Norway’s Stoltenberg family was grateful for all the flowers and impressive attendance at Labour Party patriarch Thorvald Stoltenberg’s funeral last week, but they suggested another memorial gift as well: financial donations to a democracy project on the island of Utøya, where 69 young Labour supporters were murdered seven years ago. Jens Stoltenberg was also back on Utøya to visit Labour’s AUF summer camp during the weekend, just after his successor Johas Gahr Støre adopted a tougher tone in a bid to win back government power.
“It would be in Thorvald’s spirit,” Jens Stoltenberg said in referring to Utøya’s democracy project. He visited the island towards the end of the Labour Party’s AUF youth summer camp during the weekend, and told newspaper Aftenposten that “I can’t think of anything that would be more in the spirit” of his late father.
The democracy project on Utøya invites school children from all over Norway to visit the island to learn about democratic values, and to work against intolerance and extremism. Utøya has also opened up as a venue for conferences and seminars aimed at addressing hatred and intolerance.
“Thorvald was extremely concerned about democracy his whole life,” said his son Jens Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister who now serves as secretary general of NATO. “He had a close relationship to Utøya, to democracy and everything the learning center on the island stands for. And he has been very engaged and keen to support the democracy project.”
The elder Stoltenberg, who died on Friday July 13th at an age of 87, was a former defense minister and foreign minister for Labour along with being an ambassador, head of the Norwegian Red Cross, peace broker and special envoy for the UN. His funeral on Thursday attracted both King Harald and Queen Sonja, Prime Minister Erna Solberg, several other government ministers and top Labour politicians who, along with hundreds of others packed Oslo’s Cathedral for a final farewell. Scores of others stood outside the historic cathedral in the heart of downtown to show their respects.
The funeral was not held at state expense, however, an honour reserved for prime ministers, presidents of Parliament or ministers who die while in public service. Solberg, leader of Norway’s Conservative Party, said her government sent a memorial wreath in agreement with the family, and that she had personally expressed her sympathy to Jens Stoltenberg in addition to attending the funeral.
It was held the day after AUF, the Labour Party’s youth organization, had opened this year’s summer camp on Utøya August 1st. AUF, which formally owns Utøya, returned to the island this summer in full force, “taking back” what Jens Stoltenberg himself has called his own “youth paradise” while in his teens. Many top Labour Party politicians were members of AUF and attended the camp in their own youth, which is why a right-wing extremist gunman targeted the camp on July 22, 2011 after first bombing Norway’s government complex in downtown Oslo. The government was under Labour Party control at the time, and the gunman has said he wanted to wipe out the next generation of Labour politicians.
Amidst the tributes to Thorvald Stoltenberg last week, the AUF campers also heard a tougher tone from Labour’s currently embattled leader Jonas Gahr Støre. He’s had a terrible year after Labour lost last autumn’s national election to Solberg’s conservative coalition, saw its voter support dive even more later, and then had to deal with the sexual harassment charges against top Labour politician and former minister Trond Giske. Støre, who admitted to a tough year for the party in June, adopted a more aggressive approach to issues in his speech to AUF campers on Friday, as well as stepping into what newspaper Dagsavisen called the “heart of darkness” tied to the July 22 attacks.
Støre confronted how sores are steadily re-opened among many of those survived the massacre on Utøya. Many have received hate mail and messages of anything but condolence from enemies of the Labour Party who prefer to remain anonymous. Støre lashed out at such cowardice and told Dagsavisen it was “especially outrageous that fellow Norwegians can direct such (new) attacks against these youngsters, the survivors, those who were wounded” seven years ago. He also tackled the attitudes that still exist among right-wing extremists, and which Labour has been reluctant to discuss despite calls to do so.
Now Labour is being criticized for trying too hard to depoliticize the attacks of 2011, and avoid being labelled as a victim or martyr. Questions are rising whether there’s been too much talk about democracy and rising above the viciousness of those who hate Labour, and too little discussion that the right-wing terrorist mounted a direct attack against a political movement.
Remarks published by the former justice minister for the Progress Party, Sylvi Listhaug, that Labour put the rights of terrorists above national security, outraged Labour and many others enough that they’re now fighting back. Listhaug lost her job and was forced to apologize on the floor of Parliament, but her remarks churned up more hate rhetoric and exposed the right-wing threat. She has also claimed as she headed back to Parliament that her most important goal as a politician for the right-wing Progress Party is to make sure Støre never becomes prime minister himself.
He now claims Labour will be much more clear about what July 22 was all about: a deadly attack on Labour itself and its ideology. It showed how far an extremist can go in carrying out such an attack. Støre is now spreading the message that “we must acknowledge that these forces actually can be found in Norway. I don’t think (Prime Minister) Erna Solberg takes this seriously enough.”
Aggressive autumn ahead
Støre made it clear to the AUF campers that Labour is ready, willing and able to seize government power away from Solberg, and political issues on his summer agenda will be pursued when Parliament opens for the autumn session. He was introduced as “our next prime minister” when he took the podium at AUF on Friday, and generated applause when he claimed that “the light from Utøya” will triumph over the hate mongerers on the dark side of the Internet.
Støre also declared that Labour will continue its campaign against kontantstøtte (a state program that offers financial compensation to parents who stay home with their children instead of sending them to subsidized day care). Labour has also signalled an assault of its own, on the Solberg government’s failure to improve preparedness for any future terrorist attacks.
There’s disagreement within Labour, however, and between Labour and AUF, over immigration and energy policy. AUF wants much more liberal immigration and asylum policy, and less oil exploration and production than Støre does. That’s been an ongoing divide between AUF and Labour, with AUF dedicated to influencing Labour policy in its direction.
Political debates will resume next week, when politicians gather in Arendal for several days of meetings, seminars and lively exchange of opinions. Parliament opens in October.