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Politics' New Demography

By Nima Sanandaji

Almost the entire population increase in Sweden is coming from those of foreign origin. An adaptation to the new demographics has become a crucial issue for the parties.

Between the end of December 2000 and the end of 2013, the Swedish population increased by 762,000 individuals. Of these, 90 percent were born either abroad or in Sweden to foreign-born parents. Almost every sixth resident was born in another country – more than when the US received the most immigrants around the turn of the century. The increasing diversity of course affects society in a number of ways. Sweden goes from being homogeneous to having a mix of different cultures. We get more people with a more diversified educational background, which influences the labour market. There is much discussion about the fact that schools, health care, elderly care and industry need to adapt to these changing circumstances. But one aspect is rarely discussed: how the changing demographics affect the political blocs. It's strange. The adaptation to the new demographics is a crucial issue for the parties.

Voter support is clearly broken down according to foreign / Swedish background. SCB's big party preference survey shows that the left bloc would dominate the Swedish politics if people of foreign origin were allowed to decide. According to the latest survey from November 2014, almost 29 percent of potential voters of foreign origin prefer the bourgeois parties, while the Social Democrats have almost half of their support. The left bloc collects a total of 65 percent of their support. Among those with a Swedish background, on the other hand, the support is split evenly between the blocs. Since mid-2006, Statistics Sweden has conducted 18 surveys where party preference was examined on the basis of foreign / Swedish background. The Red-Greens have on average had two-thirds of the support of people of foreign descent. Support for bourgeois parties has been less than half as strong.

Our population is growing rapidly, and almost all of the increase occurs among those of foreign origin. It's simple mathematics that the importance of their political support increases with time. Carl Bildt had an international outlook and profiled strongly among the immigrants who made their way to Sweden from the former Yugoslavia. Yet it was far less relevant to those Moderates compared with todays to do well among immigrants and their children. As the proportion of voters with an immigrant background increased, Anna Kinberg Batra is facing a changing political landscape. It is curious that the realisation of this problem is not greater among the bourgeois parties. Future elections are not won with yesterday's demographics.

If government power belongs to those who do well among the growing voter group of immigrant background, just congratulate the Social Democrats. The party brings together not only the most voters of foreign origin in total, but also as a proportion of the electorate. The proportion of sympathisers among immigrants and their children of the Social Democrats is 56 percent higher compared to people of Swedish origin. The parties that are next most successful in this respect is the Left Party, followed by the Green Party. All the bourgeois parties have weaker support among people of foreign background compared to those the Swedish origin. The Liberals do reasonably well. The proportion of those with foreign origin who support the party is only 7 percent lower than among people with a Swedish background. So this is how it looks – at least in SCB's latest survey of party sympathies. Six months earlier, the gap had been more than three times as large. How could the Liberal Party so clearly lift its support? One explanation is that this party, alone among the bourgeois parties, actually made an effort to reach out to voters of foreign origin during the previous parliamentary elections. Representatives like Fredrik Malm and Birgitta Ohlsson also raised an issue that concerns many with roots in the Middle East – namely Daesh’s / ??IS’s ravages of Syria and Iraq.

Disproportionatly low or high support among people with foreign background compared with a Swedish background, November 2014:

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The Moderates and Christian Democrats would have to increase their support by about 50 percent among people with foreign backgrounds to reach the same level as the rest of the population. The Sweden Democrats would have to more than double their support. It is not surprising that relatively few people of foreign background support the anti-immigrant party. What's more amazing is that the Centre Party is even further behind. A voter with Swedish ancestry is three and a half times more likely to support the Centre Party than a voter of foreign origin. During the last party preference survey, Annie Lööf’s party got support from only 2 per cent of immigrants and their children. This was still unusually good. In previous surveys, an average of just one in a hundred supported the Centre Party. This can be compared with the Sweden Democrats, who in the latest poll received over 5 per cent of the group's support.

In the United States, it is being debated what demographic changes mean for the political parties. The Republicans are painfully aware that their voters are above all whites of European origin, who have gradually moved from a clear majority to a minority of the population. The other minority groups as a rule support the Democrats. To be successful, the Republicans must either win favour with the growing voter groups, or get a virtual monopoly among white voters. Several explanations have been put forward as to why Democrats are better at getting minority-voter support. Probably the most important thing is the wallet. Low-income people are more willing to support the Democrats' economic policies. The cultural aspect is also important.

The Democrats have more representatives in constituencies with a minority background and the party more often takes up these groups’ issues. In addition, the American left is more inclined to talk about the politics of identity and explain the social problems of racism and hidden structures. This possibly discourages some white voters. On the plus side for the left is that it constantly shows that it takes the other groups’ votes. That it is not just the wallet that matters is clear. Even a number of well-educated minority groups tend to support the Democrats to a greater extent than Republicans. The American right wants, of course, to attract voters from all social classes and backgrounds, but appears to be the Whites' representative. Then you also get the voters. Another common explanation is that many Republicans want to limit the immigration of Latinos, which reduces the chance of getting votes from this ever-growing group.

We can apply many of these arguments to the Centre Party, which is finding it even harder than the Republicans to attract immigrant voters. The Centre's economic policy is based on lower taxes, liberalisation of the labour market, lower starting salaries, scepticism towards benefits and reducing red tape for business owners. One would imagine that these were policies that should attract many voters of foreign descent who are stuck in social exclusion. But the Centre's message is based on advanced liberal reasoning about the roots of social exclusion and is hardly easy to sell to marginalised groups. Unlike Republicans, the Centre Party stands for free immigration. Even so, the party has to settle for one, maximum two, voters of foreign origin for every 50 who support the Social Democrats.

"We want to lower your salary, remove the rich’s austerity tax, are sceptical about welfare and believe that labour laws should be abolished immediately," said a centrist campaigning in a predominantly immigrant neighborhood. The Social Democrat replies: "Instead of favouring the rich, we want to raise their taxes. Then we can afford to give you more benefits and welfare. Furthermore, we are angry about the discrimination you face in society." So the debate looked, at least in theory. In fact, this is hardly the case because the Social Democrat representative is alone in the square. What image, then, do residents in immigrant neighborhoods have of the bourgeois representatives that barely turn out among them? What advantage don’t the Social Democrats have when they systematically draw in these same groups into their party apparatus?

The class question is obviously important. A recent survey in the Daily News examined the income of those who received a residence permit in Sweden in 2004. Ten years later, the majority of them had an income of less than 13,000 SEK per month. At least three out of ten were dependent on financial assistance. For obvious reasons, the left bloc has an easier time attracting this group of voters. But the bourgeois are far from hopeless. The Moderates’ speciality, the work principle, should, properly applied, be highly relevant.

Many families of foreign origin notice that it is not profitable if only one parent goes to work. If the salary is low, the family’s income is only marginally higher than the benefit alternative. The Liberal Party's thoughts on how a school of knowledge can pave the way for class trips, can attract immigrants with aspirations for their children. Many immigrant entrepreneurs should take on the Centre's message about improved conditions for small businesses. The Christian Democrats’ family-friendly policies are, of course, also relevant among groups of foreign origin, which usually have strong family values.

Moreover, we should remember that Red-Green policies are not optimised for people of foreign descent. For example, the parties of the left, for ideological reasons, oppose a crackdown on crime and vandalism, despite the fact that those who suffer most often live in marginalised immigrant communities. For the same reason, the Red-Greens find it difficult to condemn and act against the radical religious currents that exist among a minority of people of foreign origin, and which the majority of the same group may experience as problematic. So yes, the bourgeois parties can provide people with origins in other parts of the world an attractive political alternative. The problem is that the parties have basically not learned how the political spectrum is changing in a multicultural world.

Representatives of the Centre Party today can say that they are an entrepreneur-friendly party. But can they say that they talked to small business owners in immigrant environments, and learned the lessons of these conversations? Have the bourgeois parties the local presence required in the same environments to attract talented political representatives of foreign origin? So far, the bourgeois parties, to put it simply, are waiting for immigrants to make a political journey upwards and eventually find their way into the bourgeoisie. The result is a support of around only a third of all those with a foreign background.

Nima Sanandaji, PhD and research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies in London

NR 3 2015

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