Swedish referendum reveals class divide

The referendum held in Sweden on Sunday (September 14) on whether or not to join the euro has upset the plans of Swedish big business. But its impact goes beyond the borders of Sweden and is being discussed seriously in other countries, especially in Britain where Blair is finding it difficult to convince the people of the "benefits" of adopting the euro.

The referendum held in Sweden on Sunday (September 14) on whether or not to join the euro has upset the plans of Swedish big business. But its impact goes beyond the borders of Sweden and is being discussed seriously in other countries, especially in Britain where Blair is finding it difficult to convince the people of the "benefits" of adopting the euro.

Swedish big business put all its weight behind the pro-Euro campaign. All the main bourgeois parties and almost the whole of the mass media were backing the campaign. The Social Democratic government, dominated by the right wing of the Social Democratic party, with the support of most of the trade union leaders, were also trying to get the working class voters to support entry into the Euro.

Campaigning against entry into the Euro were the Greens, the Left Party (the former Communist Party Stalinists now turned left reformist), the left wing of the Social Democratic party and the Centre Party (a small farmers' party). It was clear that generally speaking there was a left-right divide over this issue.

Up until one week before the referendum it seemed that no one was going to win an outright majority. This was already looking bad for the pro-Euro campaign. In spite of their Public Relations consultants, the large number of campaign workers who had been employed specifically to work on the pro-Euro propaganda machine and the huge amount of funding they had received, they just could not convince enough voters that the Euro would be good for them.

However, suddenly in the final crucial build up there was a dramatic turn of events. On the Thursday before the referendum the Swedish Foreign Minister, Anna Lindh, was knifed while she was shopping in a department store, and died the following day. This had a tremendous impact on the whole situation. Initially there were rumours that the referendum might even have been called off. Prime Minister Göran Persson very quickly clarified the question when he declared that the referendum was going to take place as planned. However, he added that no campaigning or debating would take place during the remaining three days up to the referendum.

Anna Lindh was a prominent figure in the pro-Euro campaign and this led a lot of people to think that a "sympathy vote" for the murdered Foreign Minister might even mean that the anti-Euro camp would lose the referendum. The murder of Anna Lindh was perceived generally as an attack on the "Swedish democratic system" itself, which probably was a contributing factor in getting a high turnout of voters. On the other hand there was clearly an element of the sympathy vote which pushed a layer of Social Democratic voters to vote 'Yes', who otherwise may have voted 'No'. Indeed, one opinion poll released just after the event showed that for the first time the pro-Euro position now had a small lead.

This, however, did not materialise on the actual day of voting. The 'No' vote won with a decisive majority of 56,3% against 41,5% for the 'Yes' vote. There were 2,1% abstentions. The turnout was also very high, with 81,5% exercising their right to vote. So no one can play the game of claiming large numbers abstained - the result is undisputable.

The question we have to ask ourselves is how was it possible for the 'Yes' campaign to be defeated when it had such big backers, when the media campaign was overwhelmingly in favour and the government, elected by the workers of Sweden, was also heavily in favour of going into the Euro? What conclusions can we draw from all this?

The Social Democratic party has been in power for 18 of the last 21years. At every election the party has promised new reforms to improve the already very battered welfare state. The problem is that after every election the party did the opposite of what it had promised. Instead of reforms, the government has carried out huge cuts in public spending, while unemployment has remained stubbornly high. Apart from some small minor reforms, instead of alleviating the pressure on the working class, the government has continued its onslaught with one counter-reform after another. Sweden generally has an image internationally as being a country with a very advanced welfare state, with the greatest degree of equality anywhere in the world. That is quite a dated view. Things have changed as a result of the policies of the last twenty years or so. The facts show quite a different process taking place. It is one of decline and worsening services. According to the UN Human Development Report (1999) Sweden is now in the top three industrialized nations for increased inequality, i.e. the process of class polarisation, of differentiation between rich and poor is rapidly accelerating.

All of this has taken its toll on working men and women in Sweden. Most people have been forced to tighten their belts and hope that the Social Democratic government would somehow take them back to the epoch of the expanding welfare state and increasing standards of living. It was a case of hope over reality. Now however the penny is beginning to drop. Workers are being forced to wake up to the reality of what the government is doing (and plans to do). Their mistrust of all the "authorities" has gradually grown stronger. The strike of the municipal workers earlier this year was already an expression of this changing mood.

During referendum campaign, for the first time ever, the Social Democratic leadership issued joint appeals with big business. This provoked the angry reaction of many ordinary workers. They instinctively mistrust anything coming from the bosses. The huge financial resources that were provided to the ''Yes' campaign, together with the fact that the prime minister tried to silence those ministers who favoured a 'No' vote, further increased people's suspicions towards the pro-Euro camp. The massive 'No' vote in Sunday's referendum reflects the strong anti-establishment mood that has emerged in Sweden over the recent period.

The campaign, however, was full of exaggerations on both sides. The 'Yes' camp warned of all kinds of calamities – almost as if the seven horsemen of the Apocalypse were about to be unleashed - if the result were to be a victory for the 'No'. They promised 100,000 new jobs, a cut in interest rates that would give homeowners an additional 1000 kroners a month and much more. However, these promises proved to be so unrealistic that in the end even the 'Yes' campaigners realised it was for the better if they withdrew such ludicrous claims.

Unfortunately the anti-Euro campaign did not pose the issue in class terms. This, in spite of the fact that it was mainly working class voters who were against the Euro. Many exaggerated claims were also presented by the 'No' campaign. Many on the left argued simplistically that if we did not join the euro everything would be fine and everything would stay as it has always been. Surely what workers want is for things to improve and not stay as they presently are? Nothing will stay the way it is. We are in the middle of an international crisis of capitalism. Sweden cannot escape the pull of the world market. It depends on exports to keep its industries going. Therefore a fall in the world market will seriously affect the Swedish economy. Already the Swedish government is being forced to cut public spending, with the excuse that this is "necessary" because of Sweden's position in the world market. Now more than ever it is necessary to raise the socialist perspective within the Swedish labour movement. Capitalism cannot offer any solution to the problems of the Swedish workers.

The 'Yes' campaigners also accused the 'No' camp of being nationalist. This unfortunately had a grain of truth in it. There was indeed an element of nationalism in some of the arguments of the 'No' campaign. This is inevitable, and we have seen it also in other countries where this question has come up. However, we should not exaggerate this element as it this was not the dominant factor in the victory of the 'No' vote. According to opinion polls the most important reason given for voting 'No' was "democracy". People did not want to surrender powers to the European Central Bank.

In spite of the attempts to blur the class issues and raise all kinds of smokescreens, both by the 'Yes' and 'No' campaigns, the people of Sweden took a clear decision, a class based decision. The working class voted 'No', with the exception of a small number of die-hard Social Democratic party loyalists and supporters of the party bureaucracy. The bourgeoisie and upper middle class voted 'Yes', with the exception of a few conservative elements, whose decision was based purely on a nationalist outlook.

The Swedish people in general, and the working class in particular, took the opportunity to express their spirit of rebellion in this referendum. It was a rebellion against the elite, the capitalists and the labour-movement bureaucracy.

As a result of this, the positions of the right-wing labour leaders have been weakened. The left in the Social Democratic party has received a boost of renewed self-confidence. The reason for that is clear. We have just defeated a right-wing Social Democratic prime minister who had the full backing of big business and, furthermore, on an issue that they believed was of fundamental importance.

However, we must not ignore the effects of the murder of Anna Lindh on the ranks of the Social Democratic party. The right-wing leaders of the party will try to exploit this tragic event to cut across the left-right polarisation which has begun inside the party. Thus there may be a tendency to close ranks in the short term, but this will soon wear off. The renewed confidence of the left wing of the Social Democratic party may also attract a layer of youth that has now been awakened to political consciousness by the tremendous class polarisation that the referendum has brought to the surface. An influx of a new layer of working class youth into the party would strengthen the left, for they would be joining to support the left against the right This would prepare the ground for a powerful left wing to emerge in the future.

A process of class polarisation has clearly begun in Sweden. It is a question of "them" against "us". The referendum has merely given this a tangible expression. It is the result of years of suffering attack after attack and a general worsening of conditions. The fact that the bosses were defeated in this referendum has given lots of people in Sweden a newfound belief that something can be done to change things. They can see that the bosses can be defeated. This bodes well for the development of the class struggle on a higher plane in the coming period in Sweden.