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.

A protest in 2016. Getty
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Fewer teachers, more pupils and no more money. Schools are struggling

With grammars and universal school meals, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking.

If you ask people in Britain what the ­biggest political issues are, schools don’t make the top five. Yet last week Labour set its first party political broadcast in a fictional classroom where a teacher described Jeremy Corbyn’s plans for schools’ future. Without a Labour government, the teacher opines, there will be no more libraries, or teachers, or school trips. Though the scenario is a flagrant breach of the law – teachers must remain politically impartial – education isn’t a bad place for Labour to start its campaign. Schools really are quite screwed.

Three things are hitting hard. Schools have less money, fewer people want to be teachers, and an avalanche of under-sevens is hitting the playgrounds and won’t stop for several more years.

How did we get here? In 2015 the Conservatives pledged to keep school funding at the same rate per pupil over the lifetime of the parliament. Yet while the money coming in has remained flat, schools have faced huge hikes in costs, particularly staffing. Big increases in mandatory pension contributions and National Insurance have taken their toll; so has the apprenticeship levy. The
Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that all told, schools will have lost about 8 per cent of their budget by 2020. That’s £3bn of savings that must be found. Or, more bluntly, the starting salaries of 100,000 teachers.

It is worth remembering at this point how huge the schools sector is and how many people are affected. About half a million teachers work in the 20,000-plus state schools. A further 300,000 people work in allied professions. There are eight million children and an estimated 12 million parents. Lump in their grandparents, and it’s fair to say that about 20 million voters are affected by schools in one way or another.

The budget squeeze is leading many of these schools to drastic measures: firing teachers, increasing class sizes, cutting music from the curriculum, charging parents for their child’s place on a sports team, dropping transport provision, and so on. Begging letters to parents for donations have become commonplace; some have asked for contributions of up to £60 a month.

On top of money worries, teachers are abandoning the profession. In 2015, an additional 18,000 went to work in international schools – more than were trained at universities over the same year. They joined the 80,000 teachers already working in British schools abroad, attracted by higher pay and better working conditions.

Graduates are also snubbing teaching. With starting salaries increasing at less than 1 per cent a year since 2010, new teachers are now paid about 20 per cent less than the average graduate trainee. Changes to higher education are also such that trainees must now pay £9,000 in order to gain their teaching qualification through a university. The government has missed its target for teacher trainees for five years now, and there is no coherent plan for hitting it.

No money and no teachers is less of a problem if you are in a demographic dip. We had a bizarrely low birth rate at the turn of the century, so we currently have a historically small proportion of teens. Unfortunately, the generation just behind them, of seven-year-olds and under, is enormous. Why? Because the “baby echoers”, born in the 1970s to the baby boomers, had children a bit later than their parents. Add to that the children recently born to immigrants who arrived in their twenties when the European Union expanded in the early 2000s, and Britain is facing an El Niño of toddlers. By 2025 a million extra children will be in the school system than in 2010.

To keep on top of the boom the government has been creating schools like a Tasmanian devil playing Minecraft. But 175,000 more places will be needed in the next three years. That’s the equivalent of one new secondary school per week from now until 2020.

In fairness, the government and councils have put aside money for additional buildings, and roughly the same number of parents are getting their first-choice school as before. The free schools policy, which delivers new schools, has not always been well managed, but it is now more efficient and targeted. However, many more children combined with squeezed budgets and fewer teachers typically leads to bigger class sizes. Most classrooms were built to house 30 pupils. Exam results may not get worse, but no parent wants their child working on a makeshift desk improvised out of a windowsill.

Instead of addressing these challenges, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking. Theresa May wants more grammar schools, ostensibly because they will give more choice to parents – though these are the only schools that pick pupils, as opposed to the other way around. And she says they will aid social mobility, though all the evidence (and I really do mean all) suggests the opposite.

Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, is offering free lunches to all seven-to-11-year-olds, which sounds worthy until you realise that children from low-income families already get free lunch, and that feeding every child a hot sit-down meal is virtually impossible, given the limited space and kitchen facilities in most schools. Plus, the evidence this £1bn policy would make any significant difference
to health or attainment is pretty sketchy. Labour has also sensibly talked about cash and promised to “fully fund” schools, but it isn’t clear what that means.

What’s missing so far from the Conservatives and Labour alike is a set of policies about teacher recruitment or place planning. The sector needs to know how schools will be built, and where the teachers will come from for the extra kids. In other words, the message to both sides is – must try harder.

Laura McInerney is the editor of Schools Week and a former teacher

Laura McInerney taught in East London for six years and is now studying on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Missouri. She also works as Policy Partner at LKMCo.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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