Bad feelings continue to swirl within Norway’s troubled Labour Party and around its former deputy leader Trond Giske. Many think Giske, charged with multiple counts of sexual harassment, is being allowed to make a comeback much too quickly, leading to a stand-off between employees of the party and management that seems to defy basic Labour principles.
Giske has apologized last December for “inappropriate behaviour” towards several women over a period of many years, also when he served as a minister in the last left-center government. He got away with it until the international “MeToo” campaign emboldened many women to finally speak up.
The allegations against Giske embarrassed the party and greatly distracted party leader Jonas Gahr Støre at a time when Labour was already in deep trouble after badly losing last fall’s election. Giske went on sick leave and was stripped of his title as deputy leader, but returned to his seat in Parliament in late January, made a triumphant return in his home district of Trøndelag a week later, has obtained new political duties and has already taken part in public televised debates on behalf of the party.
He’s also been allowed to participate in social events and hasn’t otherwise seemed to suffer many consequences for his bad behaviour. That has itself set off debate within the party, with many thinking Giske should keep a much lower profile.
Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported this week that debate reached a boiling point when it became clear that Giske would also be allowed to take part in the party’s annual summer party next week. His attendance can be directly uncomfortable for those who filed reports about his inappropriate behaviour that had a pattern of emerging after consumption of alcohol and in social situations.
That prompted Ingunn Yssen, who represents employees tied to Labour’s delegation in Parliament, to complain. As a union leader for the party’s own employees, she told newspaper VG on May 14 that “as elected leader for the political advisers (to Labour’s MPs), I think that Trond Giske’s presence at parties will mean that many employees will in practice be excluded.” They wouldn’t or felt they couldn’t attend the summer party themselves if Giske was going to be there, on the grounds it would be too awkward.
“It’s not right after all the time spent (by top party officials) in concluding that Trond Giske has harassed several women, something he has apologized for himself,” Yssen told VG, adding that “Trond Giske could himself prevent the situation himself,” presumably by choosing to stay away from the party himself.
Instead of winning any support from the Labour Party’s management in her effort to shield the party’s own employees, Yssen was instead summoned to what amounted to a disciplinary meeting with party leader Støre. Several sources within the Labour Party told DN that Yssen was so upset by the Støre’s harsh reaction to her comments in VG that she ended up visiting the doctor on call at the Parliament. She’s been on sick leave since May 15, reportedly because of the treatment she received from the Labour Party’s leader.
Yssen won’t comment herself on the “uncomfortable” meeting with Støre but the union she leads was informed of her sick leave and the reason for it. The union has since reacted negatively to Støre, though, and criticized how he treated Yssen. Norway’s state labour laws, many of which were pushed through by the Labour Party, extend extra protection to the elected leaders of employees’ labour organizations. Employers, in this case the Labour Party itself, are supposed to allow union leaders to take care of their members and address their complaints.
DN questioned Støre about why he scolded Yssen and how that can harmonize with labour laws and the party’s own principles. Støre responded with an email in which he claimed he had “a good and open dialog” with the employees of the Labour Party’s parliamentary delegation and their elected leader. He claimed that the party was concerned with organized labour relations “and that elected leaders (like Yssen) have an important role and shall have special protection.
“I don’t want, meanwhile, to express myself on the content of the dialog we have with our elected union leaders and employees,” Støre wrote. “That’s confidential and will be handled as such.”
Treatment of offenders varies
DN reported that Anders Kvernmo Langset, the acting leader of the union in Yssen’s absence, did not respond to DN‘s requests for comment. Nor would Giske. DN reported how he has long had good relations with Kjersti Stenseng, the powerful party secretary, who has been seen at bars with Giske, at a party after Labour’s annual meeting and at a late-night party with Giske. Stenseng has also been stricter with others charged with sexual harassment: VG reported earlier this month that she advised Labour’s Oslo chapter not to allow one of its party members charged with harassment to attend either its annual meeting or a party afterwards.
The Conservative Party, meanwhile, flatly and publicly ordered one of its MPs charged with harassment to stay away from its annual meeting and parties tied to it. On Thursday, the Conservatives reported that it had received a total of 35 complaints of sexual harassment directed at 21 of its members and politicians. Many have been stripped of all party positions and duties, banned from party events or ordered not to drink alcohol at them. John-Ragnar Aarset, secretary general of the Conservatives, said that in some cases defendants have been excluded from the party for several years.
Norway’s political parties cannot, however, remove their members from offices to which they were elected by Norwegian voters. That’s why Giske could return to his seat in Parliament and why a Conservative MP who was stripped of all other party roles is being allowed to serve out his four-year term in Parliament.