Recently Sweden commemorated the 30th anniversary of the assassination of its radical prime minister, Olof Palme. Having overseen Social Democratic governments from 1969-76 and 1982-86, Palme perhaps offers the best model for a ‘revolutionary reformist’ UK Labour administration.
New Labour’s unfinished, cluttered constitutional reforms have left stark incongruities in relation to both legislature and monarchy, and a voting system which reeks of unfairness.
After becoming prime minister, Palme’s constitutional reforms in the early 1970s shrank the Swedish monarchy’s position in everyday government to virtually nothing, whilst establishing a unicameral house of representatives. There may be a case for retaining an upper chamber in any future federal UK, but following Palme’s example, the Labour leadership should approach these questions with temerity: to offer a clear direction of travel as soon as is politically possible. It may surprise people how much the electorate welcomes genuine leadership.
The popular conception of Sweden as being an equal society is partially based on the political response to the great depression in the 1930s, which prioritised full employment. But muscular redistributive taxation policies came later, as part of the minority Palme administrations of the early 1970s.
Despite the lack of a parliamentary majority, Palme steered fiscal policy in Sweden in a direction which has become synonymous with the image of Sweden itself; he rewrote the definition of Sweden as completely as Margaret Thatcher rewrote the definition of Britain. Political opponents have had to reach an awkward rapprochement with these policies and their consequences.
Looking at the UK, in the 1960s there were significant improvements to the national insurance system, whilst the anti-poverty measures of the 1997 government were effective. Yet a neo-welfarist Labour government will have ample opportunity to re-cast the country’s political landscape – if it’s brave enough to make a new case for taxation and redistribution based on 21st century needs.
Palme saw work as an important social mechanism which allowed more active participation in society. Trade unions took an increasingly central role in determining and planning investment in Sweden – normally with positive outcomes.
When assessing the arguments for post-work, or at least a reduction in working hours, consideration should also be given to Sweden’s introduction of wage-earners funds (WEFs) in 1983, which were intended to allow for economic democratisation as employees took an increasing number of shares in businesses. These were enabled through a gradual socialisation of capital via a capital gains tax. New models of mixed ownership and control might restore a degree of more genuine accountability to citizens and employees across the UK.
4. Flexibility and opportunism – and a Big Plan.
It is highly unlikely that a future Labour government will take office at a time of economic prosperity. Olof Palme’s return to office in 1982 meant he was forced to govern in extremely unfavourable economic circumstances, with neoliberal economics in the ascendency. This meant that more ambitious social programmes had to go on hold – and led to a period of consolidation that continued until the 1990s, when Sweden finally began cutting some of its public provision.
Despite this – and the need for a tight incomes policy – Palme still drove through further redistribution and programmes for industrial democracy. A programme of revolutionary reformism in one country, without significant international support, is always likely to hit the limits of institutional capitalism. Even so, there needs to be an expansive plan, supporting structural changes when resources are tight.
To be considered a success, a Corbyn-led government would need to extend its domestic policy into international affairs in a way that previous Labour administrations have failed to do so.
Palme’s trenchant criticisms of US interventions, tempered with national security considerations, provides a useful starting base for a vocal and active UK government, in the midst of undertaking a fundamental reassessment of Britain’s place in the world.
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