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Greg Hands MP: Vikings, Vouchers and electoral Valhalla

Bildt_2 Greg Hands MP, pictured with Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, reports from the conference of the Swedish Nye Moderaterna Party.

My colleague Gerald Howarth once said that if anyone accused him of being “moderate”, he would sue. Nevertheless the term “moderate” does not usually invite opprobrium. In Sweden, however, our sister party, the Moderate Party clearly came to believe that the term had been “contaminated” and decided to rename themselves the “New Moderate” Party. They are now in government, leading a 4-party coalition under Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, who ConservativeHome readers will recall addressed our Party Conference in 2006, shortly after he assumed office.

The Moderate Party have some exciting policies. From a British perspective, they are very free market, but also rather more libertarian than our Party. Most interesting of all for us, they have carried out a number of important and successful experiments in education policy, including a successful schools voucher scheme, which I will return to.

There are many good things about their Conference. It is young, the average age being around 40 – and there are many young women MPs, some in high positions, like the Minister for Overseas Development and the Chairwoman of the Europe Committee. Whatever one thinks about the “A List”, nobody can deny that we in the Conservative Party have a problem in not having enough women under 60, let alone 40. 

The conference also has genuine debates, with fierce but polite disagreements on matters like same-sex marriage and entry into the Euro. The debate on whether to abolish Sweden’s state monopoly on gambling was fascinating – the argument against was that it was too good a source of taxation for the Government. There was even a proposal, well argued, to introduce cultural vouchers into schools – instead of the state subsidising free museums, the state would give each school or colleges a voucher, which they could choose to spend with a visit to e.g. a military museum, or to the theatre, or on a school trip away. The Conference was very much in the hands of the voluntary party – in fact, MPs and Government Ministers are “guests” like I was.


Fredrik Reinfeldt’s conference speech was given in front of a rather uninspiring backdrop “Fortsatt förnyelse”, which means “progress ongoing”. He gained hearty applause for lines about how “a job is the most important thing for people”, “lower taxes for low earners” and the “need to improve the environment,” and he seemed to be a man at ease and in control of his party. 

The serious speech capped off what had been a genuinely fun conference. The gala dinner metamorphosised into a bop, with the next day’s Aftenbladet newspaper running a story called “The New Moderates – now even newer”, with a series of photos of Mrs Reinfeldt dancing in turn with the former Party Chairman, with the Foreign Secretary and with the Finance Minister as well as her own husband, but all covered favourably. I am not sure if the Mirror here would give the same coverage to Samantha Cameron, so this is one idea that we might overlook.

Nevertheless, the one lesson I think we as Conservatives can learn from the Swedish Moderates is how they have gone about radical public service reform. I mentioned the school vouchers. I had an interesting chat with the Mayor of the town near Stockholm which first introduced them in the late 1980s, and how the move had not only given parents real choice for the first time, but also led to sharp improvements in school standards in the local state schools, as for the first time ever, they were faced with competition. The then Social Democrat Prime Minister, the late Olaf Palme, had attacked the change as leading to “Kentucky Fried Children” – when I was told of the improvement in school standards since, I couldn’t help but think that their recipe was actually as good as that from Colonel Sanders! I also spoke with the Leader of the wider Stockholm County Council, who told me of a new pilot scheme in her area for vouchers in primary care, where people would now have real choice for their local GP. 

A few years back, we as a Party set out to study the best practice from Europe and the United States. Despite the ossification at EU level, there are so many interesting market-led reforms in Continental Europe, often at a local level. The Swedish Moderates exemplify this. David Cameron spent two days last year in Stockholm with Fredrik Reinfeldt and his team. The Leader has also been out to see some of the reforms being promoted by Arnold Schwarzenegger in California. The Party is now also setting up joint working groups with the CDU to look at three pressing problems – economic reform, climate change and security. There is a lot of best practice out there, and I am delighted to see we are determined to make the best use of it.


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