Newspaper headlines the day after Finland’s parliamentary elections. Photo: Jonathan Nackstranda/AFP/Getty
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The rise and fall of the far right in Finland

The Nordic moral.

“Revolution!” So blazed the headlines in Finland following the 2011 general election. “This is a big, big bang in Finnish politics,” said Jan Sundberg, a political science professor from Helsinki University. The BBC’s Europe editor Gavin Hewitt claimed “a tremor hit the EU”.

When the eurosceptic, nationalistic right-wing party True Finns emerged from near-obscurity to become the third-largest party in Finland in 2011, it seemed that the country had been radically altered. Founded in the mid-Nineties, and competing with parties well-established in Finland for over a hundred years, True Finns shattered expectations when they won 39 of the Finnish Parliament’s 200 seats, compared to just five in 2007. Though they had no majority to speak of, Helsingen Sanomat, the largest newspaper in Finland, described the party's leader and founder, Timo Soini, as “one historic victor above all others”.

Timo Soini was certainly unlike anything previously seen in Finnish politics. If the True Finns can be described as Finland’s Ukip, Soini could certainly give Farage a run for his money. At 6’2” and 18 stone, Soini is a bear-like man often photographed with a pint in hand and a Millwall FC scarf draped around his neck: he saw them play aged 14, and insists he was drawn to their blue and white strip matching the Finnish flag, not their colourful reputation. The only institution he reveres more devoutly than his football team is the Catholic Church, a further anomaly in a primarily Lutheran country. His appeals to working people (the party name True Finns, Perussuomalaiset, translates more accurately as “ordinary” or “regular” Finns) and rogueish charisma ensured that, in a crowd of bland, traditional politicians, Soini stood out.

But four years distance makes his party’s win seem significantly less triumphant. A month after the election, the True Finns announced they would not be entering a coalition with the other two biggest parties, the National Coalition, the Social Democratic Party, due to irreconcilable differences over EU policies: the NCP had been a strong advocate of financially supporting Portugal, Greece and other indebted European countries, while the Finns consistently campaigned on their refusal to “throw away” Finnish taxpayers’ money to the EU. 

In opposition, and rebranded as simply “the Finns”, the far-right revolution began to fade. The Finns soon found they outside of a coaliton, they were powerless. Meanwhile, they suffered a long string of very public controversies. In 2013, their MP James Hirvisaari was expelled for photographing of a friend posing in a Nazi salute outside Parliament, having previously been reprimanded for a series of Islamophobic and rascist comments. Another high-ranking Finns Party MP, Jussi Halla-aho, has been investigated several times for inciting racial hatred.

Timo Soini’s blokeish charm has been unable to withstand the weight of these embarrassments. As the leader of an ineffectual and out-of-touch party, he looks increasingly like a bad joke. Briefly this month, the second most popular free app in Finland was Happy Flappy Soini. The game’s opening screen sees a red-faced, grinning Soini give you a cheery double-thumbs-up (a visual reminder of the images plastered over the newspapers after the 2011 “victory”), before he quite literally loses his head as it zooms from his shoulders into the sky – as in Flappy Bird, the player frantically taps to keep it in the air.

His appeal to the Finnish working class has been used to explain his earlier surge in popularity – but Soini also got lucky. The party that saw the most losses in 2011, losses which translated into gains for the Finns, was the Centre party, which had dramatically lost support after it was revealed their successful 2007 election campaign had received thousands of euros in questionable corporate funding. 

Erkka Railo, an associate professor at the Centre for Parliamentary Studies in Finlad and commentator on the rise and fall of the Finns party, told me that this supposed political revolution led by the Finns was “a perfect storm”: 

The Portuguese government fell three weeks before the Finnish elections, and the Euro seemed to fall apart, which made Timo Soini, who had been saying for over ten years that the Euro was doomed to fail, seem like a great prophet. Simultaneously, The Centre party had been mired in several scandals, including the receipt of unclear donations by shady businessmen. Plus, the economic crisis hit old industrial areas particularly badly, which prompted the working class to leave the Social Democrats and move to support the Finns party in protest.

Circumstances have changed since 2011. In opposition, the Finns have been overshadowed by the return of the Centre party, who have seen their popularity nearly double from 15 per cent, following the funding scandal, to 26 per cent. As a result, the Finns have seen their supporters fall away, now hovering at around 14 per cent. As Railo tells me, protest votes for the Finns had run their course: “Once the Centre party got its act together, their voters returned from the foray of supporting the Finns.”

Meanwhile, the conversation around Europe in Finland has changed. Now, all the major parties stand united in their harsh opposition of forgiving Greek debt. The debate surrounding the EU has sunk into the background as concerns about Finland's shrinking economy take centre stage. And when it comes to something as series as national economic strategy, the Finns are certainly not seen as the reliable option.

As the Finns’ support continues to wane, their fortunes might cast a shadow across the surge of populist reactionary far right politics across Europe. Railo condemns the party to a slow crawl out of Finnish politics. “They're bound to lose the elections. That may, in turn, result in another four years in opposition, which may be too much for many of its supporters to bear.” Protest votes are usually a register of temporary discontent, and when rebellious outsiders attempt to enter the mainstream, they too often reveal major incompetencies. For Finland, at least, the far-right dream is already becoming a distant memory.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.