Interview with Otto Lehto, philosopher, member of Green Party and BIEN Finland


ottolethoCan you remember you very first encounter with Basic Income?

I am not exactly sure, but it was  as a child or teenager and must have had to do with the political discussion in Finland, which has been going for a long time, mostly led by the Green Party. I remember watching a prominent politician on TV, Osmo Soininvaara, an Economist and member of parliament, who has been driving the discussion.
My first thoughts back then… well my memory is a bit hazy, because it was so long ago, but it always seemed reasonable – I never remember a moment I was against basic income.

In Europe and elsewhere basic income supporters are all of a dither about the announcements from Finland – and the responses are split between hope and scepticism. How enthusiastic should we be?

I certainly noticed that people have been taking notice and that the opinions are very polarised. Some say „Finland is gonna have basic income tomorrow“, which is not true – and some say „the current government is a horrible right-wing coalition that can’t do anything right“ – and obviously the truth is somewhere in the middle.
The Leadership of basic income development in Finland has certainly been given into unexpected hands – for decades it had been an idea of parties from „the other side“ and a lot of basic income supporters, especially from that political direction are shocked.
The Center Party, with the prime minister, have committed themselves and the other two parties in the government coalition to basic income in the government’s programme, however, their programme has a long list of goals, of which basic income is just one, mentioned in one sentence. The document is contradictory, as other plans for social welfare seem to go into the opposite direction, with more conditions and more forced work.
A lot of powerful MPs, mostly from „the old guard“ are sceptical if not in opposition to the idea – however, there seems to be a slow change of mind, thanks to rapid developments in the public arena – and not least because it IS on the programme. Even the most fervent opposers say they need to start be open minded about it. Opposition to basic income in Finland is becoming less relevant, as it is shrinking and becoming less popular.

We from BIEN Finland have had brief meetings with the government coalition before and after the election – there was no evidence of a clear model of how to bring basic income about back then and it is hard to say for me, how high on the list of priorities it is. With what we have since learned from new documentation, it points at least to something happening within the next 2-3 years: Apparently a six-figure sum was allocated to a study to conclude by the end of 2016, apparently set to find a way to run a pilot project supposing to start in 2017.

In any case, to have basic income as a – however small – item on a government’s list of goals is a huge step for Finland, for Europe and for the whole basic income community, and it is a result of how fast things have moved in the last couple of years.

Who, if not BIEN, are the government coalition using as experts to inform their planning for pilot projects and how do seat majorities in parliament influence the debate?

The official research project of the Center Party, E2 , is in favour of basic income and will be consulted as well as the Tänk/Sitra study, which is a highly regarded neutral source. The paper published in a cooperation between Tänk and Sitra last winter advocates a basic income pilot in form of randomised trials. BIEN Finland supports them to organise the programme.
We from BIEN have met with 2 special assistants to ministers for half an hour. It was a good discussion. They are quite open minded about our input and our opinion, as they don’t have a clear plan themselves yet. They said they would keep in touch.
No time schedule has been fixed, so BIEN is waiting to be contacted.

We also made it clear, that they should talk with the opposition, Green Party and Left Alliance, who have both been the historic supporters of basic income in Finland, as they, unlike the government alliance, have detailed models.
The majorities and seat allocation means that the government doesn’t need the opposition or even a Parliamentory decision to go forward (or not, as it may be) with their plan for basic income.
It is also interesting that the Social Democratic Party, who have been the major block to basic income and are most actively opposed to it, are also part of the opposition.
The government coalition parties have always been neutral on the subject, that’s why it is so surprising to find basic income part of their programme.

How do you see the consciousness in the Finnish population about different models of basic income, especially the the idea of unconditionality?

More than half of the population is in favour of it, as a recent study shows, even a majority of the combined government coalition electorate is in favour of it, with only the National Coalition Party supporters being mainly against it.
It is on the agenda and in the media, even if it’s not a top priority for most people, who are currently more worried about things like GDP growth or unemployment.
While the vast majority might not be well versed in the details, I do have to say that the discussion in the public arena, the media, like TV or internet, and even in Parliament has been so active for years that most people know what basic income essentially means.

Definitely supporters of the Green and Left Party would make it an issue, if the government „reinvented basic income“, if they called something „basic income“ research, which really was a forced job programme. I believe they would be punished for it at the next election. If they don’t do it right, I think the opposittion parties would gather more support. Votes for Greens are constantly rising, they are due to overtake the Social Democrats. Even if we find that basic income has been completely neglected, it will be an election issue in four years.

What are your main concerns about the government plans?

There are quite a few:

  • There is the „True Fins party“ or however they want to be called, a populist party who do not have an opinion about basic income yet. They might oppose or favour it, it is yet unclear.
  • Basic Income might simply get neglected for the coming 4 years, whereas this concern has lessened considerably since learning about the planned study to come up with a plan for pilot projects to start in 2017.
  • Or pilots might be planned that are called „unconditional basic income“ research, but truly are forced programmes with lots of conditions attached.
  • The government coalition DO have an idea of welfare as something that needs fixing, however, basic income is only one way forward and not the most prominent in their programme. If they focus on other types of reforms, strenthening more work requirements and conditions, this will lead away from the idea of basic income.


How will BIEN inform the process (or the population)? Are there any links to similar plans in other countries?

BIEN Finland has already offered to the government the support of its network of researchers in Finland and abroad and its contacts to researchers and organisations in other countries. There is both historical and contemporary research that would be useful to inform successful pilot studies.
There has been some talk about links with research in other countries, especially with the pilot programmes that are going ahead in the Netherlands. The University of Utrecht for example would be a great partner.
BIEN Finland is happy to offer its contacts, knowledge and experience.

What have you got planned in terms of activities for the  International Week?

Our planned live event has to be postponed due to difficulties with the availability of speakers, so we will be celebrating International Basic Income Week by reporting about it on our website and blogs.

What is your vision for UBI, for Finland and worldwide?

I believe there is great potential to reform social welfare systems in Europe along the lines of the basic income idea. There are great developments already in countries like the  Netherlands, and once it starts to become a reality in some place in the world, it stops being a utopia, and starts to feel real and people start believing it to be possible.

I believe in can also easily spread to the United Kingdom, to Australia, Canada and the States and I wouldn’t be surprised if it also spread to other countries.

In the developing countries the system of cash transfers has positive impact on really poor people. This has a lot of potentioal to change the way global aid is operated. Cash transfers will also be a hot topic in the coming years.

by Manja Taylor, 10.09.2015

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