Labour’s love lost after the election

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NEWS ANALYSIS: The fellowship and common purpose claimed by members of Norway’s Labour Party now seem to have been lost along with the parliamentary election. Just two weeks after suffering what some call “catastrophic” election results, a storm of emotion and conflict has erupted among party officials and members, once again testing the leadership of an embattled Jonas Gahr Støre as his party slips further in a new public opinion poll.

Labour’s embattled leader Jonas Gahr Støre, shown here at last week’s meeting of central party officials, now faces conflicts within the party as well as a crushing election loss. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet/Bernt Sønvisen

After admitting the election was a “great disappointment,” Støre and top party officials have been huddling in meetings and trying to figure out what went wrong. They have asked for input from all 55,000 members of the party and blame has been pouring in. Kjersti Stenseng, the party’s secretary and thus top administrative leader, told news bureau NTB that she received more than 7,500 emails from party members in the course of just two days last week. She’s also spoken with many others who’ve unleashed their thoughts on Labour’s campaign mistakes.

“Some of it is speculation, some of it based on facts,” Stenseng told NTB. “A lot of it is good, constructive feedback, offering various reasons for the loss.” All of it, she has promised, will be evaluated in an evaluation of the election results to be compiled and presented early next week.

Meanwhile the party has been rocked by internal dissent over Støre’s decision last week to grant deputy leader Trond Giske’s request to take over as the party’s spokesperson on finance issues, a powerful post that’s been a springboard to the job Støre now holds. Giske, a 50-year-old party veteran, is replacing the 37-year-old Marianne Marthinsen, who wanted to remain in the post. That has set off loud and ongoing protests among members (many of them women) who object to what they view as a power play by Giske.

Labour’s deputy leader Hadia Tajik, shown here at the same meeting, was described as “a clever young girl” by her colleague Trond Giske (right). That did not sit well with many of their other colleagues, while Tajik merely responded to Giske that “you’re also clever.” PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet/Bernt Sønvisen

Several, including Labour’s former fisheries minister Lisbeth Berg-Hansen, have also objected to Giske’s description of fellow deputy leader Hadia Tajik, age 34, as “a clever young girl.” Giske has tried to brush that off in recent days as an attempt at humour and not intended to be demeaning. Berg-Hansen referred to the entire conflict as “mud wrestling,” telling newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) that she was “just sad” and “gladly would have just rolled down the shades and avoided having to witness what’s happening in the party now.”

Ruth Grung, a Member of Parliament for Labour, and Else-May Botten, also an MP and member of the party’s board, agreed. Grung called Giske’s characterization of Tajik “clumsy” and “completely unacceptable”  while Botten noted that “there are many strong women in the Labour Party. ‘Woman’ would have been a better description of Hadia than ‘young girl.'” Tajik herself responded by simply sending a text message to Giske that “you’re clever, too.” Prime Minister Erna Solberg joined the fray as well, telling DN that “they’re making lots of mistakes now” and that they need a more clear analysis of why they lost.

Even the Labour-friendly newspaepr Dagsavisen has reported that the high-level positioning and finger-pointing now going on within Labour mostly reveals “how unrest is smoldering under the surface.” It can burst into flames at any time. Støre took on the role of firefighter during the weekend, telling Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Sunday that he doesn’t agree there’s any major revolt going on within the party and that it was his decision alone to give Giske responsibility for formulating, promoting and defending finance policy.

“I wish there wasn’t this struggle going on now,” Støre admitted to NRK, but he attributes it to how “engaged” Labour Party members are. “We are disappointed after the defeat, and I listen to all that engagement,” Støre claimed. “It was my choice (to replace Marthinsen, who had fronted the party’s agreed but unpopular campaign promise to raise taxes to preserve the welfare state.) I am party leader and I have the decisive word when it comes to how my deputies will work.” He claimed Marthinsen will be given other important roles within the party.

Støre had good reason to fold his hands and pray for the best before addressing the party’s top officials. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet/Bernt Sønvisen

Støre has also signalled that he now intends to be much tougher as leader of the opposition in Parliament. He wondered out loud last week whether his party had been “too constructive” during the past four years, and entered into too many compromises with the Conservatives-led government on major issues including immigration policy and a resorganization of defense forces in Northern Norway. That may have added to the impression that Labour and the Conservatives have similar positions on many issues, especially within foreign policy. He warned that Labour will enter into fewer compromises during the new parliamentary session, with both he and other opposition parties threatening to topple Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s government at the first opportunity.

He specifically mentioned that Labour, keen to prey on Solberg’s coalition’s weak points, will quickly propose restoring Norway’s paid paternity leave for new fathers to 14 weeks (Solberg had cut it back to 10 weeks). Labour will also propose extra state funding to help local government renovate nursing homes and senior housing, and the party will propose removing a Solberg-initiated liberalization of employment regulations that allows more hiring of temporary instead of full-time employees.

Støre stressed that Labour remains the largest party in Parliament even after its election loss, with 27.4 percent of the vote. “That was disappointing and weak,” Støre wrote in a commentary in DN on Saturday, “but the 800,000 people who voted for us deserve that we learn from our defeat and move forward. We did well in many of the country’s most populous areas, like Stavanger and Oslo, and we won the school election That’s promising for the future.”

A new public opinion poll released late last week wasn’t particularly promising, though. Labour fell further, winning favour from just 26.2 percent of voters, while Solberg’s Conservatives gained to claim 26.8 percent of the vote. That would make them bigger than Labour if it has been the election result. Berglund