As Norway’s conservative government clings to power amidst diving public opinion polls, Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre has enjoyed a new surge of support. Støre, who’s the subject of no less than three books released this autumn, is also now reaching out to the small centrist parties that could sweep Labour back into government.
Støre has both been on the sidelines of major political debate so far, as the opposition waits to get a state budget introduced in Parliament, but also front and center in the media. As the new leader of what’s still Norway’s largest party, and leader of the opposition in Parliament, Støre continues to attract attention.
He brought some of it on himself when he released his own biography and political manifest in the form of a book entitled I bevegelse (In movement). It proved to be the first of three books about Labour’s new leader, who once voted conservative himself and comes from a highly privileged background. Støre was thus an unlikely candidate to rise through the ranks of the Labour Party (Arbeiderpartiet), win its respect and keep it unified when its popular former leader, Jens Stoltenberg, stepped down to become secretary general of NATO in June.
Then came two more books about Støre. An unauthorized biography by author Ståle Wig attempts to help readers understand Støre as a politician, and offers insight into how Støre, a highly intelligent graduate of elite schools who served seven highly acclaimed years as Norway’s foreign minister in Stoltenberg’s government, thinks and acts politically. The third book, released just recently by journalsts Nina Stensrud Martin and Erik Aasheim, is more critical and examines some aspects of Støre’s past that he’d rather ignore, like how his large inherited personal fortune is managed, how he’s sometimes landed in conflicts of interest and how he contributed towards glossing over some of the negative aspects of Norway’s involvement in Afghanistan.
It may seem a paradox that one of the Parliament’s wealthiest men leads the Labour Party. Støre’s fortune stems largely from his family’s acquisition of the Jøtul oven-producing company in 1927 and its sale to industrial firm Norcem in the 1970s. His father Ulf, who according to newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) has most recently been living at an exclusive private nursing home outside Oslo that costs NOK 60,000 (USD 9,000) a month, was a shipbroker and Støre was long a co-owner of family firms that have a large stock portfolio.
The man most people now refer to simply as “Jonas” was drawn into Labour’s ranks of social democrats, though, while studying at the elite school Sciences Po in Paris and becoming more aware of social differences. Martin and Aasheim’s book reveals that during this time, Støre also started traveling on secret missions to the Soviet Union in the 1980s, to support Soviet dissidents. Støre would travel as a tourist on organized tour packages, only to drop out of them and visit dissidents “who weren’t allowed to leave the Soviet Union, who had lost all their rights and positions,” he later told DN. He would bring them letters from the west, medicine, often even food and clothing.
Now, years later, Støre has been talking a lot about “renewing” Labour, and urging fellow party members to “think great thoughts” also aloud, before they’ve been approved by party bureaucrats. His own tendency to do so has already made waves, like when he seemed to suggest that Norway shouldn’t pump up all its oil out of consideration to the environment. Labour has traditionally be a big fan of the oil industry, because it creates jobs.
Støre has also associated with some unlikely partners like high-profile doctor Gunhild Stordalen and grocery store heir Ole Robert Reitan on an initiative to fight obesity and lifestyle sicknesses, and the conservative Jens Ulltveit Moe on climate issues. “It’s very clear that he has opted for another line … and has a different working style than Jens Stoltenberg,” Labour politician Trond Giske told DN earlier this fall. Støre seems to like to involve the public much earlier in political debate.
Meanwhile, Støre’s Labour Party has climbed in the polls, capturing as much as 40 percent the vote in one recent poll, before settling back around 38 percent. That’s much higher than the government parties and, with some support from a few other small parties, Labour could quickly command a majority in Parliament.
On Tuesday, newspaper Dagsavisen reported that Støre was now reaching out to the Christian Democrats and Liberal parties, which have an agreement to support the conservative minority government but instead have been quarreling over the state budget. Even though many thought Støre would lead Labour into a more leftist form of politics, he has disagreed with former government partner SV (the Socialist Left party) and confirmed he was “holding the door open” for contact with the Christian Democrats, the Liberals and The Greens.
“Those of us in opposition shall cooperate broadly with open doors,” Støre told Dagsavisen. “We have experience from the red-green cooperation (Labour’s eight-year government coalition with SV and the Center Party), and will take care of those friendships, but we have an open door for contact with the others.”
Støre is keen to win government power back in 2017 but also standing by to take over should Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s government fall. Political commentator Arne Strand says it’s important for Støre to keep “thinking grand thoughts out loud.” Open debate on everything from oil issues to the controversial cash support for parents who stay home with their children can strengthen and revitalize Labour, after it at least in part lost the national elections to voter fatigue last fall. Solberg, meanwhile, is keenly aware Støre is standing by, as she wrestles with her own government partners before also taking on the opposition.