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Alcohol policy and political ideologies

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The evolving nature of party ideologies and alcohol policy advocacy

By Lauri Beekmann
Executive director, NordAN

October 26, 2023

The previous article set the stage by discussing the complicated relationship between party ideologies and alcohol policies. As we continue with this topic, we are met with an evolving paradox – parties, in their quest for votes, occasionally sidestep their traditional ideological foundations. Some even argue, that in today's political climate, some political parties appear devoid of any firm ideology, seemingly driven only by the pursuit of power and votes. Even when a political party takes an opportunistic approach, the policies they champion still stem from an ideological viewpoint to some degree. How, then, as advocates of evidence-based alcohol policies, do we navigate this nuanced political terrain?

The current landscape of political parties and their ideologies

In contemporary politics, parties have grown more dynamic and, at times, unpredictable. Observing the current political scene, it's common to find parties adapting or turning from their traditional roots. While some view this as pragmatism, others label it opportunism. Whatever the lens, it's an undeniable reality of modern-day politics.

 

But in this changing landscape, another trend can't be ignored. In various countries, even if they represent a minority voice, populist far-right parties have managed to amplify their agendas. Their vocal standpoints, combined with a media that often boosts these views for various reasons, push other parties into a reactive mode. As a result, regardless of their traditional ideologies, mainstream parties find themselves pushed to respond, often diving into issues they might have otherwise sidestepped. This phenomenon means societies frequently find themselves absorbed in conversations led by this vocal minority.

For alcohol policy advocates, understanding this landscape is critical. Recognising these dynamics allows us to craft messaging that resonates with the political parties and the broader public. It ensures that our advocacy efforts can address the realities on the ground and help us predict shifts in the conversation, and adapt our strategies accordingly. 

When differing ideologies lead to similar policies

Diving deep into policy matters, we can find interesting intersections. The easiest example is probably the matter of alcohol taxation. Parties with opposing ideologies might find common ground in raising alcohol taxes, though for very different reasons.

 

The primary drive for right-wing or economically conservative parties could be increasing state revenue or covering alcohol-related external costs. At the same time, left-wing parties might approach this from a public health perspective, intending to reduce alcohol consumption and its related harms. Both sides have different motivators, but the end policy – an increase in alcohol tax – can be the same.

 

For advocates, the initial reaction might be that the underlying reasoning doesn't matter. There's an old saying that the colour of the cat doesn't matter as long as it catches mice. If the policy outcome is what the advocate desires, should the ideological journey to that outcome concern us?

 

Well, the motivations and rationales behind policies matter because they can affect the longevity and stability of those policies, especially when social situations change. Economic ups and downs can quickly change policies that are all about money. When the economy is really good or really bad, these policies might shift. On the other hand, policies focused on keeping people healthy usually stay the same during these times. But they might run into trouble if people start changing their minds about what’s important for health. 

A fitting illustration is the 2019 alcohol tax reduction in Estonia and Latvia, known as the Baltic Tax War. Estonia was concerned about losing tax revenues to Latvia, while Latvia did not want to forfeit the additional income generated from Estonian consumers. In this scenario, political parties mainly neglected to address how these changes could affect public health. Additionally, the cross-border trade had shifted public opinion on advancing alcohol policies.

 

Understanding the current social context in which policies are formulated can give advocates a strategic advantage. Being aware of the different rationales allows advocates to foresee potential shifts in policy direction and adapt their strategies. After all, influencing policymakers is not just about achieving a desired policy but ensuring its sustainability and effectiveness in changing societal landscapes.

Navigating ideological deviations and policy influences

As we explore the landscape of political parties and their sometimes seemingly erratic behaviour, it is important to realise that the reasons behind these deviations can be complex. However, it's also crucial to understand that regardless of these deviations, the policies that emerge always have an ideological—and often very practical—background. 

 

When a political party deviates from its traditional position, it's not merely improvising or acting on a whim. There's usually a calculated rationale behind every policy, rooted in a specific ideology, even if it doesn't align with the party's broader or historical worldview. Even more, the voter base demanding these changes also operates under certain ideological principles.

 

I believe you can agree that these ideological shifts within society, particularly when they lead to the rise of far-right or far-left movements, are rarely driven by public health or alcohol policy concerns. Instead, they often respond to broader societal issues, questions, and problems that take centre stage in public discussion. For example, a societal shift towards a far-right mentality is likely influenced by factors such as immigration, national identity, or economic injustice, rather than alcohol policy.

However, alcohol policy liberalisation—or the push for stricter controls—can indeed be part of the package that comes with such ideological changes. One of the key principles often focussed in these cases is the concept of freedom. This can be expressed as freedom of choice for individuals, advocating for less state intervention in personal lives, or market freedom, promoting an economic environment where businesses, including those in the alcohol industry, operate with minimal regulations.

 

Seeing these connections between societal shifts, ideological backgrounds, and the resulting policy directions is important for us aiming to navigate these complex waters. Recognising that alcohol policy is often part of a larger ideological package allows for a more nuanced approach, enabling advocates to address the broader context and adjust their strategies accordingly.

Centering our advocacy on political dynamics

In the maze of modern politics, where ideologies are in constant instability and political partnerships can be unpredictable, alcohol policy advocates must maintain a laser-sharp focus on political parties and policymakers. They are at the heart of our advocacy efforts, and our effectiveness depends on our ability to understand and address the principles, worldviews, and ideologies that motivate them.

Navigating this landscape requires a nuanced appreciation of how societal changes can swing political parties in one direction or another. Far from being static bodies, political parties evolve and adapt in response to the changes in public opinion and societal norms. Recognising this dynamism is critical to ensuring that our advocacy remains relevant.

 

By understanding the political world, we can better shape our messages to connect with the many different beliefs in the world of policy-making. This strategic adaptability enables us to make compelling cases for evidence-based alcohol policies, regardless of the political winds.

In conclusion, as we attempt to influence alcohol policies and promote public health, our success will be determined by our ability to engage meaningfully with political parties and policymakers. By demystifying their ideologies and understanding the societal shifts that influence their standpoints, we empower ourselves to be more effective advocates, capable of navigating that complex political labyrinth and bringing about meaningful change.

Next time: Navigating complex alliances

In our next article of this series (whenever we manage to come to that) about alcohol policy advocacy and political ideologies, we will look into the challenging scenario where the most dependable supporter of evidence-based alcohol and drug policies is a political party that heavily contradicts the rest of your core principles. How do we navigate this delicate terrain? What strategies can we use to support beneficial policies while staying true to our values? Join us as we explore these questions. And once again, if you have any feedback or thoughts to share, please feel free to do so. 

Shifting ideologies

Effective alcohol policy advocacy across political ideologies

Policy vs politics

By Lauri Beekmann
Executive director, NordAN

July 31, 2023

In the complex sphere of alcohol policy advocacy, we consistently engage in a quest armed with scientifically-backed evidence and data, aiming to manifest a positive societal change. The clarity of our mission is unquestionable, as is our commitment. However, have we given due attention to the nuances of political ideologies that play a crucial role in determining policy outcomes?

 

In our earnest efforts, we often find ourselves banking on the belief that if we present convincing evidence illustrating the effectiveness of certain policy measures, their implementation will naturally follow. However, the political world isn't a simple algorithm where input directly leads to the expected output. It's a complex, multifaceted entity where different forces interact and influence outcomes. One such vital component, which is often not in the spotlight, is political ideology.

 

The impact of political ideology on policy-making

Let's take a detour and reflect upon the lengthy debate on abortion rights in the U.S. (not only) to emphasize the role of political ideology. This controversial issue isn't seen as a matter of clear scientific evidence but rather a profound split in ethical and moral values rooted in different ideological grounds. Ideology is not just a passive recipient of external evidence; it is an active lens through which the world is perceived and understood. As such, ideology can significantly shape the policy-making process, sometimes even overruling practical evidence or, at a minimum, affecting how the evidence is interpreted and used.

Interpreting alcohol policies through political ideologies

Crossing from the Nordic and Baltic regions to the broader European landscape and extending our lens to a global perspective, the influence of political ideologies on alcohol policies cannot be overstated. Broadly, left-leaning ideologies advocate a robust government role in regulating the alcohol industry. This may manifest in strong support for state-owned retail monopolies, strict taxation to curb alcohol consumption, restricting the availability of alcohol and enforcing strict advertising rules.

On the other hand, right-leaning ideologies, anchored in the principles of individual liberties and economic liberalization, might resist such governmental intervention. They may argue that educating citizens about the risks associated with alcohol or advocating for industry self-regulation is a more effective and less intrusive path. Positioned between these two ends of the spectrum, centrists often find themselves balancing the public health benefits of regulation against the rights of individuals and the broader economic implications.

Case study: health warnings on alcohol bottles

Let's delve into a specific case: the proposal for health warnings on alcohol bottles. A person with left-leaning ideologies might find an argument, centred on consumers' right to know the health risks and the government's duty to ensure this information is communicated, quite compelling.

However, this same argument may sound like an unnecessary governmental intrusion for someone on the right side of the spectrum. Instead, they might be more open to an argument framed around personal responsibility, the power of informed choice, and initiatives led by the alcohol industry itself.

Both start from the same and agreed-upon position - people have the right to know. Their worldview leads them to different solutions because their understanding of what the government should and shouldn't do comes from their ideological background.

As advocates, understanding these ideological subtleties and tailoring our strategies accordingly could help us make more significant strides in promoting evidence-based alcohol policies.

Bridging the ideological divide

As advocates, we are not in the business of reshaping political ideologies, which are there to manifest free democratic societies, but are tasked with the challenge of operating within their established frameworks to bring about desired policy changes. This means we need to learn to 'speak their language' and present our evidence in a way that makes sense to them and resonates with their core values and beliefs.

Imagine engaging in a policy dialogue with a right-leaning political party. Your goal is to persuade them to support measures for raising taxes on alcohol, reducing its availability, and restricting alcohol advertising. Here's how you might approach this:

Raising taxes: You could emphasize that increased alcohol taxes might serve not just as a public health strategy but also a fiscal one. Higher taxes could lead to significant revenue generation, which can be invested in sectors like healthcare and education. This argument, focusing on fiscal responsibility and efficiency, might resonate with their economic beliefs.

Reducing availability: While this might seem like a violation of personal liberties, frame it as a protection of societal order, another core value of right-leaning ideologies. Highlight how reduced availability could decrease alcohol-related crimes and public disturbances, thereby contributing to a safer and more orderly society.

Restricting advertising: Instead of focusing on the regulatory aspect, stress the need to protect consumers, especially vulnerable groups like youth, from misleading and aggressive marketing tactics. This can be framed as an extension of their emphasis on personal responsibility. After all, individuals can make the best decisions with clear and accurate information, not when influenced by deceptive advertising.

By strategically aligning your arguments with the core principles of their ideology, you can create a compelling case for effective, evidence-based alcohol policies, even within a right-leaning framework.

Conclusion

Our work as alcohol policy advocates requires us to navigate a diverse ideological landscape. Understanding the role of political ideologies in shaping policies can help us refine our approach and make our advocacy more effective. It's not a matter of proving one approach right and another wrong; instead, it's about understanding these differing perspectives, finding common ground, and working within these frameworks to promote evidence-based policies. By embracing this multifaceted understanding, we can continue to support our cause in a more informed and effective manner.

 

What we are currently witnessing, a change that has been taking place in the world for years already, is a political turn to the right. It is evident now even in the Nordic countries. The problem is that the policies WHO recommends and the evidence supports are clearly left-leaning policies. So, what does the turn to the right mean for alcohol policy work, and how should we, as advocates, reassess our work? This is something that I plan to address in a series of articles in the coming weeks. If you have reactions or opinions, share them and I am happy to share them with others.

What will right-wing policies bring to Nordic/Baltic countries in 2023?

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As we enter 2023, the rise of right-wing political parties in Nordic countries poses a challenge for advocacy efforts.

By Lauri Beekmann
Executive director, NordAN
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Turn to right?

In 2023 our nations will face a number of significant difficulties occupying most of our governments' time and attention. At the same time, we have seen a growing support for right-wing political parties, with several Nordic governments turning right. The key themes for all of our countries could be summed up as follows:
 

  • The economic recovery: the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected the economy, and Russia's ongoing war against the free world will continue to impact the globe.

  • Climate change: The Nordic countries have ambitious climate targets and will need to continue working to reduce their carbon emissions and transition to a more sustainable economy.

  • Ageing populations: The ageing of the population will continue to present challenges for social services and pension systems in the Nordic and Baltic countries.

  • Migrant and refugee integration: To ensure that refugees and migrants are successfully integrated into the local population, governments must develop policies promoting social inclusion and understanding between different cultures. The future challenges for the Ukrainian refugee crisis will be determined by several factors, including the situation in Ukraine and the countries hosting refugees. As such, solutions must be comprehensive, taking into account both the short and long-term needs of refugees and addressing the underlying causes of displacement.

  • Digital transformation: For our countries, particularly in the labour market and social services, the quickening pace of technological change will continue to present both opportunities and challenges. Governments must be prepared to respond to digital transformation's shifting economic, social, and cultural landscape as it accelerates.


As a result, these issues receive priority over other, less pressing issues because they require immediate attention and resources. Additionally, governments often need more time and resources and must prioritize the problems they address to make the most impact. 
 

Changing governments
In 2023, there will be two parliamentary elections in our region. In Estonia in March and in Finland in April. 

 

In Finland, there is another attempt to liberalize the alcohol retail monopoly's position by allowing wine to be sold in grocery stores. In December 2022, the National Coalition Party (Kokoomus, centre-right) proposed the release of wines for sale in grocery stores and kiosks in its alternative budget. It is important to note that the National Coalition Party, which advocates for a market-based economy and individual freedom and was the strongest supporter of the Alcohol Act change in 2018, is currently leading in the polls with 24%. During the 2015 parliamentary elections, they received 18%, while in 2019, they received 17%. Compared to this, the Centre Party (Keskusta) has fallen to a historic low, with only 9% support in a recent poll. The Centre Party has consistently won elections over the years, averaging 20-24% of the votes.

How does the turn to the right affect our region?
The rise of right-wing parties and governments in Europe has posed a number of difficulties for social policies. Right-wing parties and governments frequently prioritize economic liberalization and individual responsibility over the welfare state and social justice. This might result in policies that limit access to social services and welfare or shift the burden of social protection to individuals and commercial entities.

Remember that earlier in 2022, Sweden's right-wing formed a new government with far-right backing. The government is run by the Moderate Party (centre-right), which generally supports tax cuts, the free market, civil liberties and economic liberalism. Other coalition parties are Christian Democrats (centre-right to right-wing) and the Liberal People's Party (centre-right). The government is supported by Sweden Democrats (right-wing to far-right), which is now the second-largest party in Riksdag.

Additionally, Sweden will hold the presidency of the European Union in the first half of 2023. Will Sweden's new right-wing approach be "maximum freedom for business, minimum investment in European political integration, aggressive line on migrants and rights," as ATN, the All Things Nordic, have expressed it?

Only a couple of weeks ago, Danish Social Democrats agreed new government with the right-wing opposition. With this new government, it seems unlikely that the previous government's plan to raise the drinking age to 18 will be on the agenda again. A fresh governing partner of the Social Democrats, Venstre (Denmark's Liberal Party, centre-right), expressed its position in March last year through the words of its Health Rapporteur Martin Geertsen: "We also do not support a general raising of the age limit for purchasing alcohol from 16 to 18, since we cannot support taking away people's responsibility and personal choice." 

Alcohol and drug policies are not targeted, but...
The upcoming elections in Estonia (in March) are at least framed as a contest between two likely winners - the liberal centre-right Reform Party or the right-wing to far-right Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE). EKRE had its first and only government experience a few years ago when they were invited to the coalition by the centre-left Estonian Centre Party. That was the government that, in August of 2019, decreased alcohol taxes to react to the high cross-border trade between Estonia and Latvia. As of now, the EKRE is ahead of the Centre Party in polls, with 18% support (in October even 25%).

Turning right is obviously not primarily motivated by the desire to liberalize alcohol and drug policies. These issues are simply not important enough for the public to have that weight and attention. Migration, green deals, and security are some of the slogans that appear appealing and turn voters away from the traditional centre and centre-left solutions and policies. However, these overall changes could affect alcohol and drug policies as well.

 

It should be also noted that the centre-right and far-right populist parties in the Nordic region can differ from their counterparts in other western countries. For instance, the Sweden Democrats support the Swedish welfare state but are against providing welfare to people who are not Swedish citizens and permanent residents of Sweden. They appear to support a mixed market economy combining ideas from the centre-left and centre-right. On the one hand, they have stated that the Systembolaget is vital for public health, but on the other hand, they have also expressed support for the implementation of farm sales. As an additional note, it is worth mentioning that in October 2020, a group of Sweden Democrats submitted a proposal to the Riksdag to end Systembolaget's monopoly. 

Conclusion
It remains to be seen whether the current political trends in the Nordic region represent a long-term shift in preferences or are simply a temporary coincidence. However, the changes we have observed and, in part, mentioned above pose a challenge for us as advocates. When dealing with right-wing governments and mentalities, can we still use the same advocacy "language"? Hence, learning new "languages" might just be our main task in 2023.

Lauri Beekmann
Executive director, NordAN

beekmann@nordan.org

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