in the winter cold, drinking their coffee from the same paper mugs as the rest of us—not because he had a formal role but just to pay his respects.
If lessons are to be drawn from Löfven’s time in power, it is important to remember there are many upsides to refusing the ‘easy way out’ of opposition. The most obvious is that the xenophobic Sweden Democrats, founded by neo-Nazis, have been kept out of influence in parliament. It is telling that Löfven’s latest travel abroad was to Norway for the tenth-anniversary commemoration of the far-right attack on young social democrats on Utøya.
Other convincingly positive aspects of remaining in power have become apparent not least during the pandemic. Sweden has been led by a foster child and metalworker who knows how important it is to defend and strengthen welfare institutions and to protect jobs. Hundreds of thousands of jobs have been saved thanks to the government’s short-time-working scheme, the unemployment benefit has been improved and the long-term trend of declining trade union membership has been broken: the blue-collar union confederation, LO, won 20,000 members in 2020—its largest gain since 1985.
In Sweden, the question of the day is: who will replace Stefan Löfven as party leader and prime minister? The minister of finance, Magdalena Andersson, is well placed. But it is just as relevant to ask: what will he do now?
Löfven has a unique background—and some special negotiation and leadership skills—put to hard test in the Swedish parliament for the past seven years. The progressive movement should make sure he can continue to contribute to it.
Lisa Pelling is a political scientist and head of the Stockholm-based think tank Arena Idé. She regularly contributes to the daily digital newspaper Dagens Arena and has a background as a political adviser and speechwriter at the Swedish foreign ministry.