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Norwegian Voters Want Both Climate Action and a Strong Welfare State

This week’s election in Norway was a major win for the Left — delivering a mandate to both expand the welfare state and take aggressive climate action.

Audun Lysbakken (Socialist Left Party), Trygve Slagsvold Vedum (Center Party), Jonas Gahr Støre (Labor Party) attend a debate in Oslo, 2021. (Naina Helén Jåma / NTB / AFP) / Norway OUT via Getty Images)

Two years ago, Lan Marie Nguyen Berg, Oslo city council member and rising star in Norway’s Green Party, predicted that a “green wave” would wash over the small Nordic country — one of the world’s leading exporters of oil and natural gas — in the 2021 parliamentary election. She was partly right: when the election was held this past Monday, September 13, parties pledging aggressive action on the climate did make impressive gains.

But the Green Party was not among them. Having proclaimed its willingness to give up “expensive welfare reforms” (for instance, free dental care for all) to pursue its climate agenda, the party underperformed its polling and narrowly failed to achieve the critical 4 percent threshold for “leveling seats” that can more than double the parliamentary representation of small parties.

The green parties that succeeded on Monday are in fact red: the Socialist Left Party and Red Party, both of which couple a steadfast commitment to Norway’s green future with an uncompromising defense of the universal welfare state, together captured 12.3 percent of the vote in a crowded, multiparty field. Their success, along with a better than expected showing for the once-dominant Labor Party and a very impressive one for the agro-nationalist Center Party, suggests that after eight years of Conservative-led government, a majority of Norway’s voters want meaningful climate action and the reaffirmation of a social democratic project that serves people in both urban centers and rural districts.

Crimson Tide

The lead-up to September 13 featured no shortage of surges, bold declarations, and questionable accusations (one wealthy investor warned, bizarrely, that the Socialist Left’s popular leader, Audun Lysbakken, was like a twenty-first-century Hitler).

The English-language media tended to frame the election as a referendum on Norway’s future as a petrostate. This was partly true, as the parties have seemingly arrayed themselves in three camps on the country’s oil and gas industry. The first camp — including the Red, Green, Socialist Left, and Liberal Parties — calls for the cessation of petroleum exploration (the Christian Democrats support this as well, but would expand current installations) and actively envisions a future for Norway beyond fossil fuels. For the Greens, the last drops of oil would be pumped from the north Atlantic within fifteen years.

The second group — including the Labor Party, the Conservative Party, and the Center Party — is uneasy about climate change but also unwilling to write the ending to the Nordic country’s half-century fairytale as Europe’s petro-rich Cinderella. These parties call variously for adhering to the Paris Agreement and cutting emissions while “restructuring” — but not unwinding — the oil and gas industry.

Bjørnar Moxnes, leader of Norway’s radical-left Red Party, which broke the electoral threshold of 4 percent in Monday’s parliamentary election.

Finally, the right-wing populist Progress Party has staked out a distinctive position calling for an increase in oil and gas exports. They also propose expanding exploration in the Barents Sea and protected areas in the Arctic.

Differences on climate policy between the parties were certainly a factor for voters on Monday. But it would be misleading to cast Norwegian climate policy as the only significant point of contention. For the past few years, people in Norway have also struggled with the Conservatives’ aggressive centralization of public administration, expansion of for-profit welfare services, and indifference to rising inequality.

The first of these issues created space for the Center Party — an agrarian-cum-economic nationalist party — to assert itself as the champion of those who oppose administrative consolidation and what they believe to be Oslo’s power over the rest of the country. This strategy proved quite successful, and until shortly before the election, it appeared the party’s increasingly popular leader, Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, might wrest the prime minister role away from the Labor Party in a future governing coalition.

The other issues — for-profit welfare services and rising inequality — provided no shortage of campaign fodder for the Socialist Left and Red Parties. Both called for profit-free welfare services and fighting inequality with, among other things, tax increases and free after-school programs and dental care for all. The Labor Party, though far more cautious, also emphasized the critical role of interventionist government — a relatively easy case amid the COVID-19 pandemic — and the need for higher taxes on the wealthy.

On the eve of the election, polls suggested that a victory (though not an outright majority) for the “Red-Green Coalition” — the Labor, Center, and Socialist Left parties — was a near certainty. But numerous questions remained: Would the Center Party accede to the Labor Party’s wishes and agree to govern again with the Socialist Left (as they had done between 2005 and 2013)?

After all, whatever their shared interests with Labor, the two parties have serious differences on the oil industry (Center is in no rush to end it), abortion (Center is not interested in boosting access), taxes (Center opposes lifting the aggregate level above its present position), and, critically, wolves (Center, representing farmers, wants them very much dead). Would the Red-Greens win an outright majority or be forced to rule as a minority? If the latter occurred, would they — despite Labor/Center reluctance — sign a cooperation agreement with the Green or Red Parties?

In short, after eight years of Erna Solberg’s Conservative-led government, a Red-Green takeover was all but assured — but how red would it be? And how green?

Red-Green Coalition

The first official election-night prognostication offered surprisingly clear answers: the Conservative and Progress Parties would lose a significant number of seats; the Red and Green Parties would likely clear the 4 percent electoral threshold while the Liberals and Christian Democrats would fall under it; and, most importantly, Labor, the Socialist Left, and Center Party would collectively win an outright majority for the Red-Green coalition.

As the votes were tabulated, however, it became evident that the Greens, whose appeal is confined mostly to Oslo, would just miss the threshold (at 3.9 percent), while the green-ish Liberals would cross it. In any case, it hardly mattered: having captured 47.4 percent of the vote and 89 of 168 seats, the Labor, Center, and Socialist Left Parties had their majority.

The media was quick to proclaim Jonas Gahr Støre, Labor Party leader and probably Norway’s next prime minister, the night’s winner. He had bungled the 2017 parliamentary election with a lifeless campaign that accused the Conservatives of economic mismanagement amid the country’s steady recovery from the “oil crash” of 2014–15. Labor’s spectacular failure in that election not only returned Solberg to power for another term but helped bring Vedum, Støre’s ally in the Center Party, into the public conversation as a potential prime minister candidate.

Jonas Gahr Store, leader of Norway’s Labor Party. (Kyrre Lien / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

This month’s election was likely Støre’s last shot at leading the Labor Party back to power. For decades, Labor could count on at least 30 percent — and at times more than 40 percent — of the overall vote. Nobody expected a miracle from Støre on Monday, and he did not deliver one: Labor managed to capture forty-eight seats (one less than in 2017) and a plurality of the ballots with 26.3 percent. Though the result exceeded preelection polling, it was the party’s second worst performance in a parliamentary election since the 1920s.

But it hardly matters for a potential Labor-led coalition: at 13.5 percent, the Center Party finished third overall and added an impressive nine seats — for a total of twenty-eight — to their 2017 haul. The Socialist Left also improved on their previous result by two seats, capturing thirteen in total and 7.6 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, the Red Party, which made free dental care a signature campaign issue, became the first party since the creation of the 4 percent electoral threshold to actually cross it: with 4.7 percent, their parliamentary group will grow from one to eight MPs.

Kind of Blue

Monday’s contest signaled the end of Erna Solberg’s unlikely, if surprisingly resilient, Conservative-led government. Back in 2013, Jens Stoltenberg’s Red-Green coalition had been in power for almost a decade, steering Norway through part of the global “war on terror,” the financial crisis, the intervention in Libya, and the July 22 terror attacks and their aftermath. Though the alliance between Labor, the Center, and the Socialist Left held together through all this turbulence, it was hardly a happy one and hurt the popularity of the Socialist Left, which accepted various compromises with its coalition partners to the chagrin of many supporters.

Solberg managed to break Red-Green dominance by dispensing with the Conservative Party’s previous refusal to enter government with the Progress Party, which had married vitriolic xenophobia and neoliberalism to become one of Norway’s largest parties. This triggered a cascade of hypocrisy, as the Liberals and Christian Democrats suddenly discovered that they too could now overcome their moral qualms about working with the Progress Party to support a “Blue-Blue” government.

After the heavy years of the Red-Green period, the Blue-Blue era felt, at least at first, light, almost ridiculous. People joked that Solberg’s most visible early accomplishment was the legalization of Segways. Joking ceased with the collapse in oil prices in late 2014, the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015, and Solberg’s pursuit of an aggressive — and widely unpopular — consolidation of everything from counties and municipalities to universities and police districts. The Blue-Blue victory in 2017 was not a total surprise, but it appeared to reflect the failure of Støre’s Labor Party more than the success of Solberg’s Conservatives.

Solberg’s time at the helm ended on Monday. Despite relatively high approval for the Conservative-led response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Norway’s “bourgeois” parties failed to gain a single seat: the Conservatives lost nine, the Progress Party lost six, the Liberals held steady, and the Christian Democrats fell below the 4 percent threshold and shed five of their eight seats.

What awaits this motley group in opposition is uncertain, though it’s likely to feature no shortage of anti-immigrant bombast from Progress Party leader Sylvi Listhaug — who has, among other things, accused a former Christian Democratic leader of “brownnosing imams” (literally “licking imams up the back”) and declaring that “the Labor Party believes terrorists’ rights are more important than national security.”

The Green Herring?

So, was it the climate election the Green Party predicted and the English-language media proclaimed? On Tuesday, Støre said so. But if it had just been about Norway’s petroleum industry, one would have expected a head-turning result from the Green Party — an electoral outfit with young, charismatic leadership and an unambiguous dedication to quickly transitioning away from oil. That they fell short while Labor held steady, the anti-centralization Center thrived, and the environmentalist and pro-welfare state Socialist Left and Reds grew, sends a clear message: a majority of Norway’s voters do not want climate action or social democracy, but both.

The main question now is which parties will come together to deliver it. Though Støre’s Labor Party is keen to get the band back together, the Center Party is unsure if it can work with a Socialist Left Party that shows no desire to be the somewhat deferential partner it was between 2005 and 2013.

If the three can collaborate (and sort out their differences on, say, wolves), they will nevertheless have to contend with the Conservative-led opposition on their right and Bjørnar Moxnes’ Red Party on their left. But while the former will work against the Red-Green coalition, the latter are likely to push it, reminding Støre and his partners that the Norwegian public empowered them to cut emissions, balance urban and rural interests, reduce inequality, and expand access to welfare — that is, to show the world that there is no trade-off between environmental and social justice.