Finland and the Dying Left of Europe

The Finnish election results available here are the final nail in the Greek coffin and are a lesson for the so-called anti-austerity parties throughout Europe. The core of the next Government will likely come from the rural and small town Centre Party and the less pleasant Finns’ Party, formerly True Finns. The Prime Minister elect Juha Sipilä, a devout Lutheran, of the type more at home in the Gospel Halls of Ballymena, decisively defeated the outgoing Prime Minister and his National Coalition Party. Sinn Féin’s allies, the Left Alliance did badly losing two seats, leaving them with just twelve seats and as a fringe group in the new Eduskunta .

The Finnish Social Democrats also did badly losing eight of their forty-two seats and ending up in fourth place from second last time round. They are just one more social democratic party, which has been bypassed by historical developments.   Even the once all powerful Swedish Social Democrats are just clinging to power,  a shadow of their former selves.

However the recent Scandinavian results reflect a long decline in the left throughout Europe. The Table below shows the decline over the past thirty (approximately) in the four continental Scandinavian states. In some cases there has been very slight gains by fringe parties but the net losses are in all cases substantial.

*SKDL & DV in 1987
SF & RG*15.914.2increase
* Not purely left

The current Greek Government have declaimed their right to be heard based on their mandate. However in reality, the European mandate is with the Right and has been for many years.  The Greek position can be compared with the Spartans led by Leonidas at the Battle of Thermopylae or alternatively a recalcitrant group, rejecting the views of the majority. However even in Greece,there has been a decline in the Left vote, even if the deckchairs on the Greek Titanic have been shifted.


This is a year of elections in Europe. Apart from the UK & Finland, Estonia has already voted,  there are elections in Poland, where the various right-wing and centre-right parties will achieve at least 85% of the popular vote, Denmark, where the Danish Social Democrats are doing a passable imitation of UKIP, which is unlikely to be enough to keep them in power & of course Spain & Portugal.

The question is why have European electorates generally turned to the Right for answers? Even in the UK, the combined Conservative, UKIP, Liberal Democrat vote is consistently in 54-57% range, though the UK may yet get a centre-left Government, even without the Protestant (NI) Nationalism of the DUP & UUP.  So why has the Left declined so dramatically, throughout Europe?

The Marxist geographer and anthropologist David Harvey provides a reasonable explanation for the demise in Social Democracy, explaining that the conditions which created such parties no longer exist and that they have failed to reinvent themselves. So-called left and centre-left groups now seem to spend their time campaigning not on economic issues, rather on individualist “rights” based issues, where they are indistinguishable from economically right-wing Liberals. When they raise economic issues, it is not from the perspective of production or participation in the economy or society, rather emphasising an entitlement to consume. One no longer hears about collective ownership, and even the backbone of the Irish Living Wage campaign are sections of the Catholic Church. The Left seem unable to discuss the development of the economy in terms of production or work.

A former leader of the Norwegian Socialist Left Party, Erik Solheim, pointed ironically to the difficulty of arguing for socialism in one of the richest countries in the world. This is at least part of the problem, many ordinary workers are well off and have little desire to share it. The strength of opposition to providing any support to the Italian “Mare Nostrum” operation, particularly from the UK  reflected accurately public ambivalence to the drowning.

Both the SDLP and Sinn Féin claim allegiance to the broader Social Democratic or Socialist family. But looking at their manifestos, the SDLP emphasises “creating the conditions” for others to create employment. It does not see a direct State role in investing and creating business activity. The Sinn Féin manifesto is a long whine at the “Tories” for not giving Northern Ireland more money, which is ironic considering their intention not to participate, if elected, in the UK Parliament. There is a complete disconnect within the Sinn Féin document between production,i.e. creating the resources to be consumed and consumption.  Consumption is separate and a right, blaming someone else if the resources are not provided.

It is all very dispiriting, but not surprising.


  • Cue Bono

    “So why has the Left declined so dramatically, throughout Europe?”

    Simply because the economic policies of the left do not work and end up hurting the people they are supposed to help.

  • Gerry Lynch

    The left supported the liberal revolution of the 1960s which saw the subtle unvoiced contracts that undergird society shift in the West from being based on mutual obligation to being based on individual rights.

    At the same time, we became more geographically mobile, and the goods and services we consumed became delivered in less and less personalised ways. Television advertising aimed to make us materially dissatisfied, despite being the wealthiest civilisation in history.

    Then in the 1980s, the expansion of consumer credit made us think we were wealthier than we are and masked the growing crisis in Western capitalism, with real wages stagnating or going into reverse for the majority.

    I’d throw in the decline in Christianity. It’s far from certain that social democracy can flourish in a society where the basic norms aren’t Christian. Nordic Socialism was powered by a rather stiff Lutheranism, British Labour famously owed more to Methodism than Marx. Catholics of Irish origin powered Labor in the Antipodes, etc., etc.

    And on the right, the idea that there was no such thing as society also gained traction. Centrist Christian Democrats steeped in Catholic social teaching in Germany and Holland to libertarian free-marketeers, as were the churchy grandee ‘wets’ of the English shires.

    That the most significant part of the Living Wage campaign in the Republic is Christian is not surprising; similarly, the foodbank movement in Britain.

  • Old Mortality

    I’m ashamed to admit being completely unaware that there had been an election in Finland: such is the insularity of our broadcast media in the UK which largely ignores purely European affairs apart from the sporadic highlights of the Greek crisis. I don’t think RTE is much better in this respect.

    It is also useful to remind our equally insular left that Scandinavia is no longer a social democratic nirvana to which they cling tenaciously as proof that ‘progressive’ (© N.Sturgeon et al.) alternatives exist.

  • james


  • james

    Few things more sinister than the Nationalist/Socialist groups like SF imho. You always know somebody will end up suffering when a critical mass of rogues like that forms up.

  • 23×7

    Ha Ha. Except his argument that the left is in decline is totally and utterly nonsense.

    Greece, Scotland, Spain, Ireland etc. The left is very much alive.

    The financial crisis of 2008 proved again that capitalism and neoliberalism actually need socialism to bail them out.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Couldn’t agree more, 23×7! In addition, a recent spate of laws, based on the precedent created at Cyprus a while back, now allows the Banks across Europe to cream of a percentage of any deposit their customers may have that exceeds a particular amount, transferring the lifted sum into bonds. Detailed information is extremely difficult to find on the web, but I found an article on Canada’s ground breaking proposals in their 2013 Budget:

    ‘A senior lawmaker told Reuters the Cyprus model may not be an isolated case, and is perhaps a future template in dealing with troubled European banks.

    The new template is now likely to turn into a full-scale EU law, letting taxpayers off the hook in case a bail-out is needed, but imposing major losses on bigger savers on a permanent basis.

    “You need to be able to do the bail-in as well with deposits,” said Gunnar Hokmark, member of European Parliament, who is leading negotiations with EU countries to finalize a law for winding up problem banks, Reuters reported.

    “Deposits below 100,000 euros are protected … deposits above 100,000 euros are not protected and shall be treated as part of the capital that can be bailed in,” Hokmark told Reuters, adding that he was confident a majority of his peers in the parliament backed the idea.

    The European Commission has written the draft of the law, which now awaits approval from eurozone member states and the parliament on whether and when it can be implemented. It’s been reported, the law is planned to take effect in the beginning of 2015.’

    This has now taken effect across Europe.

  • Practically_Family

    I’d wait and see what happens in Spain.

  • Cue Bono

    Thankfully the socialist experiment in Greece is taking place in good enough time to serve as a giant warning to the people of Ireland as to what they can expect if they are foolish enough to vote Shin.

    The 2008 financial crisis in Britain took place under the watch of a socialist Chancellor.

  • Robin Keogh

    I am always a bit suspicious when someone declares that another group or ideology is dying, rarely it is something that can be proved beyond reasoanble doubt. For sure populations can decline leading to the death of societies, great disasters can wipe out groups of people who share a common culture but the notion that an entire political belief system is dying; suggests to me that the author might be attempting to cover up his own uncertainty about his position rather than encorage a revealing debate.

    Scandinavian politics have for decades been marked by policies that encourage high taxation and high spending. Effectively the decline that the author suggests on the left has far more to do with convergence in party policy rather than an actual decline in popularity. Norway, Sweden and Denmark are particular examples of countries that contain both socialist and capitalist leanings within their party structures; laissez faire economic approach alongside a commitment to social democracy. While the 1950s and 1960s saw a huge shift in their political culture in terms of the adoption of socially left wing policies, parties of the right were not long on apeing many of the policies that drove the success of their opponents. As such we now have a convergence and in the context of closer global economic dependency, scandinavian parties are well positioned to teach us a thing or two about towing the line internationally while behaving fairly and responsibly at home.

    To some extent the same is true in the rest of northern Europe. New Labour personified the conservatisation of traditional old Labour politics, while the tories certainly didnt create the British welfare state as part of their Capitalist dream scenario. Here we see convergence lite if you wish whilst managing to maintain in the eyes of the public a perception of Labour for the worker and Tories for the rich. This was manageble in a two and a half party sytem but the arrival of UKIP the Greens and the strength of parties in the constituent nations mean that both the tories and labour are forced back from the centre, just a sinch.

    Both the left and right have to sleep in the beds they made for themselves but the problem now lies in the rise of the left in Southern Europe. The recent crises and the damage done to the lower socio economic section of society has badly exposed the failings within neo liberal capitalism and the need for a return to distinct economic and poliictal distinction within the party system, heretofore hidden by the convergence phenomonan; manifest in the rise of the left in Southern Europe.

    Politics has evolved in principle away from the traditional left right distinctions, the era of the Mass party is gone and parties themselves have to reinvent themselves to survive. While Peter Mair and others believe there is little hope for the system in general, the reality is that parties themselves need to exist for democracy to survive. As such, parties will twist and turn in the wind depending on the circumstances. Scandinavis is not Europe and certainly not southern Europe, the left model that is emerging from the wreckage of the financial crises is one that accepts the need for prosperity to flourish off the back of entrepeneurs and business leaders willing to invest in society (as SF and the SDLP are clearly aware). But it also recognises the hijacking nature of the modern market economy has to be tackled in the way scandinavian countries did decades ago. The social and politcal cleavages we are seeing across Europe is symptomatic of this evolution which has yet to reach its climax.

  • Turgon

    Several people have made points around this but one central problem is that the term “left” is conflating two different sets of political positions. One is a generally more socialist economic policy often with state planning and control and empowering workers etc. That analysis was common across large parts of the political spectrum after the war (remember the Tories privatised few of the nationalised industries pre 1979 despite almost two decades on and off in government).

    Since the 1980s that left wing socio-economic model has been largely abandoned by the left as well as the right. The left seems only interested in ensuring limited mitigation of capitalism. In Blair’s case that mitigation was so thin as to be non existent.

    Almost as though to cover for the lefts capitulation to neo liberal economics they have stressed the socially liberal left of centre agenda (cultural Marxism to more vehement of its detractors). This social liberalism is not by any means universally supported by those who would once have voted for left of centre parties and having abandoned left of centre economic analyses there is little left to attract much of the old core working and lower middle class left wing vote.

    Many working and lower middle class voters are left disinterested or even hostile to this social liberalism with its focus on assorted vocal usually middle class or middle class friendly minority groups. When the leftist elite (usually of the very champagne socialist variety) pontificate about left wing social causes they are losing touch with such voters who gaze incredulous at their shibboleths just as the left wing politicians of yesteryear would have.

    The Hugh Gaitskells, Jim Callaghans and Peter Shores of Labour would not have supported these causes as the main plank of their agenda, certainly not whilst ignoring traditional left of centre economic policy. The fact that Peter Shore’s widow and daughter are UKIP members speaks volumes. A major gap may yet open up in the political market for a socially right economically left wing position. Assorted Labour figures have tried this under the banner of Blue Labour but thus far the Inslingtonites have not taken it on board. It is unclear whether they accept this is an issue. If some of the Labour seats in the East of England and East Midlands like Great Grimsby fall to UKIP in two weeks time they may finally understand the problem.

  • Gerry Lynch

    “A major gap may yet open up in the political market for a socially right . economically left wing position.” If UKIP survives in the longer term, that’s where the gap in the market for it do so is. That’s the position colonised by some the most electorally successful parties from the same sort of broad position – the True Finns most obviously in the context of this article, but also the Front Nationale (I appreciate UKIP would reject the comparison), and to some extent the Danish People’s Party.

    Officially UKIP are a libertarian party and that’s certainly where Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless are coming from. Farage is loyal to his City of London roots in terms of economic interventionism. But that doesn’t reflect the views of most of the UKIP voters I’ve had worthwhile political conversations with. They’re surprisingly concerned about the gap between rich and poor, often worried about how their children or grandchildren could ever have the same quality of life they had. There’s often a degree of nostalgia for the Britain many of them came of age in between the end of the War and the great cultural revolution of the late 1960s, with much greater social cohesion and a genuine sense that people are all in this together.

    I’d also caution reading too much into the idea that working-class voters are “socially conservative”: they’re usually conservative on immigration and law and order, otherwise not so much: working-class voters rarely show much interest in the views of the traditionalist right on, let’s say, schools and education.

    These days I’d also see little evidence, polling or otherwise, that working-class voters are socially conservative on the issue of race per se, as opposed to immigration. Remember, in urban England, working class grannies and grandads are much more likely to have mixed-race grandnieces they adore than the bien pensant middle-classes.

    And looking at, say, the by-elections in Heywood & Middleton or Rotherham, UKIP seem to scooped much of the traditional skilled working-class/lower middle-class Tory vote rather than eating all that much into Labour’s core support. There were, outside mining areas and the biggest cities, always plenty of working-class Tories in Yorkshire, Lancashire and the industrial Midlands.

  • Gerry Lynch

    Are we even asking the right question here? Should we perhaps be asking, why have both the right and the left rejected overarching notions of “the good society” in favour of individualism?

  • Steve Larson

    The Finns Party are left economically, they might not fall in to the recent historical definition of the left, one descended from a Marxist platform.

    The traditional left in Europe has cast itself adrift from much of the electorate and this has been going on for 25 years.

    It is a interesting article.

  • Abucs

    I’ve just spent a week in Shanghai. The government in China are very busy rolling out IPO’s to hand over companies to the hands of Chinese resident investors (mainly). The maximum increase allowed in the first day of trading is 44% and I’m told most current companies set to be listed are priced to achieve that in one day. That’s sure to make capitalism a hit in China.

    As it’s been said before, socialism is a nice idea that just simply doesn’t work. That appears to be the reality based on widespread experience.

    A problem is that so many of our university educated citizens in the west were ‘persuaded’ differently. Hopefully the metaphoric penny is beginning to drop, hence the voting patterns and the change of political emphasis on ‘leftist’ parties.

    Now if they could just get rid of their ‘learned’ anti-western cultural bias as well?

  • NMS

    OM – Yes, this is the year of European Elections. The lack of serious coverage certainly reflects the insularity of both the Irish & UK media, private & public sector.

  • NMS

    Robin, The split in the right vote between more traditional CD groups and the alternatives, say libertarian and more nationalist right has been greater around the Baltic than anywhere else. They are now the dominant force in almost all countries, with perhaps just the Norwegian Labour Party, being the last of the monolithic parties. It is running at around 45% in current polls, but there is a chance that the SL will be left with just one member.

    I agree with you that politics has moved away from traditional left/right, because in effect there is little or no left, left. Collective ownership has been dumped for a muddled idea of supervising the private sector.

    Overall the failure to offer alternative forms of investment has left Ireland massively dependent on FDI. Can I suggest the work of the Italian economist Mariana Mazzucato to you, who is speaking at the Dónal Nevin memorial lecture in a little over a week, booking details etc. follow

    However, this disconnect has led to most “left” parties unable to talk about production. This is partly because so few of their representatives know anything about it.

    Southern Europe??? Left??? Where is the successor to the PCI – Casa per casa, Strada per strada as Enrico Berlinguer would have said. The Left vote in Greece is in decline, despite the last election. There is little or no left in Italy (and a huge right), Spain PSOE & Communists are shadows of their former selves, Podemos have failed to date in the local elections and face some make or break choices next month in Navarre. If they do even reasonably well, do they support the Basque parties or as good Spaniards do they vote with the Spanish parties?

  • NMS

    CB, Greece is not a socialist experiment. Rather it is a reaction to a long period of croneyism. Varoufakis’ core idea for the present is to put money back in to the pockets of the locals and that their increased spending power will stimulate economic activity.

    I haven’t heard him calling for the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy.

  • NMS

    CS, they are not left, rather corporatist. They are in many ways a Scandinavian UKIP. They for example in favour of a Wealth Tax, climate sceptics, but in favour of cutting taxes for the SME sector. They are also in favour of cutting tax on alcohol!

  • NMS

    Gerry, You are correct with the new emphasis on “individualism” or more correctly “individual rights”. However, I would suggest there is a paralysis of thought on the issue of production. Look at the NI politicians. Robinson is a SPAD turned politician, McGuinness is a gunman turned politician. There is a massive lack of people with experience of production or business, from any basis, employer or labour.