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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Lost in translation: what we lose when we leave the EU

From learning Irish to studying in Switzerland, my richest memories are all in Europe. What will happen to our creative culture after Brexit?

I’m rubbish at languages. Worse than rubbish, actually; hopeless. (You can ask my old German teacher, if you like. Sorry Frau Sarcher.) I don’t have the ear for inflection or the memory for grammar. I don’t have the patience for diligent vocab lists. I can barely spell in English, let alone in French.

So it was with some trepidation that I headed to West Donegal a few weeks ago to do an immersion course in Irish. I know: Irish, of all things, a language which is famed for sounding entirely unlike how it looks on the page and is spoken only by a small number of people, almost all of them in places I don’t live.

Well, I had to do it: I’m working on a novelist for my PhD who wrote in the language. But alright, fine, I also wanted to – wanted to at least grasp at the bones of the thing, even if I’d never be fluent.

I moved around a lot as a child, although always within the UK, and like a lot of people I know I never really had a proper and precise sense of origin. (Irish classes, replete with diaspora, handled this one fast: I am from here; now I live here.) I’m happy in most places, yet no geography has the ring of home. Yes, I’m undeniably English, but I always felt like I was looking at my own Englishness through glass.

I’m aware this might be the most English thing of all.

After my BA, I was awarded a grant to do research in Switzerland, and after that given a grant to do an MA, and everything changed. Suddenly, I was travelling across the continent, able to afford solo trips on the Eurostar to Paris and long months in a sticky Swiss summer, sending photos of the suspiciously clear rivers and cuckoo clocks back to England. In my early 20s, this became my home: always feeling slightly out of place, as ever, but willingly and joyfully so, stumbling through language after language. A whole world of pleasant unfamiliarity opened up on the continent.

A Swiss professor I met said that the very impossibility of translation is its greatest gift, because it reveals native quirks. I’m not sure I fully became a person until I started translating myself in those European summers – until I had to give an account of myself, as an English woman and as a person, out there in the world. Which is why, this morning, I found myself close to tears on the Tube.

I’m no more informed than you are as to why exactly Leave had such a good result. It might have been the headlines, or the promises of NHS funding, or simply long, dulled anger finding an outlet, however counter-intuitive.

But it was undoubtedly something else, too: an opportunity to wield power.

Feeling part of a movement is a seductive thing. This was a campaign entirely run in the negative, by both sides. I mean that in the most literal sense: not that there was no “positive” option, but that there was no option that offered a yes in relation to Europe – only a no more, thanks or a continuation of the same. Remain had no chance of promising us more. Leave, at least, could try, and even if it didn’t quite all ring true, it still offered action over inaction.

Getting ready for work this morning, I couldn’t get the words of sociologist and broadcaster Laurie Taylor out of my head. A few years ago, I went to a lecture he gave on popular culture, and saw him tell an audience of academics what he knew from growing up in Liverpool, and from watching the Dockers’ Strike: that turkeys will vote for Christmas if there’s a chance to stick two fingers up at the middle class while they do it.

That’s trite, perhaps, but less trite than pretending voters necessarily bought every promise from Leave. True, not everyone knew the ins and outs of trade negotiations, but most people were able to twig that Boris Johnson isn’t exactly a working class hero. As tends to be the case, there’s very little to be gained from calling the electorate stupid.

If the same communities that voted Leave are also those likely to be hit the hardest by a Brexit-induced economic downturn, they are also those who might reasonably have wondered: what have we got to lose?

Well, who knows. I’ll speak responsibly and say that I’m worried about EU funding to Cornwall (whose council is already scrabbling to secure a promise for alternative funds, after the population there voted Leave); about the medium-term prospects for the UK markets; about how we will handle cross-border security initiatives both in these isles and across the continent. I’m worried because I know where the money came from to regenerate Northern cities, and it wasn’t a Conservative government.

But I’ll also speak with feeling and say that something less tangible has been eroded. British culture is watchful and insecure, sarcastic and subtle; it has a class system awkwardly incomprehensible to outsiders and a sense of humour loved for being the same.

And the thing that makes it all beautiful, the Midas touch that takes the British bundle of neuroses and double-edged banter and endless, endless griping about the weather and turns it to gold, is openness – however grudgingly given. I won’t pretend we ever enjoyed a Halcyon age where we welcomed immigrants whole-heartedly. It would be an insult to history and those who fought to come here. But we are a mongrel country, in spite of our intentions, and most people, most of the time, cope. It is at the moments where we shrug and decide we’re not too fussed about difference, actually, that we shine most strongly.

Over and above the economy, even over the personal fear I have for European friends and lovers of friends and parents of friends, I worry about the loss of culture we may have triggered by choosing this course; what a Keynesian might call the “negative output gap” of creativity. We won’t ever be able to know precisely how much talent and creative joy we’ve effectively just told to fuck off, because you can’t measure pop songs or novels or new dishes like you can expenditure.

But that doesn’t mean that right now, across the country, hundreds of small stories forged from difference aren’t being foreclosed. A hundred little acts of friendship, or love; a hundred chances to look at Britishness through someone else’s eyes. The essential richness of being forced to translate ourselves, and receive others’ translations in turn, is being lost from our future. And our culture will undoubtedly be a little the worse for it.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland