It might not appear the most obvious place to launch an election campaign. Most of those present are teenagers not old enough to vote, slouching on beanbags, texting or nodding their heads to the beat on their headphones. In a classroom plastered with posters of boybands, trainee hairdressers barely look up from their model wigs as Stefan Löfven, a Social Democrat who wants to be Sweden’s next prime minister, whizzes through the room. Yet in many ways Stockholm’s Grillska high school is the perfect launchpad for the centre-left party to orchestrate a political comeback after eight years out of government, the longest spell in its history. The school encapsulates Sweden’s much-admired public-private approach to solving the social-budgetary conundrums facing European economies – and its shortcomings. Formerly called John Bauergymnasiet, Grillska used to be one of Sweden’s publicly funded but privately run friskolor (free schools) until its owner, the Danish private equity company Axcel, filed for bankruptcy last April.
Since then, the school has been managed – and improved – by Stockholm’s Stadsmissionen, a non-profit charity. But the John Bauer scandal has made many Swedes question the pro-privatisation policies of the government, led by the Moderate party’s Fredrik Reinfeldt.
The famed Nordic model, mixing universal welfare and strong unions with an open economy and free trade, has long been admired by European neighbours. Sweden’s cities regularly top quality of life surveys, and its benefits system is progressive and inclusive. Sweden was the first country to introduce a gender-neutral parental leave allowance, and up to 90% of Swedish fathers now take time off to look after their babies. The World Economic Forum lists Sweden as one of the countries with the narrowest gender gaps in the world. Its economy recovered smartly from recession, and it has accepted more asylum seekers per capita than any other European country – and attitudes towards immigration have also remained more positive than anywhere else on the continent.