June 1998                                                                                     

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Blairism divides Finnish social democrats

Blairism has become the subject of differing opinions among leading Finnish social democrats. As the British prime minister Tony Blair was making a flying visit to Helsinki, his Finnish counterpart Paavo Lipponen questioned Britain's assumed role as the leader of a new ideological movement.

In an interview with Martin Walker, the European editor of  the Guardian (8 June 1998), Lipponen said: "We don't have much to learn from Labour. Nordic social democracy has been pragmatic for a long time, and has learned to work with market economics. What is essential to learn from our model is consensus between government and its social partners in the economy, the employers and the unions."

Only a few days earlier, another leading social democrat, Liisa Jaakonsaari, who is the minister of labour in the government, had written that Finland should be open to influences from Tony Blair’s policies. Writing in the national daily Helsingin Sanomat (5 June 1998), Jaakonsaari took issue with the views of her fellow social democrat, Erkki Tuomioja, criticising him – without mentioning his name – for creating an unnecessary opposition between New Labour and Nordic social democracy.

In the same paper (30 May 1998) Tuomioja dismissed any automatic need to adopt Blairite policies in Finland even if they turned out to be successful in Britain. Tuomioja’s article was based on his contribution to the seminar on Blairism held at the Finnish Institute (See Blairism may not work elsewhere in Europe).

Unlike Tuomioja, Jaakonsaari sees Blairism as part of European social democracy. She thinks that Blair’s policies are actually close to the Nordic and Finnish social democratic tradition.

In its attempts to reform the British social benefit system, the Labour Party is putting the emphasis on welfare services instead of income redistribution, Jaakonsaari writes. She says that the reform programme aims to secure and increase resources for health care, education and employment policies.

"Services are seen as the kind of investments in human capital which prevent poverty and exclusion. In the European discussion on social policies, a welfare state emphasising services is seen as a Nordic idea, in opposition to the continental European systems of income redistribution."

Jaakonsaari thinks that with its new employment policies Britain is moving closer to the Finnish and Nordic social democratic model. Looking at Finnish society with "Blairite eyes" it has become clear to her that income redistribution is not the same thing as the prevention of exclusion and poverty. She observes that the darkest year of unemployment in Finland was 1994 which also was the year of the most equal income distribution.

The Minister of Labour reminds her readers that Paavo Lipponen’s government emphasises the priority of work in its welfare policies.

"In clarifying and deepening this concept we can learn from Britain."

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