While the Christian Democrats argue over whether they should team up with the Labour Party and grab government power away from the current Conservatives-led coalition, a new book is raising serious questions about Labour’s ability to lead. The book chronicles the last year of drama and division within Labour, both before and after it logged its worst election result ever in September 2017.
Even though Labour was widely viewed as badly losing that election, the party is now poised to topple Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s minority government and take over itself. It only depends on whether enough members of the small but disproportionately powerful Christian Democrats, who hold the swing vote in Parliament, agree to end decades of being a non-socialist party and side with Labour instead. That would allow Labour, the Christian Democrats and the Center Party to form a new left-center minority coalition that could seize goverment power.
The political drama now gripping Norway won’t be resolved until the Christian Democrats vote on the issue early next month. In the meantime, Norwegian media outlets are turning extraordinary attention on internal meetings of small Christian Democrats’ chapters around the country as they choose delegates to a national meeting on November 2. The chapter from Rogaland County meeting during the weekend strongly supported joining Solberg’s government over one led by Labour leader Jonas Gahr Støre. On Monday night, chapters in Buskerud, Hedmark and Finnmark gave more support to the Christian Democrats’ embattled leader Knut Arild Hareide. By midday Tuesday, state broadcaster NRK could report that Solberg’s government was favoured with 63 delegates compared to 45 who support Hareide’s proposal to side with Labour. Another 82 delegates need to be chosen during the next week and a half.
They may want to read the book written by Marie Melgård and Lars Joakim Skarvøy, both political journalists at newspaper VG who delved into all the drama at Labour itself during what’s described as the party’s “nightmare year.” While the book has had mixed reviews, and criticism over its heavy use of anonymous sources, even the generally pro-Labour newspaper Dagsavisen has conceded that it portrays a deeply troubled party and a year without any heroes.
It had started off fairly well in 2017, with what seemed to be an upbeat party keen on overturning Solberg’s bid for re-election in September. The party was on the offensive but also dangerously took it for granted that it would seize power back from the conservative coalition parties, and reinstate a Labour-led coalition, this time with Støre as prime minister instead of Jens Stoltenberg, who now leads NATO.
“The short version is that it all went to hell,” wrote commentator Hege Ulstein in Dagsavisen. She covered Labour’s downfall herself, but cited the new book for telling how “Labour’s political catastrophes before, during and after the election in 2017 did not come like lightning out of a clear sky, but were instead the result of a simmering crisis that had been lying latent since Jonas Gahr Støre took over after Jens Stoltenberg.”
The “simmering crisis” was fueled by a lack of confidence among top Labour leaders, mistaken evaluations of issues important for voters and poor choices of campaign issues. The book’s title mocks Labour’s slogan of Alle skal med (roughly translated, that everyone shall be included in its party program), changing it to Alle skal ned (Everyone shall go down).
Labour indeed suffered a dramatic dive in terms of respect, popularity and sheer voter numbers. Its “collapsed” election campaign was immediately followed after the election by bitter internal power struggles, not least between Støre’s two deputy leaders Hadia Tajik and Trond Giske. Then Giske, long a champion of the left side of Labour and viewed as a candidate for party party leader, was brought down by a series of sexual harassment complaints filed against him during the height of the “MeToo” movement. He was forced to resign in shame as deputy party leader, and most recently has been back out on leave.
The party has tried hard to put the so-called “Giske case” behind it, but emails and other communication within the party published in the new book illustrate deep divisions and an ongoing lack of trust among surviving leaders. Party secretary Kjersti Stenseng had been a Giske supporter, and things still seem tense between her and Tajik. The relation between Giske and Tajik, meanwhile, is described as both “destructive” and “poisonous” in the new book, yet the two still need to deal with one another as Members of Parliament for Labour.
Ulstein notes that the book reveals the connection between Labour’s problems on the surface and the tensions and disagreements lying deep within the party, fueled by bad chemistry between politicians and advisers. While Labour is known for being full of power struggles and high-profile politicians with their own agendas over the years, the challenge now is whether Støre is strong enough to lead not just his own party but a Norwegian government as well.
“The book paints a not-so-flattering picture of Jonas Gahr Støre, as failing to address conflicts, failing to listen and being a bit clumsy,” Ulstein wrote. Støre, for example, once sent an email to the wrong “Trond,” with information meant for Giske winding up in the in-box of Trond Helleland, leader of the Conservatives’ delegation in Parliament.
Støre also has been criticized for not immediately recognizing the serious nature of the sexual harassment allegations against his deputy leader Giske. Some women who’d complained about Giske felt betrayed when Støre shared their complaints with Stenseng and let her help handle them. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported how some of the women felt “stabbed in the back” by Støre. The book also documents how Labour’s own personnel chief at the time, Ann-Cathrin Becken, wrote a furious email to Støre, letting him know how he’d let down those complaining about Giske. Becken later quit the party to take a new job. Some commentators think it’s difficult to see how Støre, Stenseng and Tajik can overcome their own differences and lead both the party and even a government together. Giske, a former government minister, continues to deny all accusations of harassment against him and may still try to play a role himself.
The Christian Democrats are rapidly becoming as divided as Labour ever has been, raising questions about what kind of government they’d mount with the Center Party, which also has had its share of sex scandals during the past year. The book’s publisher, Kagge Forlag, promoted the new book last week as “the dramatic story about the Labour Party’s most painful year. When Labour didn’t think things could get any worse, they did. Much worse.” Voters, meanwhile, are left to watch how the current political drama plays out, and wait for the next election.