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Traditional recruitment of labour movement leaders

When Mona Sahlin resigned as leader of the Swedish Social Democratic Party following the party's defeat in the 2010 general election, she broke a pattern that dated back to the infancy of the labour movement - never before had a party leader felt forced to resign prematurely. Moreover, nobody had ever before candidated for the position, but contrary to the movement's traditional ideals potential party leaders were now asked to step forward.

A new doctoral thesis from the University of Gothenburg shows that the traditional process of selecting Social Democratic leaders was tampered with for the first time in more than 100 years. Petra Pauli's doctoral thesis concerns the Swedish labour movement's leader ideals and career paths in the 20th century. The focus is on the leader-movement tension that could arise if the leaders became 'bourgeoisified' in their new roles and social environments. Labour movement leaders could only gain legitimacy if they never left their class and never strayed from the ideals of the labour movement. The leader was expected to be part of the movement just like any other member. Anybody who departed from this norm structure was unable to be taken up into the leader strata.

'The great success of the Swedish labour movement in the 1900s can partly be explained by the skilful management of the relationship between the leaders and the movement,' says Petra Pauli. 'The solution has been that the recruitment and career paths have been designed in a way that has enabled the organisations to remain in control of leadership recruitment.'

Pauli's thesis shows that the leader ideal facilitated leadership legitimacy. The leader ideal that was developed was both authoritarian and egalitarian in nature. The authoritarian side has been used to avoid internal conflicts and to maintain the coherence of the movement. The egalitarian side has mainly been used by the leaders themselves to create a sense of belonging with the members.

As the labour movement was professionalised and bureaucratised about a century ago, the leadership tended to become increasingly bourgeoisified. Yet this development was soon halted by the movement actively maintaining strictly regulated career paths and leader ideals. The selection of leaders, with the exception of the party leader, became based almost entirely on class background and background in the Social Democratic youth organisation SSU and, in the case of the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO), on blue collar work experience. It was not until the 1990s, when demands for gender equality were heard, that the leader ideal started to change. As a result, the established career paths became obsolete. However, the party has in recent years returned to its traditional career patterns, as became clear when Hakan Juholt, trained in SSU and with roots in the working class, was appointed party leader. Juholt's entry signalled a re-establishment of the traditional Social Democratic leader ideal of class before gender, something that has never been questioned in LO.

As a working class fellow from Ädalen (see the Ädalen riots) with a background in SSU, the current party leader Stefan Löfven met all the traditional party leader requirements, with the addition of solid trade union experience.

'The union background implies a return to the historic ambition of keeping the two branches of the labour movement - the political and the union oriented - together,' says Pauli. 'Another indication of this ambition is that the former SSU Chairperson Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson recently was appointed to LO President.'

The thesis has been successfully defended.

For more information, please contact: Petra Pauli Telephone: +46(0)73-638 6661 E-post: petra.pauli@history.gu.se

idw :: 18.06.2012