The dynamic duo of Norwegian politics, popularly known simply as “Jens and Jonas,” officially had to split up over the weekend, when NATO-bound Jens Stoltenberg bowed out as Labour Party leader and his long-time colleague and friend Jonas Gahr Støre took over. It was an historic day for both their party and Norway, with Støre already riding high in the polls and keen to recapture the prime minister’s office.
It was an emotional day for both men, and tears, hugs and standing ovations characterized an unusually spirited Labour Party that was historic for other reasons as well. It was the first time in 50 years that the party elected a new leader without any, often nasty, power struggle preceding it. Stoltenberg was a wildly popular Labour leader who achieved rock-star status in Norway, but Støre has quickly filled any vacuum that could have been left when Stoltenberg confirmed this spring that he’d resign to accept a new post as secretary general of NATO, the world’s largest military alliance. Støre had won huge respect both within Norway and internationally during his seven years as foreign minister in the left-center coalition governments that Stoltenberg led as prime minister, and was the natural successor. He enjoys widespread support within the Labour Party and nobody, in a party known for factions and bitter internal power struggles over the years, opposed him.
That led to the overwhelming acclamation as Støre was voted in on Saturday to succeed Stoltenberg, not only as leader of the Labour Party but also as its candidate for prime minister. Støre won support from all of the party’s 19 county chapters. Støre also already enjoys nearly as much support among voters as Norway’s current prime minister, Erna Solberg. According to a poll conducted for Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) last week, 40.3 percent of Norwegians believe Solberg is best-suited for the premier’s post, while fully 39.5 said Støre was best-suited. The remainder were unsure, but Støre is already in a position to breathe down Solberg’s neck in the race towards the next parliamentary elections in 2017. Since Solberg leads a minority government, Støre conceivably could take over as premier at any time.
Labour itself also continues to do well in the polls, even though the coalition it led lost its majority in parliament in the election last fall. Labour itself remained the largest single party in the land and now holds support from around 35 percent of the voters, compared to Erna’s Conservatives standing of around 28 percent.
Job Number One: Restoring climate credibility
Støre aims to build the party’s support further, through new efforts to renew it not least by restoring its image as an environmentally oriented, climate-friendly party. Even though Stoltenberg projected a pro-environment image, and was heavily involved in climate issues internationally, his party’s track record at home has been poor in recent years.
Stoltenberg failed, for example, to push through his “moon landing” of a carbon-capture plant at Statoil’s Mongstad refinery, the party failed to outright oppose highly controversial plans for oil and gas exploration off scenic Lofoten and Vesterålen, it refused to instruct Statoil to drop its controversial tar sands project in Canada, and many voters simply viewed Labour as far too accommodating to Norway’s oil industry. The need for the job creation provided by the oil and offshore injury seemed to be greater than the need to protect the climate.
Støre sees the need to restore Labour’s environmental credibility, announcing that climate policies will now dominate all aspects of Labour’s agenda. The party must win back voters who defected to, for example, the Greens (Miljøpartiet De Grønne) in the last election, and, at least, be able to cooperate with the Liberal Party (Venstre) and even the Christian Democrats (Kristelig Folkeparti), both of which now are “support parties” for Solberg’s current Conservatives-led coalition. Whereas Stoltenberg was an atheist, Støre is more religious and sees a need for “human values” in politics.
“I’m ready,” the 53-year-old Støre repeated from the podium, as party faithful cheered and clapped and stomped their feet. Støre is Labour’s first leader who wasn’t born into the party, and has no working-class background. He didn’t even join the party until 1995, but was already working with Stoltenberg and for Gro Harlem Brundtland in the Office of the Prime Minister. He’s arguably played a major role in the formation of Norway’s “modern” Labour Party that he wants to modernize further, while still keeping in touch with Jens in Brussels.