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.