Asked by a local journalist to name his favorite Swedish Social Democrat leader, Ed Miliband, the head of the British Labour Party, didn’t hesitate. “I thought you were going to give your top 10,” an aide remarked afterward. “In reverse order,” Miliband replied, deadpan.
Miliband, 43, visited Copenhagen, Stockholm and The Hague this week, meeting the leaders of Labour’s sister parties, building alliances and seeking inspiration. He pledged to copy a Danish model of reducing corporate tax evasion and to study Sweden’s child-care system. Looking for a vision for Britain, he went to two of the world’s most highly taxed economies.
In the 22 years since Margaret Thatcher left office, both Labour and Conservative politicians have won power by following the broad path she laid. Peter Mandelson, one of the architects of Labour’s 1997 landslide election victory, said in 1998 that the party was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich, as long as they pay their taxes.” Miliband disagrees.
“I don’t think that’s a phrase I would use, no,” he said in an interview in The Hague yesterday. While saying that “we need wealth creators, we need entrepreneurs who’re doing well,” he went on to add: “We’ve learned from the financial crisis that there were people walking off with tens of millions who weren’t creating value for our economy but destroying value in our economy. People at the top have responsibilities, just like people at the bottom.”
Two days earlier, Miliband posed for photographs in the snow at the Swedish Social Democrats’ country retreat of Bommersvik.
“Right, where are the huskies?” he joked, a reference to Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision, when in opposition in 2006, to visit the Arctic Circle in order to show his concern about climate change.
Miliband’s trip offered no photos so memorable: While he stayed overnight at the retreat, southwest of Stockholm, he declined an invitation to use the sauna, or to take a morning swim in the icy lake.
In other respects, the Labour leader seemed particularly comfortable in Sweden. Having temporarily lost him in Stockholm Airport as they prepared to depart, his colleagues joked about him claiming asylum.
“These are countries that have always relied on being able to trade and be open countries,” Miliband said. “At the same time as combining that, not like the U.S., with security, social solidarity and all of that.”
He agreed he would describe himself as a Social Democrat. “I think that the traditions of countries like the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark have lots to teach us,” he said.
While the Labour Party’s new slogan of “One Nation,” unveiled at its conference in Manchester in October, is a phrase originally used by a 19th-century Conservative politician, Benjamin Disraeli, Miliband said the inspiration is also Swedish.
“What is One Nation about?” he said “There’s a Swedish idea of the People’s Home, which is all about a country coming together, and a country operating on the basis of solidarity, and people taking their fair share of responsibility. That is absolutely what One Nation is about.”
For his favorite Swedish Social Democrat, Miliband chose Olof Palme, the prime minister who was assassinated as he walked home from the cinema in Stockholm in 1986.
“He was an extraordinary leader, an incredibly successful leader of Sweden,” Miliband said. “Someone who gave a huge inspiration to so many Social Democrats not just around Europe, but around the world, with an incredible vision of a more equitable society, a more equitable form of capitalism. He is an inspiration for us in Britain.”
Sweden’s Social Democrats were in government for 61 of the 70 years until 2006. Under Palme, the top rate of tax hit 87 percent in 1975. Tax revenue peaked at 52.3 percent of gross domestic product in 1990.
In 2010, Denmark took the highest amount of tax as a proportion of GDP in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, at 47.6 percent. Sweden was just behind, at 45.5 percent. In the U.K., the figure was 34.9 percent, according to OECD data.
The Labour leader expressed his admiration for Sweden’s system of free child care, with parents getting 480 days of paid leave per child. The result, according to the Swedish government, is that 80 percent of all children have a mother who goes out to work.
“Just arriving at Swedish Parliament building, passing two Swedish fathers with pushchairs,” he posted on his Twitter account from Stockholm.
He also visited the government’s innovation agency, Vinnova, which is responsible for allocating 2 percent of all Sweden’s total research and development spending.
Miliband, who peppered his remarks this week with references to “fairer distribution” of wealth and said he saw Sweden as an example of a place with “a more equitable distribution of incomes,” said this didn’t mean he was planning tax rises for the U.K.
“I don’t think I would really use the phrase Stockholm-on- the-Thames,” he said. “There are some lessons you can learn, and some things that are different. They’ve always had a tradition of significantly higher tax and spending, which we don’t have in Britain and aren’t going to have in Britain. We’ve said that we want tax cuts for low and middle income families. That’s a sign of a fairer tax system; it’s not about higher taxes.”
It could still mean higher spending: The last stop on the tour was a visit to a Dutch research group to discuss alternatives to austerity. This is an area where Miliband said his party needs to win voter trust: “One of the biggest challenges for us as the Labour Party is to show that every pound that we’re spending is a pound spent well.”
The contrast between himself and Cameron, Miliband said, is that “he thinks that the global race is about competing on the basis of low wages and low skills. I take the view that we succeed as a country by trying to seek the high road of high skills and high wages, and that’s where I think these countries have something to teach us.”
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