Yet another thing Sweden does better than us: party conferences

Let's move all the politicians to an island in the Baltic. No, it's not as bad as it sounds, writes Ben Duckworth. . .

Imagine if this year's party conference season was cancelled and we started again. The public won't notice, but it will upset the Westminster calendar. Let's try it anyway because this whole conference thing isn't working any more. We can forget stories about councillors sleeping in their cars due to the expense of attending a city centre venue.

Instead, give every party represented in the House of Commons one day. Just 24 hours to nail the party leader's speech and announce some new policies. And lay the days on consecutively, organised by a rota. You could open up with Respect on a Sunday so George Galloway gets this political mini-season started with some of his own-brand, fiery oratory, then follow with the Conservatives on Monday, the SNP on Tuesday and so on. It can be a glorious, hectic mish-mash as parties work out how best to fill their brief moment in the spotlight.

Oh, and this will all be hosted in the same place – somewhere nice with pleasant surroundings and good food. Perhaps an island to ensure people feel far away from the Westminster hothouse. All events will be free and open to be attended by anyone who wants to come. Finally, we're going to hold it in the summer because the weather should be better and it will help politicians lighten up.

This grand plan might sound ludicrous but this is how it actually works in Sweden. Almedalsveckan 2013 begins this weekend on the island of Gotland – a quick flight from Stockholm or a three hour ferry trip. It is a political Glastonbury for the Swedish establishment. In the first week of the traditional Swedish summer holiday, they decamp to this festival en masse. “All the party leaders are here. It's impossible not to come,” says Karin Pettersson, political editor of Sweden's biggest selling daily newspaper Aftonbladet. Unsurprisingly, politicians and journalists quite like the idea of meeting up in a pretty medieval town which also serves as a glamorous stop-off on the European summer yacht tour.

The events at Almedalsveckan are free and open to anyone. There are no concrete barriers or high fences that are now synonymous with British party conferences. You don't need to pay for any passes or fill out lengthy forms to attend – while you wonder if the security services will start checking your emails and rifling through your bins. The attendance levels for Almedalsveckan increase every year. Last year 17,000 people turned up. But the reason for its huge growth in visitor numbers is not down to public accessibility, as admirable as that is.

Regular attendees don't see growing droves of average Swedes making a pilgrimage across the Baltic Sea. Members of the public who do wander around watching the seminars and debates are likely to already be on Gotland, a popular holiday destination. Adding to the politicians and journalists are the many company representatives, PR consultants and lobbyists who spot the obvious opportunity to mingle with every important politician in Sweden in one place. This includes all the regional and local politicians as well as the national parliamentarians. “It offers opportunities you would never get in Stockholm,” one lobbyist and veteran attendee of Almedalsveckan tells me. He remembers first visiting in the 1990s when the attendees numbered under 1,000.

Some of the complaints about Almedalsveckan sound familiar. “What has happened in the last few years is that PR consultants and companies have kidnapped the week so they now outnumber political people by 20 to one,” says Pettersson. The parties' closely stage manage their events. Pettersson has to look back to 2005, when senior Social Democrats fell out over a welfare issue, to remember a serious story breaking unexpectedly while the week took place. Otherwise, Almedalsveckan has a clear, well-established news cycle – the party leaders will finish their speeches in time for evening bulletins and deadlines. Despite occassional attempted sabotage from rivals, each day belongs to an individual party.

Also, the accompanying evening dinners and drinks receptions are becoming ever more exclusive. Gotland's capital, Visby, has some lovely restaurants which are happy to accept those lobbying and media expenses. The schmoozing is taken just as seriously in Sweden as in Britain.

So Almedalsveckan is not without its faults. The festival works because, for a country that “doesn't do charismatic politicians” as one Swedish commentator describes it, the format seems ideal. The structure of Almedalsveckan ensures that the political parties with MPs in the Rikstag – Sweden's Parliament – each enjoy their media focus. The daily changeover between parties creates a fast-moving event that doesn't outstay its welcome. It is their political party of the year. An eight day blast and it is all over until next year. The comparison with the lumbering, drawn-out, fenced-off world of our party conferences is stark.

Gotland in the 1960s. Photograph: Olof Sjöholm/Wikimedia Commons

Ben Duckworth is a freelance journalist and former editor of Total Politics magazine.

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Why did the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet win this year's Nobel Peace Prize?

Thanks to Tunisia, it is no longer possible to argue that the Middle East and North Africa are inherently undemocratic or prone to violence.

It is a fitting that in a tumultuous year for global peacemaking, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the little-known Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, a coalition made up of the union federation UGTT, the employers’ institute, the Tunisian human rights league and the order of lawyers . Over the past few years, the Quartet has been quietly shepherded in democracy to the country that lit the fuse of the Arab Spring. In part thanks to the efforts of this broad cross-section of civil society, Tunisia has stayed the course in transitioning from an authoritarian past to a democratic future, even in the face of terrorist violence and as other revolutions in the region have faltered.

The award comes at a time of escalating sectarian conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Islamic State’s campaign of terror has uprooted Iraqis and Syrians alike, driving desperate refugees into small boats to battle the waves of the Mediterranean. They join others fleeing to Europe from political and economic crises in Africa and Asia, forming a stream of humanity symbolising failures in leadership in three continents.

Among all this, it is not hard to identify why the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the world’s most coveted peace prize to the Tunisian Quartet.

First,Tunisia deserves to be celebrated for its momentous achievements in consolidating democracy. Unlike other countries in the region, it has trodden a path that is slow but solid, adopting a comprehensive and consensus-building approach to decision-making.

In this it provides a rare and extremely important example, not only for the region but also for the world. Thanks to Tunisia, it is no longer possible to argue that the Middle East and North Africa are inherently undemocratic or prone to violence.

Civil society steps up

Second, the role of civil society is fundamental for bringing about sustainable peace. Political leadership is important, but the scale of the challenge in transitional societies means that we cannot simply leave things to political leaders to sort out.

At local level especially, peace feels a lot more real when it comes with tangible improvements to quality of life. Citizens want to see the economy motoring again and to have confidence in the state’s institutions. They want to know that they can sleep soundly and safely, without fear of violence, persecution or poverty. Governments often lack the capacity and credibility to deliver these dividends alone. Civil society must step up to the plate – particularly the associations of trade, justice and human rights of which the Quartet is formed.

And third, the Quartet’s work relies heavily on forming constructive relationships across the political spectrum – from secularists to fundamentalists. It has walked a fine line, keeping disparate groups with diverging interests invested in an inclusive national process of dialogue. It has, in the words of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, laid the “groundwork for a national fraternity”.

Politicians are often the most cynical of creatures, yet the Quartet has managed to build a sense of collective endeavour among them. It has encouraged them to put the country’s best interest ahead of personal or sectarian interests, making this the guiding principle for decision-making.

Other bright spots

The transition in Tunisia is a work in progress and there will be more setbacks and successes. The country was left reeling from two terrorist attacks earlier this year, when 22 people were killed at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, and another 39 people died during an attack on a tourist resort in Sousse. But the message today is clear – Tunisia has made remarkable progress since 2010, despite the odds. This is in large part due to a credible and engaged civil society, a remarkable achievement in a new democracy. The country has forged a path of inclusive national dialogue from which many lessons can be learned.

Elsewhere this year, Myanmar goes to the polls in November – the country’s first free national ballot since 1990. Colombia is closer to lasting peace than ever, ending half a century of war that has taken 220,00 lives and uprooted six million people.

The US restored diplomatic relationships with Cuba, and also struck a landmark agreement with Iran over its nuclear programmes. And the UN has adopted the sustainable development goals, explicitly recognising peaceful and inclusive societies as a development priority for the first time. Behind every step forward there is an individual or institution worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize, but only one can win and the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet is a worthy laureate.

Laura Payne is a Research Fellow and Director of RISING Global Peace Forum, Coventry University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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