Sunday, September 17, 2006

From Nanny State To Ikea

The last nanny state in Europe has gone down in defeat...Swedish TV predicts slim centre-right election win, thanks to those nice folks at Ikea, shoopers and workers alike. It's a generational shift young against old, those unemployed and underemployed wanting for the New Moderate party...modeled on New Labour in the UK. The vote was an attack on taxes, unemployment, with just a hint of racism thrown in for good measure. Since refugees and other migrants get full benefits.

The right has moderated its anti-immgrant stance replacing it with a general appeal to produce real jobs not public sector ones. To reduce working class taxes and red tape for business. Its an appeal that appears to have won them votes from the Left.

Anders Bengtsson, 45, an engineer, defected from the Greens to the Moderates after a lengthy chat outside the party's cabin. "Too many people are not working and too many rely on the state. We need to break this cycle and try something new."

Swedes set for a swing to the right

To the golf club? Hop on,' chirps driver Lars Leijon, 58. The bus doors slam and Leijon heads out towards the western suburbs of the Swedish capital. 'When I was a boy I was with my father in his Volvo when we hit a cow on the road, just where the golf course is now. We were all peasants in those days.'

These days Sweden has changed. It is about to hold a general election that could end the world's longest experiment in wealth enhancement, the egalitarian way. Next Sunday the Social Democrats - who created the 'Swedish model' during a rule that has lasted for 65 of the past 71 years - may lose power to the centre-right Alliance. If stolid Prime Minister Goran Persson survives, opinion polls suggest it will be by a whisker.

The doors open at Troxhammar Golf Club, 18 holes of bright green landscaping where cowhands' descendants now stroll with expensive clubs. In the car park the driver of a black Saab cabriolet with personalised numberplates slides his clubs into the boot and swaps score cards with a man loading his golf bag into a decorator's van. Even golf is egalitarian here.

In the clubhouse printer Rickard Jansson sips beer with Peter Rignell and Mats Fredlund, both groundsmen at Rasunda football stadium. 'The Alliance will win. We are sick and tired of paying taxes to keep 23 per cent of the population living on benefits,' says Jansson, 37.

Rignell, 44, says he used to identify with the Social Democrats as the workers' party. 'Now they're the party of the jobless.' Fredlund, 64, says criminals are better off in Sweden than law-abiding elderly people. 'Our prisons are like hotels. Everyone has their own room and there is always someone to accompany you if you want to go outside. No old person has that luxury.'

The working-class golfing trio are typical new voters for the New Moderates - the main party in the Alliance whose leader, Fredrik Reinfeldt, says he heads the 'new workers' party'. Reinfeldt, 41, who plays down his middle-class background to the point of allowing it - falsely - to be believed that he was raised in a high-rise suburb, has clawed his way from the free-market wing of his party to its centre. Nursing a casual T-shirt and jumper look in the party's publicity pictures and declaring himself an Abba fan, he makes much of being a father of three who likes a clean home and draws up efficient grocery shopping lists.

Reinfeldt will be Prime Minister if the Alliance - a two-year arrangement with the Christian Democrats, the liberal Folkpartiet and the Centerpartiet - is victorious in the election.

Along with its new pastel logo, his party has watered down policies that gave it just 15 per cent of the vote in the 2002 election. The tax cuts it wants now are for the low-paid.

'They have realised that Sweden, fundamentally, has a social democratic electorate with values - such as equality and the environment - that you cannot go against because they are inbred,' said Gunnar Wetterberg of the white-collar Saco trade union. 'There is no point in campaigning for tax cuts for the rich because even high-income earners in Sweden want wage gaps to be closed.'

On paper Sweden has one of the most competitive economies in the world. Its companies - such as Ikea, Ericsson, H&M, Volvo and Scania trucks - turn out record results. In the past decade the country has followed the British example of privatising and deregulating. Some of Persson's policies - such as cutting pensions in the mid-Nineties - have been harsh. Sweden's elderly wait three years for a hip replacement.

Reinfeldt says the government's claim of having reduced unemployment to 6.8 per cent is a lie, pointing out that 1.5 million Swedes, a quarter of the workforce, are unemployed, on extended sick leave or have taken early retirement. An astounding 547,000 Swedes between the ages of 16 and 64 draw early retirement pensions, 12,000 of them under 24.

Reinfeldt has the wisdom not to refer to them as 'benefit scroungers'. They are 'the excluded', forced into oblivion for statistical expedience and thus more likely to appeal to the Lutheran fibre for fairness. Under Reinfeldt, they would be coaxed back to work.

Swedes vote on nation's welfare

September 18, 2006

PUSHING her half of a two-part sofa bed across the carpark at the biggest Ikea in Europe, 24-year-old Jana Norsfeld had no doubt about the main man in her future: the bald one in the open-necked shirt smiling down from the election poster opposite.

Despite both having degrees, Jana and her boyfriend, Lars, (pushing the other half of the sofa) have been unable to find full-time work since leaving university and are living in state housing on benefits.

Things are not hard but nor are they as good as the couple had hoped, which is why they wanted Swedish voters overnight to ditch the party that has ruled them for 65 of the past 74 years.

If they do - and the polls show a close race - it may be the beginning of the end for the Swedish social model, which was hailed by The Guardian last year as the world's "most successful society".

This is a welfare state with bells and whistles: unemployment benefit at up to 80 per cent of salary for 12 months; and 18 months on similar pay for maternity or paternity leave, or to care for sick children (a benefit that is widely abused, particularly in summer).

Daycare for working parents costs at most $220 a month for the first child, dropping rapidly for others. Child benefit starts at $50 a week. The elderly receive state earnings-related pensions, up to 90 per cent housing benefit and free care homes. Public transport is cheap and efficient with no journey in Stockholm costing more than about $3.70.

Daring to challenge the economic basis for all this is the bald man on the poster: 41-year-old Fredrik Reinfeldt, sports fan, amateur dramatist and career politician whose Centre-Right "new" Moderate party is challenging the high-tax, big-budget, comprehensive welfare state in which nanny not only knows best but also holds the purse strings.

The party's proposals would be funded partly by cutting unemployment benefit from 80 to 70per cent of previous salary, the risk in popularity offset by the promise that cuts in employers' costs will mean more new jobs.

Reinfeldt also aims to cut, then abolish, a 1 per cent property tax and to halve national income tax for those earning less than $6000 a month, although that is not as radical as it sounds given that the average Swede's tax bill of almost 56 per cent includes a swag of local and municipal taxes.

He has gained support from captains of industry, notably Ericsson boss Carl-Henric Svanberg, for promises to cut state dabbling in business. He would privatise government holdings in 57 companies from SAS airlines to the makers of Absolut vodka.

Reinfeldt believes the apparently bullish economy (5.6 per cent growth in the second quarter of this year) is based on sand. Thanks to the relatively low value of the krona, Volvo's exports may be booming, but last Monday it announced 1500 job cuts worldwide, half of them in Sweden. A day later British department store chain Debenhams said it would close its flagship outlet in central Stockholm next January because of poor turnover.

Reinfeldt believes many Swedes retire early reluctantly because the tax-versus-benefit equation does not add up.

He will have winced, however, at a newspaper allegation that he pays his children's Lithuanian nanny 40 per cent less than a Swede would get. His press secretary declined to comment beyond saying the calculation had been done "a strange way". But it touches the topic everyone knows is an issue but nobody will argue about: immigration. Sweden was one of only three European Union countries along with Britain and Ireland to open its doors fully to eastern Europeans last year and continues to accept large numbers of asylum-seekers almost without question.

Bestselling crime author Henning Mankel - creator of Inspector Wallander, one of the country's biggest exports - spends six months in Africa each year but has noticed disconcerting changes that grow each time he returns to his home.

"Fifteen years ago we did not have the ghettos outside the big cities that we have today. Today we have all these segregated young people in the suburbs. In some ways we are very close to what is happening in France," he wrote in the current issue of South of Sweden.

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1 comment:

Larry Gambone said...

I wouldn't pay too much attention to those right-wing reports. The Anarcho-syndicalist Youth Fed of Sweden said that the SD's were going to lose because they were already persuing neo-liberal policies. In fact the ASYF ran the "Invisible Party" as an attack on the political system. (Wonder how many votes they got?) Furthermore Sweden has had a previous right-wing govt in the 1990's which already engaged in cutbacks. And of course, given that they are presumed to get only a slim majority, this does not give them a practical political basis for attacking the people. If they do, look forward to a hot time in Sweden....