Sweden isn’t all equal

Even in one of the great egalitarian nations, inequality still exists.

The glass ceiling may look as if it has been smashed in Sweden, but the real equality between men and women is little more than a crack in the pane. As women continue to be primary carers of children, a proper balance between men and women in the work and social spheres has still not been struck. 

In fairness, Sweden deserves its recently unchanged fourth position in the World Economic Forum's most gender-equal countries (the United Kingdom ranked 15th). Unsurprisingly, with equal childcare provision for men and women, and a progressive tax system that provides universal access to higher education and free care for the elderly, women in Sweden appear to have fewer hurdles in the labour market and in social life than men.

Yet annual comprehensive research conducted by the Swedish state department for equality highlights the inequality that still exists in one of the great egalitarian nations. In paid and unpaid work, women are still unequal – despite the extensive legislation and services in place. Male and female parents are given an equal amount of state-paid parental leave that they must take before their child reaches their eighth birthday. Last year, 78 per cent of all parental leave was taken by women. 

Women spend equal amounts of their time on domestic and on paid work; men spend double the amount of time on paid work. Old notions of childrearing clearly cannot be solved with this encouraging piece of legislation – the man is still the main breadwinner, even though 81 per cent of women in Sweden work. 

The gender balance in vocational and academic higher-level courses frames the one of the worst occupationally segregated labour markets in Europe. Within education, nearly all of those graduating in health care and related sciences, childcare and teaching are women. In work, over 85 per cent of those working in nursing and the personal care industries are women. But, despite this, it is men working in the sector who earn the most. Although the gender pay gap in Sweden is lower than it is here in the United Kingdom, pay disparity still exists within and between job sectors.

Last year, more than three times as many women worked less than a 35-hour week as men (34 per cent compared to 11 per cent, respectively) – one of the highest figures in Europe. Part-time work continues to attract lower pay – entrenching the unequal amount of pay and disposable income between men and women.

On average, a single woman without children in Sweden has 28,000 SEK (£2,600) less disposable income than a man each year, the research shows. Women are also much less likely to achieve the highest-paid jobs – only 45,000 women earn over 600,000 SEK (£57,000) a year, compared to 181,000 men. Women remain unable to break through the glass ceiling into high-earning roles.

Social democrats and our Conservative Party counterparts continue to refer to Swedish ideas in the quest for equality. In theory, the Swedish free-school model offers education on a first-come-first-served basis. In practice, free schools are little more than institutions for those who make it to the front of the queue the quickest.

We need more of a reason to implement ideas than "they do it in Sweden".

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The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue