Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre has been caught this week in a rising storm around his deputy and potential rival Trond Giske. Støre went on national radio Friday morning to deny allegations of both a power struggle within the party and that Giske is guilty of sexual harassament.
Støre and his party have been on the defensive for months, especially after Labour lost the parliamentary election in September. That led to no small degree of agonizing and soul-searching within the party, as voters continue to flee. Another public opinion poll released this week in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) shows Labour with just 25.9 percent of the vote, even lower than its disappointing election result of 27.4 percent and sinking futher into what’s been called a post-election crisis.
As the Labour Party’s leadership and politicians try to understand what went went wrong, and re-claim their long-time ranking as Norway’s largest party, there’s been rumbling among the rank and file. It climaxed this week with a story in DN that reported how Labour Party officials had received “several warnings about Trond Giske.” The warnings, made anonymously, involved Giske’s behaviour towards women within in the party on at least three occasions.
Text messages and questionable behaviour
The complaints against Giske go back to the time when he was a government minister in the former left-center government led by Labour. They have emerged in the midst of the “me too” campaign that continues to unfold with a barrage of sexual harassment complaints from women in business, politics, academia, health care, sports, the arts and a wide range of other fields.
DN reported that the sexual harassment complaints involve questionable text messages that Giske sent to a young woman in the party, his alleged attempt to enter a women’s dressing room after a cultural performance, and allegedly inappropriate behaviour at a birthday party for his state secretary. All the complaints were reportedly viewed as minor when they occurred and no action was taken against Giske.
The new power struggle allegations, which also have arisen earlier, evolve from reports that Labour’s administrative boss, party secretary Kjersti Stenseng, and the leader of Labour’s women’s network, MP Anniken Huitfeldt, failed to act when the complaints against Giske recently were taken up again. Both Stenseng and Huitfeldt are allied with Giske on the left-side of Labour, and both have advised party colleagues against using “rumours” in an internal power struggle. Huitfeldt even wrote on a restricted social media site that when rumours “are reported in the media, they are in fact used in internal power struggles posed by anonymous sources that are impossible to fend off. I’m really disappointed over this.”
Stenseng’s and Huitfeldt’s reported attempts to discourage female colleagues from airing the complaints against Giske appeared to defy orders from Støre and his other deputy leader, MP Hadia Tajik. They had both stated earlier in the week that any and all complaints of sexual harassment within the party must be taken seriously. “Those who come forth (with complaints) shall no longer be told that they’re passing on rumours,” Støre told DN on Monday.
Giske, who also caught criticism earlier this autumn, has refused to comment on the new allegations against him, as have Stenseng and Huitfeldt. Newspaper VG reported that the situation is so tense within Labour and its delegation in Parliament that two party members started crying when they described it to VG.
Støre tries to put ‘rumours’ to rest
On Friday Støre tried to put an end to the rising unrest by directly addressing the “rumours” of power struggles and complaints against Giske. Støre claimed on state broadcaster NRK’s popular debate program Politisk kvarter that there is no power struggle between himself and Giske. “I don’t recognize what the newspapers are writing at all,” Støre said.
He claimed it’s important for Labour to join the fight against sexual harassment, adding that the party has “zero tolerance” for it. He repeated that everyone in the party should feel confident about coming forth with their accounts, if they want to to do so.
Støre said he didn’t think complaints against Trond Giske “were of such character” that there was reason to further investigate them further. He said he did not think Giske had behaved improperly. “Let me stress that when complaints are made, it’s important that someone is willing to stand behind them,” Støre said. “They have to be sure they can do that.” In this case, the complaints have mostly been anonymous.
“I don’t have the impression there’s a power struggle within Labour,” Støre said. “What’s important for me, is that after an autumn where conditions in the workplace have become a theme, women, and especially young women, can be assured they can come forth and be taken seriously.”