Conservatives gain on Labour’s loss

NEWS ANALYSIS: Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s Conservative Party has scored a major gain in the latest public opinon poll, which also logged the worst showing for the Labour Party since Jonas Gahr Støre became its leader. The Conservatives are clearly riding a new wave of support tied to their annual national meeting last weekend, even though critics claim it resulted in a soft agenda for re-election.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg (front row, second from left) and her fellow government ministers from the Conservatives went straight from their annual national meeting last weekend to their first meeting on next year’s state budget, at Hurdalsjøen north of Oslo. Solberg’s party is riding a new wave of voter support for her government coalition. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor

“The Conservatives’ party program is so soft it can be used to wipe the noses of small children,” wrote political commentator Kjetil B Alstadheim in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) after the important weekend meeting that aimed to set policy and an agenda for their election campaign. Alstadheim noted how the party has backtracked from earlier promises to eliminate various taxes (like fortune tax and what amounts to a sales tax on real estate transactions), allow widespread shopping on Sundays and wine sales in grocery stores, and reduce the state’s ownership stakes in major Norwegian companies.

Instead the Conservatives (Høyre) opted for what Alstadheim calls a “soft and pragmatic” party program that follows Prime Minister Solberg’s “optimistic and cooperation-oriented” ideology that’s not politically dangerous. That functioned for the party when they won government power in 2013, it has helped Solberg keep her minority government coalition together since and survive one of Norway’s worst economic setbacks when oil prices collapsed, and it’s now her party’s new recipe for re-election.

The first sign that the recipe appealed to voters’ tastes came Thursday, when newspaper Dagsavisen published a poll conducted by research firm Opinion for news bureau ANB (Avisenes Nyhetsbyrå). The Conservatives jumped three full points from ANB’s February poll to claim 26.3 percent of the vote, nearly as much as Labour, which fell 3.9 points to land at 29.5 percent. The poll marked the first time in several years that Labour fell to under 30 percent.

Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre, shown here launching his own party’s election campaing in Western Norway last month, suddenly finds himself at a disadvantage against the Conservatives. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

“This is no good result for the Labour Party,” admitted Labour’s own chief administrator, party secretary Kjersti Stenseng. “We should be higher than this.” At the same time, the poll showed no growth in voter support at all for Labour’s likely partner in a left-center government coalition, the Center Party. It has been soaring in the polls in recent weeks, also at Labour’s expense, but that growth came to a halt in the latest poll, which showed the Center Party with 9.7 percent of the vote. That compares to as much as 11 percent in other recent polls. The Socialist Left party (SV) was the only one on the left side of Norwegian politics to log a gain, of 1.3 points to 5.4 percent in the ANB poll.

The Conservatives’ current government partner, the Progress Party, edged up to 14.3 percent of the vote while their government support party, the Christian Democrats, gained 1.1 points to claim 5.5 percent of the vote. Their other support party, the Liberals, lost 0.2 points, to just 3.8 percent, but all together their numbers showed more voter support than the left-center cluster.

How their meeting paved the way
“This gives the Conservatives self-confidence heading into the election campaign,” said Trond Helleland, leader of the Conservatives’ parliamentary group. “We are proud that we have reduced waiting times for health care, increased the numbers of teachers in the schools and addressed the need for maintenance of public infrastructure. Now we’re also seeing that unemployment is declining and economic growth is on its way up. This increases the opportunities for four more years with Erna (Solberg) as prime minister.”

The poll was conducted both before and during the Conservatives’ national meeting. “It’s an advantage to have a national meeting,” noted Johannes Bergh of the research organization Institutt for samfunnsforskning, who specializes in elections. “You get more media coverage and attention. The Conservatives have also had a lot of positive attention and there were no major conflicts during their national meeting.”

Instead there was a lot of compromise, not least on defense spending. Party delegates ended up approving a measure that will commit it to bring defense budgets up to the NATO goal of 2 percent of gross national product by 2024, within 10 years of NATO members’ agreement to do so in 2014. Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide was pleased, also that Norway’s budget in 2016 already amounted to 1.55 percent of GNB, up from 1.47 percent in 2015. Norway also ranks high in defense spending per capita, while new figures released by NATO this week showed that only five NATO members currently meet the 2 percent goal: the US, UK, Poland, Estonia and Greece. Those farthest from meeting the goal included Luxembourg (0.42 percent), Spain (0.9 percent) and Belgium (0.91) percent.

In other areas, the Conservatives voted to retain monthly child welfare payments (barnetrygd) made to all families in Norway regardless of income, dismissing proposals to replace them with free day care and longer schooldays. They opted against proposed cuts in sickpay but decided to re-evaluate it, opened up for dual citizenship and maintain current alcohol policies while easing policy regarding punishment for drug possession. They shifted position on paternity leave, and will now go along with demanding that fathers take at least 10 weeks of what’s granted to parents with newborns. Fathers’ incomes will also be counted in the basis for the paid leave, instead of just the mothers’.

Will still advocate reforms
The Conservatives intend to continue pressing for reforms of local government, agriculture and the police, calling them a form of “modernization” of Norwegian society and criticizing opponents as being resistant to change. The Conservatives still favour offshore oil exploration and are open to development of more hydroelectric power “as long as important conservation interests are addressed.” They vowed that last year’s parliamentary compromise to reduce Norway’s resurgent wolf population “will be carried out.” They also claimed they wanted to remove the controversial airline seat tax that caused so much turbulence in last year’s state budget, and replace it with “another tax with clear environmental effects.” It remained unclear how and when that might occur.

The Conservatives’ government ministers headed straight from their annual national meeting into budget talks with their government partners this week. Defense and transport were reported to be the big winners in this year’s budget round, given all the defense spending increases and reorganization plans and major investment in trains and roads around Norway. They were meeting amidst brighter economic prospects despite another dip in oil prices, with both Solberg and Finance Minister Siv Jensen of the Progress Party noting that Norway is on its way out of the crisis stirred when oil prices collapsed in 2014.

“The Norwegian economy is still characterized by the downturn in the oil business,” Jensen told newspaper DN this week, “but we’re over the worst period. Growth in on its way up and unemployment is on its way down. We’re seeing that our economic policies have been working.” She said the main goal of the 2018 state budget is to prod rising employment in the private sector, with Solberg also keen on such job creation. They were encouraged by the results of a survey earlier this week that private employers are more optimistic than they’ve been in years, and expect to be doing more hiring.

That all leaves Labour without as much to oppose or complain about in the upcoming election campaign, and at a competitive disadvantage if voters continue to be pleased by how the current government has weathered the storm. “For the Labour Party, the latest public opinion poll was not good news,” noted election researcher Bergh. “It’s perhaps a sign that they haven’t had a clear enough profile in opposition. Labour has gained at times when the government has faced a lot of criticism, but hasn’t managed to be visible enough with its own policies.” Labour will be holding its own annual national meeting next month, though, and will then get its own chance to boost its profile.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund