Social Democratic Parties need a constant Dialogue with Citizens

By Bjorn Sundin

When the votes were counted after the re-election in the northeastern constituency of Örebro, the Social Democrats increased their votes in all electoral districts in the area, with a total of 47.2% of the votes. In no part of the constituency the result was less than 30.6% (which is what the Social Democrats received nationally in the general election in fall 2010).

To understand why 47.2% is such a remarkable success, you need to know the background.

The sharp drop for the Social Democrats in the parliamentary elections in September 2010 (34.99 to 30.6%) was mainly due to the loss of confidence in the larger municipalities, especially in predominantly middle-class residential areas. But Örebro differed. In 2010 the election to the municipality was better than in comparable municipalities (Örebro got 39.4%, the highest of Sweden’s ten largest municipalities, second best was Norrköping with 36.6).

Are the explanations due to the population composition in Örebro? Is Örebro a big city with the values of a small industrial town? No, it’s not. Örebro has 135 000 inhabitants, Sweden’s seventh largest municipality. The North East constituency in Örebro, just like large parts of the rest of the city, is largely composed of middle-class residential areas. In short: Örebro doesn’t differ much from other large cities. In fact, in the elections before 2006, the support for the Social Democrats followed the national figures in the parliamentary elections. But in 2006 something happened.

It’s about policy, where we consistently talk about growth, development and policies to create new jobs. It’s about the candidates, where now mayor Lena Baastads open attitude and ability to unify and lead, gave Örebro hope of a new era of cooperation and success for Örebro in the elections of 2010/2011. But it’s also about campaign practices.

We rediscovered the extended use of knocking on doors from British Labour in the early 2000s (we visited Peter Mandelson’s campaign in Hartlepool in 2001), and we adapted it successfully. On the basis of Labour’s “blitzing” (effective canvassing that strives to put the most time on those who are insecure, and least on those who have already decided), we have gradually increased ambitions for door-knocking. In the last year and a half (regular election and then the re-election), we have knocked on 70 000 doors in a city with 130,000 inhabitants (100 000 voters). In the re-election, we knocked on over 30,000 doors in an area that has 28,000 voters. And we did it in an even more ambitious manner than before.

I dare say that we have carried out Sweden’s broadest dialogue movement of all time. To keep it short, it was about five steps:

1. We handed out “Dialogue Programs” to every household in the area (we did one program per area, there are nine areas in the constituency). These sheets were based on a map that point out issues raised in the area. We asked people to submit their priorities and suggestions.

2. Knocking on doors with the ”Diaogue Program”, asking if they have questions they want to highlight. We took the opportunity to remind everyone that we needed their help in making Örebro better.

3. We invited to meetings with politicians, where anyone could discuss proposals and comments.

4. We compiled all the suggestions in a short report.

5. All households finally received revised ”Dialogue Programs”, which described the most raised issues.

In addition, of course, press releases, social media, films about some concrete problems in the area (as well as a proposed solution), distribution of leaflets and much more.

Is it possible to apply the experience of Örebro in other parts of the progressive movement in Europe? I think so. It’s about being true to the foundation of social democracy: the conviction that collective action can create growth and development, which in turn provide resources for a joint commitment to reduce inequality and fight injustice. And it’s about doing this in close dialogue with the voters, asking for their trust to represent them.

So. If you aren’t willing to listen, don’t ask the question. And if you think that the voters are wrong and don’t understand all the brilliant policy you yourself thought up, devote your time to other things. But if you’re serious about the dialogue – the process is never over.

Bjorn Sundin is Vice Mayor and Head of Strategy for the Social Democrats in Örebro in the election campaigns of 2010 and 2011.

Social Europe Journal