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2021 Will Be a Make-or-Break Year for Norway’s Left

With an election due this autumn, Norway’s once-dominant Labour Party has been out of government for almost a decade. If the Norwegian left can’t recapture the spirit that underpinned its greatest achievements, an impressive legacy of social reform will be under threat.

Norwegian Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre. (Wikimedia Commons)

Norwegians will go to the polls in autumn 2021 to elect a government for another four-year term. Since 2013, Erna Solberg and her Conservative Party (Høyre) have led the country with support from a medley of coalition partners: first, the hard-right Progress Party from 2013 onward, with the Christian Democrats and the Liberal Party (Venstre) also joining since 2018.

Solberg is now the longest-serving prime minister Høyre has produced in its history. Despite her lengthy tenure, she has remained fairly popular with Norwegians, even though her party has recently faltered in opinion polls. Solberg is certainly better-liked when compared to the Norwegian Labour Party leader, Jonas Gahr Støre.

The main challenge to Høyre’s grip on power will come from Labour (Arbeiderpartiet or Ap for short). Labour used to be the dominant force in Norwegian politics, holding office more than a dozen times between 1945 and 2013, usually in the form of a single-party government. Now, however, its only plausible route to power lies through a coalition deal.

The main partners available to Labour on the left of Norway’s political spectrum are the Socialist Left Party (SV), the Greens (MDG), and the hard-left Red Party (Rødt). The Centre Party (Senterpartiet or Sp) should be in a position to act as kingmaker, having already served in government with Ap and SV from 2005 to 2013.

Attrition

In line with the experience of other social-democratic parties in Europe, Ap has increasingly found itself supported by middle-class professionals rather than its traditional working-class electorate. In the process, it has become more and more alienated from what had been its popular base, whether in Norway’s industrial districts or in rural areas.

After a poor showing in the 2001 election, when its support fell below 30 percent for the first time since the 1920s, Labour embarked on a new political course as a party of coalition, resulting in the Ap-led red-green alliance of 2005–2013. The Labour leadership had initially wanted to work with more centrist parties, but it was the Norwegian trade union federation LO that worked hard to bring the Socialist Left into the fold, seeing SV’s participation as a guarantee that Labour would not shift too far to the right.

Since the 1990s, Ap’s political orientation has been to be more pro-market and pro-EU. Jens Stoltenberg, Ap leader from 2002 to 2014, even supported greater privatization of Norway’s public health care system, in stark contrast to LO’s position.

The party has recently been hit by a sexual harassment scandal involving its local branch leader in Trondheim, where support for Labour is especially strong. Trond Giske was previously considered a sure candidate for the national party’s number two position. The Giske affair has shone an unflattering light on the party’s internal culture in a city that had been one of its showcases under long-serving Ap mayor Rita Ottervik. As the newspaper Morgenbladet reported last year, the party’s opponents were “jealous of the cleverness and team-building abilities of the Ap politicians in the city. They appeared strong on the outside and united on the inside.”

However, such tight-knit groups clearly have their downsides. One woman interviewed by Morgenbladet had been active in the party’s youth wing, which tends to be more radical than the main party. She reported that it was especially difficult to challenge unsavory behavior from male Ap members when she saw them as ideological allies:

I had never found myself in the same situation with someone I saw as a right-winger in the party, because their opinions were not as important to me. Then I would have told my people and received help if I had not dared to say something directly myself. But who do you go to when it comes to your own?

Losing the Party

This came just when Labour should have been making hay from the track record of Høyre’s junior coalition partner. The Progress Party found itself caught up in a series of controversies between 2016 and 2020, with four successive justice ministers having to resign their post. The party eventually left the government altogether in January 2020.

Instead of capitalizing on the Solberg coalition’s shortcomings, Ap has struggled to cut through. As one Norwegian commentator wrote after the 2013 election results: “Maybe Ap lost the election because a few too many voters felt that they had lost the party.”

Ap’s current leader, Jonas Gahr Støre, in the post since 2014, has done nothing to turn things around. Gahr Støre, who comes from a very wealthy background, has consistently polled badly with voters and is a poor fit for the challenges Ap is facing. While his fellow citizens may be able to see him reading the union-backed left-wing daily Klassekampen (“The Class Struggle”) when he takes the morning metro into Oslo’s city center, this is an obvious piece of theater, obligatory for any Labour leader, and doesn’t reflect any strong ideological commitment on his part.

For the Ap and Gahr Støre alike, this year’s election will be an important watershed. Like most European center-left parties, it has lost ground to competitors in recent years: the party’s vote share in 2017, 27.4 percent, was its second-lowest since 1924 (only 2001 was worse). In Norway, the direction of that electoral shift has been notably rightward.

For Labour’s project to survive, it will need to put up a strong showing in the autumn. The omens aren’t promising, however: since the start of 2020, it has consistently polled well below its 2017 performance and is in danger of being overtaken by the Conservatives for the first time since the 1920s.

Changing the Political Weather

From outside the ranks of the Ap itself, the Norwegian left-wing thinker Mímir Kristjánsson has sought to provide some remedies for its current malaise with his book Martin Tranmæls Metode. Born in 1986, Kristjánsson is a member of the city council in Stavanger on Norway’s west coast for the Rødt party and a well-known figure in Norwegian left-wing circles. Formerly the leader of Rødt’s youth wing, he has also worked for the left-wing journal Manifest and as a journalist for Klassekampen.

Kristjánsson has combined his activism and journalism with the authorship of seven books, including a novel and a memoir of his experience growing up with a mother who was afflicted with cancer and disability, Mamma er Trygda. Published in 2019, Mamma er Trygda is Kristjánsson’s best-known work. A blend of family history and political commentary, it showed that for Kristjánsson, the politics of Norway’s social-democratic state were a tangible reality that had to be fought for.

In Tranmæls Metode, published last year, Kristjánsson takes a different approach. The book offers a potted history of the career of Martin Tranmæl, a giant of the Norwegian labor movement. Tranmæl, who served as editor of Ap’s main daily newspaper and as a member of the party’s central committee from the 1920s to the 1940s, played a fundamental role in shaping the Norwegian left during those years.

Kristjánsson’s book shows how Tranmæl, the son of a farmer who worked himself as a painter-decorator, managed to bridge the gap between Norway’s seemingly irreconcilable urban and rural communities, in the face of a rising fascist tendency represented by Vidkun Quisling’s Nasjonal Samling movement. In Kristjánsson’s account, the Ap of Tranmæl summed up this approach with the slogan “by og land / hand i hand” (“city and country hand in hand”), promising work for the entire country.

The work of Tranmæl and other figures like Einar Gerhardsen in the interwar years bore fruit after the end of the German occupation in 1945. Led by Gerhardsen, Ap won strong electoral majorities and carried out reforms such as the extension of public ownership (often filling a gap that had been neglected by private industry in what was then a poor country), greater economic planning, and a system of wage agreements worked out between business, unions, and the government.

Between 1945 and 1971, there were just six years when Ap did not lead Norway’s government. In seven consecutive elections over the space of more than two decades, it won an average of 45 percent of the vote. That kind of dominance now seems like a distant dream for Ap.

According to Kristjánsson, the difficulties facing the Norwegian left today are much the same as those it confronted in Tranmæl’s time. Right-wing populists have sought with considerable success to steal the Left’s clothing. As the journalist Magnus Marsdal noted in his 2007 book Frp-koden, a study of the Progress Party and its political approach, “as long as politics is taken up with questions that split the working and middle class along lines of division other than class,” the Left will continue to lose out to the populist right.

Kristjánsson bemoans the fact that today’s politicians, like Gahr Støre, are no longer visionaries in the mould of Tranmæl but what he derisively calls “weather reporters” who “no longer try to shape the future, merely to point whatever way the wind is blowing.” To compound the problem, the wind these days appears to be blowing in several directions at once.

A Plural Left

SV, Labour’s traditional challenger on its left flank, has now adopted as its slogan “for det mange ikke for det få,” a direct transliteration of the British Labour Party’s “for the many, not the few.” Having been founded in the 1970s, SV’s best performance to date was in the 2001 election, when it won 12.5 percent of the vote; in 2017, it won half that share. SV retains its own identity on the Norwegian left, with a strong emphasis on combining socialist and ecological policies, stressing the need for Norway to develop its own version of the Green New Deal.

Kristjánsson own party, Rødt, is a more recent presence on the political scene: it was set up in 2007 and entered parliament for the first time in 2017 with 2.4 percent of votes cast. The groups that formed Rødt have their origins in Norway’s Maoist left, but the party has clarified that it wants to achieve its goals through the electoral process rather than a physical force insurrection. If its polling figures hold up this autumn, Rødt would surpass its 2017 performance, perhaps by some margin.

Rødt’s leaders have begun to speak about “forskjells-Norge” (“divided Norway”), seeking to highlight the growing wealth gap in a country that has traditionally prided itself on combining high growth with a fairly equal distribution of income. Many of Norway’s top earners derive their income from inherited fortunes and only have to pay tax on the money they earn in any particular year rather than their total stock of wealth. The impact of COVD-19 on the Norwegian economy has exacerbated these trends, pushing the unemployment rate above 5 percent.

The UN Human Development Index regularly places Norway in its top position. However, last year’s HDI report took account for the first time of a country’s impact on “planetary pressures.” Although Norway still ranked first for “a long and healthy life, knowledge, and a decent standard of living,” when the index included its carbon footprint in the calculus, it dropped to sixteenth place, reflecting Norway’s heavy involvement in North Sea oil and gas production.

Left Populism

Kristjánsson suggests that these developments offer the basis for a left-wing populism to find space in Norwegian politics, drawing upon lessons from the interwar crisis faced by Martin Tranmæl and his party. But this would require Labour to overcome its timidity — its fear of spooking the party’s middle-class supporters and of challenging Norway’s reliance on extractive industries.

Although he doesn’t quote her work directly, there is a clear overlap between Kristjánsson’s analysis and Chantal Mouffe’s call for a left populism that will compete directly with the populist right:

Instead of excluding a priori the voters of right-wing populist parties as necessarily moved by atavistic passions, condemning them to remain prisoners of those passions forever, it is necessary to recognize the democratic nucleus at the origin of many of their demands. A left populist approach should try to provide a different vocabulary in order to orientate those demands towards more egalitarian objectives. This does not mean condoning the politics of right-wing populist parties but refusing to attribute to their voters the responsibility for the way their demands are articulated. I do not deny that there are people who feel perfectly at home with those reactionary values, but I am convinced there are others who are attracted to those parties because they feel they are the only ones that care about their problems.

This gets to the crux of what Kristjánsson considers to be the main issues facing the Norwegian left. Having had much of their clothing stolen by the Centre Party and by the Progress Party on the right, Ap are more concerned, he argues, with appearing to have values that are in line with those of their urban, professional-class voters than with offering a broad cross section of the population a program for the future:

It is no longer a question of whether or not social-democratic parties in Europe have room for many different social groups rather than just the working class, but whether or not these parties defend the interests of the working class at all.

This is partly because, in Kristjánsson’s view, “values-based” social democracy soon comes into conflict with practical reality over things like what he calls the “heated immigration debate.” He points out that it is usually easier for those with higher income and education levels to welcome immigrants in the knowledge that they are less likely than working-class Norwegians to be competing with them for jobs.

Kristjánsson refers to the “controversial turn” of the Danish Social Democrats toward understanding immigration as a class question rather than one of “values,” as he describes it, crediting this move with enabling their return to power in the 2019 election, when the extreme-right Danish People’s Party dropped from thirty-seven to sixteen seats. The author highlights this as a sign that we must stop acting as if those who vote for left parties are morally superior to those who vote for right-wing populists.

Unanswered Questions

At present, it seems unlikely that Ap will follow the line of their Danish counterparts on immigration, and Kristjánsson does not clarify whether he thinks they ought to. His handling of this point seems underdeveloped at best and has invited criticism from a number of reviewers.

Espen Søbye, writing in Morgenbladet, felt that Kristjánsson’s handling of the immigration question overshadowed the rest of the book. Søbye questioned the idea that immigration undermines the welfare state in Norway and other countries: “Does the author combat xenophobia by such reasoning?” Kristjánsson’s way of posing the question seems to forget that immigrants themselves are part of the working class in Norway — although when it comes to electoral politics, they do not have the right to vote unless they have obtained Norwegian citizenship, so in that sphere at least, they are effectively powerless.

In his own review of Martin Tranmæls Metode, Jonas Bals, an adviser to the Norwegian trade union confederation LO, disputed the view that identity-based concerns are “side issues” in the task of building a broad, class-based movement to combat the rise of the right: “Such a community will never arise if those of us who belong to the majority consistently fail to stand up for brothers and sisters who are under attack.”

Bals was writing in Agenda, a magazine published by the center-left think tank of the same name, which is partially funded by LO itself and by the billionaire Trond Mohn. Bals is known in Ap for his criticisms of the party: he argues that it has too few politicians with backgrounds in manual labor and skilled trades and wrote a book in 2017 with the title Hvem skal bygge landet? (“Who will build the country?”).

Bals has been particularly engaged in work against social dumping, a significant issue in many branches of traditional industry in Norway. Kristjánsson doesn’t clarify whether he sees the approach of the Danish Social Democrats to immigration as one that can be replicated in the Norwegian context, leaving the example hanging — and the reader guessing — instead.

Crossroads

Another reviewer faulted the book for its failure to supply a concrete policy agenda, but this was not Kristjánsson’s objective in writing it. His aim was to offer a rallying call to the Norwegian left, drawing lessons from its history for the construction of a modern mass movement. Overall, it constitutes a timely intervention in Norwegian left politics that offers Ap and the other left parties a road map for how to build a strong coalition against their conservative opponents.

As things stand, Ap still has the potential to form a ruling alliance with the Centre Party and SV, most likely with support from the Norwegian Green Party. The Greens are reluctant to sign up to a block with the left parties in advance of the election but have said they would willingly join them in forming a government afterward. Meanwhile, Rødt, led by their only MP Bjørnar Moxnes, insist that they will vote with a left-aligned government but will not join that government themselves.

However, if the various parties of the Left fall short of the numbers needed for a viable coalition, another four years of Høyre-led government would mark a decisive break with the postwar consensus in Norway — a consensus that was the ultimate fruit of Martin Tranmæl’s political method.