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Politics

What can we learn from Finnish prime minister Sanna Marin?

Finland shows up the rest of the world on the big issues like equality and homelessness. So what can we learn? Liam Geraghty went to Helsinki to meet Prime Minister Sanna Marin in a search for answers. It didn’t include a 4am night out.

Sanna Marin is a cool customer.

It’s -7C in Helsinki and the light is dimming at Kesäranta, the idyllic waterside residence of the Finnish prime minister. However, the heat is rising for Marin – Finland has just recorded its first Omicron variant case a few hours before. But there is no sign of a crisis as she calmly sits down to talk to The Big Issue.

Marin might not fit the stereotypical image of world leaders from days gone by. But she is symbolic of a sea change in Nordic countries. If Norway’s Erna Solberg hadn’t resigned in October, we would now be looking at a full sweep of female leaders across Scandinavia.

Maybe that’s the first indication of where the UK is going wrong. Because clearly the Nordic countries are doing something right.

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Finland has been named the happiest country in the world for the last four years – or as bemused Finns put it: “The least dissatisfied” – with neighbouring Nordic countries in tow. The country comes out top in a number of other metrics, from a generous welfare state to ambitious climate targets and world-leading education to progress in tackling homelessness.

Equality, too, is one of the reasons why Marin believes Finns are showing the world the way – it’s the first thing she points to in her opening address.

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Perhaps that’s no surprise. Marin’s no product of Finland’s Eton. She had a modest upbringing in Tampere where her family faced financial difficulties and her parents split when she was young. With her father battling alcoholism, her mother raised her while in a same-sex relationship. It’s hard to imagine someone who has triumphed despite that background rising to the UK’s top political job.

“We have worked very hard to become an equal society,” says Marin.  “In the future we want to do even better when it comes to equality, and not only the equality of men and women, or the genders, but also the equality of minority groups in society.”

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These are not just warm words. In 1906, Finland was one of the first countries in the world to grant full suffrage and allow women to stand for parliament. The first female minister, Miina Sillanpää, was in office in 1926. That long history means Marin is humble when she is asked of her own role in “smashing the patriarchy”.

“I hope that I can do my share. But actually the previous generations have done a lot,” she says. “They have built a welfare society in Finland: that people like me, coming from quite a modest background, have had the opportunities in life to go to study, to go to university, to have a chance in life to make their own future.”

Shared parental leave was the hot political debate in Finland as The Big Issue visited. The Finnish government is aiming to give men more incentive to bond with their babies while also tackling the gender pay gap which hits women disproportionately.

Perhaps Marin is closer to the issue than most prime ministers raising young children while in office. She became the youngest prime minister in Finland’s history when she assumed office in December 2019 at 34 years of age. She’s also mother to one daughter – yes, we know how many children she has – three-year-old Emma.

“I think that fathers should have the same right to spend time with their children,” says Marin. “I think that’s an investment you won’t regret.  “I split the parental leave in half with my husband: I spent six months with our daughter Emma when she was born, and my husband took six months as well, when she was little. This gives a very unique bond, the parental-child relationship, that we can still see now she’s almost four years old.”

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Marin’s relative youth does mean she perhaps faces pitfalls other world leaders don’t. Just days after The Big Issue left Finland, the prime minister landed in hot water after she went clubbing until 4am despite being in contact with another minister who had contracted Covid. She admitted the lapse and later apologised on Facebook.

When it comes to the big issue of homelessness, Marin certainly leads. Finland’s reputation for ending street homelessness is virtually unparalleled around the world. Its success is largely down to a Housing First model which gives people facing homelessness a home alongside the support they need to keep it.

Now street homelessness is down to a minimum, Marin and local leaders are targeting an end to all forms of homelessness by 2027. For Helsinki, the target is 2025. By comparison, the UK government is targeting an end to rough sleeping by 2024.

“Well, I think we still have work to do,” says Marin, who added it’s the first time she has been asked by a foreign journalist about homelessness. “But we have also made progress. And I think one of the reasons is the Housing First model that we have. If you don’t have a home, if you don’t have a place to stay in, then all the other problems are much bigger for you than if you have a roof over your head.”

The success of Housing First has turned heads in the UK. Scotland – which has a similar population to Finland’s 5.5 million – has made great strides with the model while Wales is developing its own in a bid to ensure people protected during Covid don’t return to the streets. In England, three pilots have been running in Greater Manchester, Merseyside and the West Midlands since 2018. Next year funding is due to run out and going into 2022 there has yet to be an announcement on more cash.

So what can we learn from Finland’s approach? Co-operation and long-term commitment are key.

“It’s to do with the structures. It shouldn’t be an isolated project,” says Marin. “One of the criteria that we put in these agreements between the cities and the state is making sure that everybody has a home. I think with these kinds of tools you can make the cities work harder.

“The agreements cover even years after our governmental period – I think also that governments yet to be will bake this model into the agreements. It’s most important that you have the kind of structures that notice you as an individual and make sure you get the help you need, not the help that somebody else needs.”

A society that looks after everyone rather than number one (or Number 10)? No wonder Sanna Marin can keep her cool.

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