The last poll published by Talouselämä shows that the Finnish Social Democrats (SDP)have very good chances to face a nightmare in the Spring election, with the worst result of their history (31 seat instead of 42 in 2011 and 63 in 1995). More than 18 000 persons have been interviewed, which gives some credibility to the result. It is a considerable failure, as were the results of the last election, and it needs certainly an analysis.
There may be specific reasons for this situation, and it is quite certain that inside the party these will dominate the debate. A first one is certainly that 4 years in a coalition government led by the conservative National Coalition Party has cost a lot in term of visibility: the SDP seems totally compatible with the liberal ideas defended by the right side, in particular with the SPD leader Antti Rinne being the Minister of Finance. With a SDP defending economic liberal ideas, and participating in a government who increases of tax burden on the population and, is clearly not able to improve the economy and the employment situation, it does not give a positive image.
Another usual approach in this case is questioning of the leadership. The visible part of the party are the main SDP ministers: Antti Rinne, its leader, is relatively young (52), but he has no previous experience in politics at the national level. The others visible faces of the party are not so young. Erkki Tuomioja, Minister of Foreign Affairs, who had been minister before, has passed the age of 68, and as indicated in his Wikipedia presentation, “He was one of Finland’s most dominant politicians in the 1990s“, which says it all. The third member of this trinity is Lauri Ihalainen, Minister of Labour, 67, who has been leading the main Finnish trade union confederation for 18 years, and had no political experience at national level before his present ministerial position. Seen from outside, the choice seems to lack some brilliancy.
It is quite difficult to imagine that this group is going to lead the coming campaign, as two of them have passed the retirement age, and as it will be easy for their opponents to object to any of their arguments concerning the need to change the economic and employment policy by asking: “then why did you stay in a government which was not able to deal with it, if you had such brilliant idea”. From my point of view, it is difficult to imagine a victory in the election with the present team.There may be candidates to replace Rinne: it could be the return of Jutta Urpilainen, predecessor of Antti Rinne as SDP’s President and minister of Finance, who has not really been failing and has shown strength in her position, or a totally new generation in the party, for example under the impulsion of the dynamic party secretary Reijo Paananen. But who would like to take the control of the party 4 months before what is announced as the worse defeat in the election? We may have to wait a little more to see a new social-democratic leadership…
However, I doubt that a change of leadership would solve any question. In all the European countries, social-democrats have difficulties to find a convincing formula. They come into power because they are traditionally the main alternative, and not because their ideas are more attractive or more able to solve the problems than their opponents’. In fact, it may sometimes even be difficult for a Finnish citizen to define the main differences between the ideas of social democrats and those of the National Coalition Party . But the same goes for example for France. This lack of differentiation makes it difficult for the voters to decide in their favor…
For certain observers, the explanation to this situation comes from the fact that the main initial objectives of social democracy have been attained. Initially, social democracy is the idea that the state needs to provide security and equality for its people and should actively reorder society in a relevant way to achieve it. The difference with socialism is that social democrats consider that such changes should be brought about gradually, legitimated by a democratically-elected majority. In order to attain these goals, social democrats regard government intervention as necessary to constrain markets and engage in redistributive efforts for the benefit of the lower classes in order to establish a more equitable society. One could argue that this ideal, which is the main element of the so-called Nordic Model, has been achieved, particularly when even the right-side parties are defending the same ideal: the most typical example has been Fredrik Reinfeldt, Swedish Prime Minister from 2006 until 2014, who was winning elections by indicating that he wanted to improve and fix the Swedish social model, and not to change it. Even the nationalist and extremist Finns’ party leader, Timo Soini, has adopted on a number of internal topics positions which are very similar to those of the Social Democrats. So, we can understand the voters: they may be under the impression that almost all the parties are acting under a social-democrat framework, so voting SDP is not so necessary.
There are other explanations. The change of society since the beginning of the 20th century, in particular during the last 20 years, is an important one. As indicated by the French social democrat Henri Weber in a recent article (“Quelle nouvelle social democratie?”), “The environment of last century’s social democracy has radically changed: capitalism has gone global; big emerging countries have emerged, smaller countries follow; the third industrial revolution – that of the Internet, renewable energy, bio and nanotechnology – is flourishing; the ecological imperative is there; wage labor is fragmented into categories with different interests and the industrial working class has ceased to be its flagship; immigration has changed in scope and nature; democracy of opinion – and digital media – have taken over representative democracy; in the domain of ideology, nationalism, religion, economic liberalism are on the rise. It’s all left political ecosystem of the left that is shaken“.
Coaching, including political coaching, is about helping people to define their objectives, and to support them on the way to achieve them by asking questions. So, as a political coach, the main question I would ask the Finnish Social Democrats would be the following: under these new conditions, is there a place for a party fighting for social democracy? In this case, what do you want to fight for? And hws could it be done?
There are on the website of the SDP an indication of what they want to achieve in the form of “values”:
A fair society – A society without fairness, is a society without meaning. Success, opportunity and freedom must be open to all people, and society should reward hard work and fair-play – not greed, status or chance. The measure of people should be their respect for others, not their wealth and background or characteristics such as race, sexuality or gender.
A supportive state – States should not decide how people live their lives, but they can give people the power to choose for themselves. The state should not be an authority above citizens, but a solid base below them – on which they can build their lives with the services and security they need to pursue their dreams.
A sustainable future – We cannot ignore the great problems of tomorrow, for the small benefits of today. Environmental damage, reckless economic activity and a weakening of social care all pose threats to the future of our country and our world. An active state and international cooperation must be the tools with which we build a sustainable future.
These are nice declarations. If they were presented to any Finnish citizen, I doubt that he or she would be able to know that they come from the social democrats. For example, the first one, refers to success, opportunity and freedom, which are more liberal ideas. The last one is totally included (almost cut and paste) from the Green Party objectives. The second one which may refer to the social democrat ideal seems to promote a relatively modest State, again a liberal idea.
But could the SDP continue and keep its social-democratic soul? It depends if it could be considered that the social democratic ideal has been achieved. From my point of view, we are quite far away from it. For example, as indicated by the OECD in December 2004, “The gap between rich and poor is at its highest level in most OECD countries in 30 years. Today, the richest 10% of the population in the OECD area earn 9.5 times more than the poorest 10%. By contrast, in the 1980s the ratio stood at 7:1.” And the OECD shows that inequalities has an serious negative impact on Finnish growth. So it seems quite strange that the SDP is not using this classical social democratic theme to impose the debate. Unemployment is also a domain where the SDP is not really heard, when it is one of the main worry of the population and could be determinant for a social democratic party: no major new idea has emerged or is debated in the SDP, and in fact the party seems to have let go of the Keynesian approach and accepted the liberal dogma which is more and more criticized among economists. On the topic of immigration, there is a programme, but its main ideas are quite trivial (keep the work immigration when it is necessary, accept refugees in line with the practice of other Nordic countries, develop integration…) and difficult to use as arguments when facing the strong and clear positions of the Finns Party.
It will be interesting to see if the SDP changes, and if it will be sooner or later. Will it be a simple change of leadership? Or is there going to be some serious evolution in the positions of the party, potentially provoking a global shift in the Finnish policy, which may be really needed?