Conference conversations: Li Andersson, leader of the Finnish Left Alliance

Li Andersson was elected to the Finnish parliament in the 2015 general election, and became the leader of the Left Alliance in June 2016. She caught up with Renewal for a coffee after taking part in Momentum’s The World Transformed festival, where she spoke on international lessons to be learned from the left’s experience in government 

27 September 2017

Martin O’Neill: Thanks very much for finding the time to talk to Renewal. Can I just start off by asking you about your general impressions of this Labour Party conference?

Li Andersson: Sure. One thing that I’ve noticed is that people here are thinking seriously about taking power and moving into government. There’s great positivity and optimism about becoming a governing party. That’s interesting because, in the sphere of the left that I come from, our attitude towards power is somewhat mixed: we have mixed emotions about being in government as, in the Nordic countries, parties of the Left only ever get to participate in government as part of larger coalitions. So you always have to think of strategy in terms of compromise. Clearly Labour doesn’t have to think in those kind of strategic terms, so there’s an ambition and optimism here that is really inspiring. It’s energizing.

I’ve also been impressed that at a number of panels people have been thinking seriously about the practical issues that will face a leftist party in power. So there’s a realism here as well as optimism. It’s so important not to duck the difficult questions, and not to be carried away by the hype. Although you need to have some hype. That’s important too!

Another thing that has struck me is that the tone and the rhetoric and the political analysis here is remarkably radical. It is very much the politics I associate with my own party and with other members of the Nordic Green Left; the current leadership of Labour has really left behind the more cautious mainstream of European social democracy.

MO’N: You’ve been speaking here at The World Transformed on the left in power. Can you tell us about that panel?

LA: Yes, that’s right. My panel was looking at the experience of the left in power. The other participants were Costas Lapavitsas, who was formerly a Syriza MP; Guillaume Long, who served as a minister in Rafael Correa’s government in Ecuador; and Catarina Principe of the Bloco de Esquerda in Portugal. We talked about lessons that have been learned from the experience of left parties being in power, especially lessons about priorities for the left in government. 

One of the lessons that seems most important is the necessity for left parties to deliver on their main policy goals once in government, and preferably to do so as fast as possible. Because no government can survive and be credible if it doesn’t deliver its most important goals. Syriza is an instructive example – the Syriza government did a lot of good things, but it missed out on delivering its central goals. And so there’s a sense in which it has to be viewed as a failure.

MO’N: So from the perspective of a sympathetic outside observer, what do you think should be the absolute priorities of a future Corbyn government?

LA:  My sense from being here, and from listening to people here, is that the central priorities should be the NHS, and the renationalisation of public infrastructure. The next Labour government will need detailed implementation plans, and it will need to be prepared to act quickly and decisively when it gets into power. The lesson to be learned from the experience of the left in power elsewhere is that you simply have to ensure delivery of your central policy goals. 

MO’N: It seems important to think about the practical problems for the left when it moves into government…

Yes. The second related point for governments of the left, and this is more relevant to the place of Nordic left parties that find themselves in coalitions, is that there can be no compromise on your central policy goals. Voters know that government involves compromise; but you have to ensure that those compromises are not on your core areas of commitment.

And a third issue is the way in which the international context can place particular constraints on the freedom of movement that a Left government can have. There are international structures that can’t be easily changed. This is especially the case, of course, for members of the Eurozone. The interesting thing about the British case is that these constraints are much less of an issue, especially when you think about economic and monetary policy. That’s very different for the Eurozone countries. Here your constraints have more to do with defence and foreign policy, and the UK’s international role.

MO’N: Moving on to your own country, it would be good to hear about the state of Finnish politics and the prospects for the left in Finland. It’s been a difficult period for the Finnish left, both for the Social Democrats and for Left Alliance. So can you tell us about the current developments?

LA:  Yes. It’s been a difficult time for the left in Finland. The experience of the rainbow coalition from 2011-14, which contained six coalition partners including the Left Alliance, was difficult for us. We left that government early when the government started to enact unacceptable cuts in social welfare programmes; that was one core issue that we defined early on as something on which we wouldn’t compromise.

The 2015 election was historically bad for the left in Finland: both for the Social Democrats and for the Left Alliance. Both our party and the Social Democrats are now in opposition, and the Social Democrats have been struggling. We have now a right wing coalition government in Finland, but the Social Democrats have not been doing as well in opposition as we might have expected. It shouldn’t be hard to do well in opposition, given the government we have, but the Social Democrats face the same kinds of problems as the Social Democrats in Norway. They’ve not been able to make the most of opposition.

The problem for the Social Democrats in Finland is that they’ve not been able to think about what a social democratic ideology should be that is suited to the times in which we now live. They have a huge generational problem, and they haven’t been able to attract younger voters and younger party activists. 

The Left Alliance has had a generational shift, and has attracts younger supporters in a way that the social democratic parties don’t. But we’re still suffering the consequences of some of the compromises that we made while we were in government, and which aren’t popular with our membership. But there are some positive signals. Our support is climbing, and we have more members now than at any previous time in the 21st century.

One problem for the Social Democrats in Finland is that they have a long history of cooperation with the right in coalition governments. They’re used to compromises. And there’s part of the Social Democrats who in fact would rather cooperate with parties to their right than to cooperate with the left.

MO’N: It’s interesting to hear about the generational split between the Social Democrats and the Left in Finland. A huge part of the success of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn has been its new-found ability to attract and energize younger voters and supporters. Why do you think that mainstream social democracy is facing such difficulties in so many places, and is finding it so hard to attract the support of younger people?

LA: Well, a huge part of the problem is that mainstream social democratic parties no longer look like a credible alternative to the policies being enacted by right-wing governments. If you look at social democratic parties all over Europe, they’ve been in power presiding over privatisations, during times when labour markets have been made more insecure, during times when education has been privatised and commodified. 

I don’t think you can underestimate the importance of having a leader who is a credible leader for something new. As someone said of Corbyn, he doesn’t have his fingerprints on the crime scene. And that’s the same thing that you see with Bernie Sanders. But that isn’t something that you can see with any of the other mainstream social democratic parties. They lack the capacity to transform into something new, as Labour has done. And they don’t have leaders who are credible figures for a new start.

One great success of Labour is to have formulated an agenda that appeals both to economically precarious younger workers, and to older and unionised workers. You have a good chance of doing well when you can appeal to both groups.

An interesting difference with the Nordic context is that in our countries the unions are so much part of the establishment that they are not a fighting power in the same way that they can be here. So for us in Finland the unions and the Social Democrats are firmly part of the existing establishment, and they haven’t been good at picking up issues that relate to the interests of precarious younger workers. They didn’t have enough to say to the self-employed, or those on zero-hour contracts. They were fixated on the interests of those in the more established and secure parts of the labour market. Zero hours contracts at first affected only students and migrant workers, and the unions only belatedly became interested when these employment practices started to expand and to affect the interests of their own members. But by then it was too late, as these employment practices had become entrenched in the labour market.

MO’N: You’ve been leader of the Left Alliance for just over a year now. Tell us about your plans for the direction of the party.

LA:  What’s important and what I’ve been trying to say is that the left really doesn’t have to reinvent itself at the level of values or political content. All the issues that we on the left care about: inequality, the unviability of the current financial system, labour market rights, climate change, public services. These are the important issues, and the traditional themes of the left are as acute now as they have always been.

A big problem for leftist parties, especially in the Nordic countries, is whether you can really be seen as outside the current establishment. Our party has in its history participated in some bad governments; and now we need to build momentum for change, even though our party has this difficult history and has been in the political arena for so long. In our party, we really need to different – genuinely to be a social movement – and not just to talk the rhetoric of social movements while doing politics like everyone else.

Our party faces difficulties because we need to break out of the current polarisation in Finnish politics along issues of culture and identity, represented by the tension between the True Finns, a right-wing populist party, and the Greens. At the moment so much of what counts as political debate in Finland is about these symbolic issues. The Greens benefit from this kind of polarisation along symbolic and cultural lines, because they are just the party of the educated urban elite. But our mission, as a party of the left, is to politics in a way that doesn’t play these cultural groups off against each other, but to do justice both to the interest of young, urban precarious workers and those in small towns and rural areas. We have to do politics in a way that goes beyond these two poles of a cultural war.

MO’N: That resonates with Labour’s need to be able to appeal both to younger, more-educated, urban voters, and to older voters living in small towns and deindustrialised areas.

LA:  Absolutely. The goal has to be doing politics in a way that brings these groups together. The alternative is to get stuck in what I think of as a ‘meta-political’ debate, obsessed with symbolic cultural markers, and fighting in a weird war between images, not talking about concrete economic reality.

MO’N: The next Finnish election is in 2019. Will you be going into that election looking to become a stronger left opposition to the next government, or looking to become a party of government again?

LA:  Our goal is to take part in a Red-Red-Green coalition, with the Social Democrats, the Greens and ourselves. But while the Social Democrats perform as badly as they are doing at the moment, this will be difficult to achieve…

MO’N: It’s really striking, talking to you, the huge degree to which electoral systems can shape political reality…

LA:  Yes, and the left in Norway faces the same problem. The parties to the left of the Social Democrats did well in this year’s election, but the Social Democrats did so badly that the left block as a whole failed.

MO’N: You have a train to catch, so let me just finish with two final questions. Firstly, you earlier mentioned structural constraints on left governments, and I want to go back to that. So, do you think that Finland should leave the Euro?

LA:  Our party’s position is based on reform of the Euro zone, although we are currently in the process of refining our policy. The Eurozone has to be reformed or we have to get out. But the window of possibility for reform is closing in all the time.

MO’N: Finally – and I ask this without thinking for a moment that Labour has all the answers – what do you think are the main lessons that you’ll take back to your party and to the Finnish left from your time with the Labour Party here in Brighton?

LA:  I’m going to take back a lot. I haven’t processed everything yet, but one thing I’ll take back that I’ve been impressed with here is the way in which the focus is being kept on concrete issues – on the NHS, on the rail system, on education, and so on. This focus on concrete issues is what works for the left. Something else that’s impressed me here from what I’ve seen at the events is the way in which people are talking to each other. The young kids and the older union leaders are on the same panels and are part of the same conversations. 

I hope that people within the Labour Party realise that Labour has a huge responsibility to win the next election and to become a successful leftist government, a left government that really performs. When Syriza failed to renegotiate the austerity settlement with the Troika, this had implications for the left everywhere. A failure in one country for a left government resonates everywhere, and a success will too.

MO’N: That’s fantastic. Thanks so much for finding the time to talk to Renewal

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