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.

Getty
Show Hide image

"We are not going to change": Barcelona defies terror with a return to normality

After a attack which killed 14 and injured scores more, shock gives way to defiance and unity.

A perfect summer afternoon in Barcelona suddenly turned into a nightmare on Thursday evening, a nightmare that has become far too common in Europe in recent years. 

“I was having a coffee here [in Plaça Catalunya] and was about to go and walk down there like everyday, because I live just off the Ramblas”, says 26-year-old Eneko de Marcos, pointing down the promenade. “I stayed because I was waiting for a friend, and when she came we heard a big noise and then everyone was running."

Thousands of people, most of them tourists, had been ambling casually along the Ramblas, the most iconic of Barcelona boulevards, which descends from Plaça Catalunya to the old port and the sea, when a white van had mounted the pedestrianised centre of the walk and began driving into people. 

Even after the van came to a stop, leaving a trail of dead and injured in its wake, De Marcos and hundreds of others were trapped for hours inside bars, shops and hotels while the police cordoned off the area and investigated the scene.

Seeing the Ramblas and the surrounding areas completely empty of people following the attack is, for anyone used to the area, unreal and the first reaction for most has been shock. Barcelona had felt safe both to locals and tourists, which had been coming to the city in increasing numbers since last year, many perhaps trying to avoid other destinations in Europe seen as more at risk of attack. 

Shock gave way to confusion and fear during the evening. The van driver was still at large and a series of ugly images, videos and unconfirmed rumours about other attacks spread across social media and the news. The number of victims increased steadily to 13 dead and more than 80 injured of many different nationalities.

At 11pm the city centre and its surroundings were eerily quiet and dark. Few people were venturing on to the streets, and the bar terraces which would normally be packed with people enjoying the late dinners Spaniards are famous for were half empty.

The next morning Barcelona woke up to the news that after 1am that night the Police had stopped a second attack in the touristic beach town of Cambrils, an hour and a half away to the south. What was going on? The streets of Barcelona were still quiet, far too quiet in a city usually noisy and crowded, and again the terraces, so symptomatic of the Barcelona’s mood, were unusually empty.

“I always said something like this would never happen in Barcelona”, says Joaquín Alegre, 76, walking through Plaça de Catalunya the morning after with his friend, Juan Pastor, 74, who nods and agrees: “I always felt safe.”

But slowly fear had given way to defiance. “Afraid? No, no, no”, insists Joaquín. “We’re going to carry on like normal, respecting the victims and condemning the attack, but we are not going to change”, says Juan.

Little by little the Ramblas and the whole area started to fill up during the day. People came from all directions, all kinds of people, speaking all kinds of language. The day was beautiful, the sky was blue, there are no clouds in sight and it got hotter by the minute. It began to look like Barcelona again.

“It’s important not to show fear, that’s what (the terrorists) want”, says Emily, an 18-year-old from Dresden, in Germany, who landed yesterday at Barcelona airport with her mother a few minutes after the attack. She says people were checking their phones while still on the plane and then one girl said aloud there’d been a terrorist attack in Barcelona. “It’s important to come here (to Plaça Catalunya) at this time”, says her mother, Anna, 42, both of them sitting on a low wall at the square.

Next to them, where the Ramblas begins, people once again filled the boulevard full of shops and hotels, which many locals also see as a symbol of how tourism has gone wrong in Barcelona. But Catalans, Spaniards from elsewhere and foreigners mingled happily, feeling united against a common enemy. Many left flowers and lit candles at the feet of a big ornamental lamppost on top of the Ramblas, many others did the same next to the famous Canaletes fountain a little down the promenade. 

“We the people have to respond to this by getting out and taking the streets”, says Albert Roca, a 54 year old publicist, who’s decided to come against the wishes of his girlfriend, who told him he was crazy. “I took a picture of the Ramblas and sent it to her and wrote, ‘Look how many crazy people there are’.”

Just before noon the Mayor of Barcelona Ada Colau visited the Plaça Catalunya with her retinue. She is a very popular figure who comes from civil society in a country where many citizens don’t feel properly represented by traditional politicians. Many people followed her carrying roses, a symbol of Barcelona, while they made their way into the square.

Shortly after, around 100,000 people packed Plaça Catalunya and its adjacent streets for a minute of silence begins for the victims. Only the flapping of pigeon’s wings overhead can be heard. And then an applause and a loud chant break the silence: “I am not afraid! I am not afraid!”, sang the people in Catalan.

Along with Colau in the centre of the square there was Carles Puigdemont, the head of the Catalan regional government and leader of the independence movement that has called for a referendum on 1 October, and along side them, King Felipe as the head of State, and Mariano Rajoy, the Prime Minister of Spain and a bitter political rival of Puigdemont. Seeing them standing together presents an image that until yesterday afternoon would’ve seemed impossible.

Very slowly people start emptying the square, where many still remain singing defiantly. “The attacks yesterday were a disgrace”, says a doorman just outside the city centre as Barcelona began returning to normality, “but we are going to carry on, what else can we do?”