Climate concerns won out over job creation when Norway’s largest political party, Labour, shifted course and voted to limit oil exploration off the northern coast. The party’s biggest supporter, trade union federation LO, was disappointed, while one Labour veteran fears more industrial-minded members will leave the party that’s already losing both members and voters.
“I want to express a lot of sympathy and understanding for those who are disappointed over the decision,” Martin Kolberg, the former longtime party secretary for Labour who now holds a seat in Parliament, told state broadcaster NRK on Monday. He was referring to the decision made at Labour’s annual national meeting over the weekend to halt any further environmental impact studies of oil exploration and production off scenic Lofoten, Vesterålen and Senja, also known as LoVeSe.
The battle has split Labour for years, pitting its environmental and climate advocates against labour unions and industrial employers most keen on generating jobs and revenue, not least in areas far from the country’s population center in Oslo. In this case the issue also pitted Norway’s two most important industries, oil and fishing, against each other, with the oil lobby pushing hard to open up new offshore exploration in areas also viewed as prime fishing grounds. Kolberg consoled himself by saying that he does think Labour can win more climate-oriented voters after the historic vote, along with those working in the seafood business.
Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre had fought against any long-term ban on oil exploration but ended up facing local opposition from Labour Party chapters in Nordland and Troms counties, where both fishing and tourism were not viewed as compatible with oil. Støre worked out a compromise two years ago but it recently fell apart, with the local chapters, Labour’s youth organization AUF and Labour members who see a need to boost the party’s climate and environmental image ultimately prevailing in a majority vote over the weekend to protect LoVeSe.
Kolberg stressed that Labour otherwise still supports the oil industry, and oil industry advocates will see that LoVeSe was a special exemption. Others aren’t so sure, with the leader of a large union who works on an oil production vessel blasting the vote as “symbolic politics at its worst.” Labour member Rune Hantho wondered on social media how he could “stand before my 300 members in our company and still claim that Labour is the right party for them, the cream of Norwegian industrial workers.”
LO leader Hans-Christian Gabrielsen was also unhappy. As boss of Norway’s largest trade union federation he told reporters he was “disappointed” that Labour moved away from the compromise struck in 2017 that called for a petroleum-free zone within the Vestforden off Lofoten and for 50 kilometers off the coastline. Jørn Eggum of another powerful trade union organization, Fellesforbundet, was also critical after losing his efforts to open up new fields for exploration outside the zone.
“We should have stood by the compromise we made, now many opponents will use this against us,” Eggum told newspaper Dagsavisen. “They’ll say they can’t rely on the Labour Party’s industrial policy, that we’re waffling.”
AUF members were jubilant, feeling that they finally made headway on making Labour more responsive to voters who are concerned by climate change and want changes in oil exploration and production policy. “This is something that the AUF generation fought for and mobilized for,” exulted AUF leader Ina Rangønes Libak. “We finally achieved our goal.”
Støre, who now must defend and promote the decision made, first had to accept defeat and try to placate the oil interests, while also calling the decision to drop any further study of the consequences of oil drilling off LoVeSe “a decision for the future.” He promised “to listen” to the oil lobby and Labour members promoting the oil industry, and stood by his claim that Labour will work to further develop the oil industry instead of phasing it out.
Støre also lost his effort to promote “stricter” immigration policy and state funding for dental care during the lengthy annual meeting. He did at least score three victories though: Støre was re-elected as Labour’s leader for two more years, along with Hadia Tajik and Bjørnar Skjæran as his two deputy leaders. Skjæran replaces the controversial Trond Giske, who has lost power and prestige following a series of sexual harassment complaints against him.
Støre also won support for his effort to prevent the party from latching onto the UN’s ban on nuclear weapons. Only AUF favoured adhering to the ban, and was defeated by an overwhelming majority who believe nuclear deterrents remain necessary and that Norway as a member of NATO couldn’t defy its own defense by allies with nuclear capabilities.
Støre also managed to block initiatives to allow local communities to veto wind energy projects in their areas and to further liberalize Norway’s abortion law, by extending self-determination over having an abortion from 12- to 18 weeks. All in all, he prevailed on several issues that he views as important in reviving the party that’s sunk in public opinion polls.
The party also approved a series of welfare initatives including free meals for children in elementary schools, an issue the Socialist Left party (SV) has championed for many years. Labour also opened up for allowing free participation in after-school programs and discounted day care center rates even below the heavily subsidized rates currently offered. Labour’s social reform program was immediately criticized by opposition parties as being expensive and impossible to implement without a big rise in taxes.