The Finnish National Coalition Party has been around as a political entity since the end of the First World War. But it’s difficult not to think that it has only truly come of age in the last six months. For the first time that anyone can remember in modern times, a party defined as liberal conservative – but conservative nonetheless – has both the premiership, through the relatively young Jyrki Katainen, and the presidency-elect, through a record-breaking victory for Sauli Niinistö, to its name.
Both in Finland and in neighbouring Sweden, these are heady times for the centre-right. Swedish conservative Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt has just seen off a third Social Democrat leader in the space of just over six years, the hapless Håkan Julholt. That’s the kind of opponent-felling in which Tony Blair specialised in the UK only a few years ago – but from the centre-left instead.
In Sweden and Finland, however, it’s now the traditional centre-left which finds itself in a historical quagmire. After all, Reinfeldt has now carried out feats unheard of since…well, since the birth of the modern Swedish social democratic state itself. The Finnish Social Democrats went into the recent presidential election knowing that departing incumbent Tarja Halonen was one of an unbroken chain of centre-left presidents going back thirty years – but the Social Democrats, fielding a prominent candidate in former PM Paavo Lipponen, managed – wait for it – 6.7pc of all the votes in the first round. Baldly speaking, that’s a shocker. And it’s the left that has been left shell-shocked.
These trends, and the rise of the nationalist right in both countries, point to problems in microcosm for the global centre-left as it fights for credibility. It’s surely suffering a double squeeze both from its moderate conservative opponents and from more populist and hard-core right-wing movements – with traditional left-leaning voters from blue-collar, lower-middle class and middle class backgrounds alike left disillusioned. What’s the enemy doing right? How does the left improve?
Although Reinfeldt has ruffled some feathers by calling for a rise in the retirement age to 75, I am sure he was talking about the same theme (ie retirement and pensions) when I heard him showcasing his best presentational strengths on an edition of Swedish afternoon news radio programme P1 a couple of years ago. No huge fanfare, no spin, no built-up sense of anticipation that the number one elected guy in the country was going to be on the programme – he was basically on and being interviewed within seconds of the programme intro, and sounding more like a neighbour having a chat over the hedge than an aloof, out-of-touch diktat.
You could probably say the same of Niinistö and his fondness for roller-skating, not to mention the National Coalition Party’s skilful melding of centrist agenda and inclusive rhetoric – try and imagine UK Prime Minister David Cameron, a supposed paragon of the ‘new right’, hailing the virtues of a modern European welfare state. The centre-right in both Finland and Sweden has cracked an age-old problem that beset it for decades: it has learned to chill out – or at least sound chilled out. And it’s stolen the left’s clothes in the process.
It speaks volumes that Niinistö, although winning easily, had to deal with an unexpected challenger in the second round – not the Social Democrats of course, but the openly gay Green candidate Pekka Haavisto. Had the frontrunner been put out of sync by this surprise turn of events, who knows what might have happened? Maybe Finland would have cast one of the great post-WWII Western European electoral surprises – and delivered a landmark progressive victory alongside a huge slap in the face for the European right at a time when it has been in the ascendancy.
Elsewhere in the Nordics, Helle Thorning-Schmidt has showed the left the way back into power – and given Denmark its first female PM in the process. In Iceland, Social Democrat Johanna Sigurðadóttir has been acclaimed as the world’s first openly lesbian prime minister – having got the top job in the wake of the economic trauma suffered by the country in 2008. Their appointments come after years of a backlash to the cultural revolution of the 1960s and well-mined seam of scattergun liberal-baiting, a variation of which here might be familiar to British readers: ‘Oh typical left, muesli-knitting, gay-loving, one-legged Irish black lesbian proponents who can’t run the economy for toffee, bent on positive discrimination and too un-PC to tell the truth etc. etc. etc.’
Yet if Sigurðadóttir does lose her job, it’s not going to be because she doesn’t tackle the hugely contentious issue of international reimbursement payments and banking profligacy with both a combative streak and a down-to-earth determination to master economic and legal detail. With her government the progenitor of a landmark ban on strip clubs, Sigurðadóttir seems emblematic of the left backlash against the right backlash – definitely not PC if PC means pussyfooting around on sensitive social issues and avoiding some home truths that the left perhaps missed across Europe in the 1990s and 2000s.
As George Monbiot has just argued in The Guardian, the centre-left may well have found itself guilty of this new form of PC – being too scared in the face of an onslaught of right-wing punditry to stand up for the fact that it can and should embrace social, sexual and ethnic diversity. But Sigurðadóttir, if not Haavisto and Thorning-Schmidt, indicate that it’s probably time to acknowledge that this diversity serves it well and is not just nominal positive discrimination. It’s then easier to start getting one’s teeth into economic issues and using the centre-left’s social and economic successes in Northern Europe in the 20th century as a template for new progress.
It’s not going to be easy – at some point, social democrats, liberal-lefties and socialists have to face up to the uncomfortable truth that they have to offer a plausible and idealistic agenda to snuff out a haemorrhage of votes to right-wing parties of every hue. But the message couldn’t be clearer: learn to chill out yourself. And learn to fight back.