COMMENTATORS across Europe have been feverously awaiting the Swedish election results, with half preparing to toast a xenophobic victory while the other half prepared eulogies for a forgotten liberal dream.

Some pre-election polls had shown that the far-right populist Swedish Democrats would gain more votes than any other party. This was, to put it mildly, disturbing to a certain European self-image. After all, this wasn’t Hungary or even Britain, but Sweden, the country often used as a codeword for the moderate, liberal, politically correct nanny state, a half-imagined world of feminism, open borders and a ruling caste of public sector professionals.

After all the hype, the actual outcome was comparatively sedate. The Social Democrats did better than expected: they lost votes, but not as many as polls had predicted. It wasn’t the humbling electoral calamity that other European centre-left parties have suffered.

They can still plausibly, if not entirely convincingly, claim a victory. By the standards of their counterparts on the continent,

losing just 2% of the vote is an occasion for joy.

The right-wing populist Swedish Democrats did well, but not as well as some polls had predicted. There was no decisive breakthrough. However, their modest success has cut through traditional political divisions in Sweden and has disturbed the country’s establishment enough that forming the next government will prove difficult. They aren’t a government in waiting, but they aren’t going away either.

“The chief lesson to draw from the Swedish election is not that liberal democracy crumbled under an onslaught from rightwing populists,” notes the Financial Times. “Rather, it is that, as in other western European countries, the electoral base of the leading mainstream parties, especially on the centre left, continues to erode.”

This is a fair assessment. Indeed, of 946 European districts to hold elections in 2017, the traditional centre-left only held or improved its vote in 56. In Britain, liberal centrists bemoan Jeremy Corbyn as an electoral calamity. But elsewhere in Europe, traditional social democratic parties that stuck to the old centrist ideals of the 1990s are getting dismantled. In that context, Sweden’s Social Democrats got off lightly. It’s their worst result in a century, but, weirdly, it’s okay.

Nonetheless, it isn’t all good news. The Swedish centre-left ended up stuck in the same old traps, either reinforcing their establishment credentials – we have the experience, we represent continuity, we are qualified to govern – or trying to regain some lost authenticity by pandering to the Swedish Democrats.

Centre-leftists inevitably retreat to these tactics when they are panicked. But, long term, surrendering the ground to your opponents doesn’t end well. That’s part of the European tragedy right now – just ask New Labour.

In broader terms, a couple of important lessons emerge from this election. Firstly, Europe hasn’t suddenly “turned fascist”, so we don’t have to panic and retreat behind the banner of uncritical unity. We have space to think, to reflect on what’s failing, and to suggest better measures that can win support back.

Secondly, the establishment parties still command majority support, but their inability to adapt to the post-2008 neoliberal crisis makes them vulnerable to gradual attrition. They have nothing about them to win new support.

They have no basic offer except to defend the status quo. Any reform that costs any money is basically ruled out. Given the billions, if not trillions, chucked at bailing out banks, people know that, when states want to be effective actors in the economy, they can be. But “realistic”, managerial politicians still refuse to offer anything. Millions of people have been told, in not so many words, that they are not priorities.

Thirdly, right-wing populists, given power, haven’t a clue. Britain and America are obvious testimony to this. But even where they aren’t in government, they still have power of a sort. Wherever they gain votes, they change the behaviour of centrist, establishment politicians, who either double down on shrieking business platitudes at the plebs (the Remain campaign) or else steal the clothes of xenophobia (“British jobs for British workers”). Both options, in turn, reinforce right-wing populism, in a downward spiral towards Trump’s America or Orban’s Hungary.

The biggest lesson, for me, is that any movement united simply by opposition to the radical right is destined to strengthen the radical right. It’s fine saying, “We won’t stand for this”. But what do we stand for? If that’s unclear, we’re always playing to their agenda.

Take the anti-Brexit campaign. Formally, it presents an image of moral uprightness and politically correct ideals: Chuka Umunna regularly derides racism on both the left and the right of British politics. However, in practice, most centrists would be happy to strike an ugly, racist compromise with the European Union, to preserve the principle they actually care about, free markets.

Tony Blair has suggested precisely this compromise. “For many people, the core immigration question – and one which I fully accept is a substantial issue – is immigration from non-European countries, especially when from different cultures in which assimilation and potential security threats can be an issue”. Any effort to reverse Brexit, as Umunna knows, will certainly involve this and many more, uglier moral compromises, while also further empowering the hard-right, who much prefer principled opposition to being forced to decide trade rules and govern the country.

There are too many quack cures and quick fixes when it comes to restoring the moderate, Third Way politics of the 1990s. In truth, despite the will of politicians, there’s no way back. The Swedish result wasn’t a disaster for the globalising consensus. It was, nonetheless, a bad result that follows a string of awful results. The one point of hope in Sweden was a modest growth in support for the ex-Communist Left. Maybe there’s something positive there. One thing is certain: centrism is eroding, and unless the left sets the agenda, the right will do it for us.