Norway’s troubled Labour Party was licking its post-election wounds this week and bracing for the big new climate battle that lies ahead. The party remains split, as its youth organization calls for a halt to all new oil and gas exploration while its trade union confederations want to keep pumping up oil for as long as possible.
“If Labour wants to remain a relevant party in the future, it must have some credible climate solutions,” Ina Libak, who leads Labour’s youth organization AUF, told newspaper Aftenposten as the party’s central board wrapped up two days of meetings. “There’s a large public movement out there that’s demanding action.”
She’s up against more traditional Labour Party officials like Jørn Eggum, head of the large trade union federation Felleforbundet, who believes the most important thing is preservation of all the jobs and economic growth that the oil industry has fueled in Norway, not least during the past 20 years. Labour’s new deputy leader Bjørnar Skjæran, meanwhile, claims that the oil industry “can be part of the (climate) solution,” continuing to create jobs and value while also cutting its emissions. He does not want to set any date for phasing out the industry.
Libak is also keen to create jobs but not through oil. “I’m part of Labour because I think folks shall have a job to go to, that’s the most important for everyone,” she told Aftenposten. “I think Labour is in the best position to carry out a green economic shift in a fair manner.”
She firmly believes that in order to win back voters, not least from parties like the Greens (MDG) that triumphed in Norway’s recent local elections, Labour must deliver concrete programs to cut carbon emissions. She insists that opening up new areas of the Norwegian Continental Shelf for oil exploration and handing out more exploration licenses will only increase Norway’s oil dependency. That must stop, claim both Libak and AUF, which also (like the Greens) wants to eventually phase out the oil and gas industry.
Libak survived the massacre at AUF’s summer camp on the island of Utøya in 2011 and helped win last year’s campaign to halt oil exploration off Lofoten, Vesterålen and Senja. She’s a fighter who also believes Labour can re-emerge as a credible force to reverse climate change if it frees itself of oil’s grip.
Labour (Arbeiderpartiet, Ap) has been caught in a climate squeeze for many years, normally giving in to the industry and union forces to maintain job creation. Now, at a time when climate issues are grabbing more attention and support than economic growth, Labour faces political competitors like the Greens and a poor record regarding efforts to cut emissions.
Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre claimed he wants to have climate issues high on Labour’s agenda. He managed to quell debate over whether Labour should cooperate with the Greens at a national level like they have at a local level. Eggum has made it clear he doesn’t want Labour to ever cooperate with the Greens, while Libak agrees that it’s much too early to even discuss any cooperation that might follow a parliamentary election that’s two years away. Labour officials at least seem to agree that it’s most important to hammer out their own climate policies first and then debate possible cooperation with other parties in 2021.
“Jonas, Jørn and I have different views on many issues,” Libak stressed to Aftenposten, “but our starting point is the same. We’re worried about folks’ economy and jobs, but I don’t think we need to exploit oil to its last drop. In the long run, that can threaten welfare, climate and our economy.” As increasing numbers of economists and professors are pointing out, oil investment presents risks, not least when demand for it falls.
Støre, meanwhile, tried to look on the bright side of the recent elections that left the party with just 24.8 percent of the vote on a national basis. Labour did win power in most of Norway’s biggest cities including Oslo, Trondheim, Bergen and Stavanger. There have been no calls for Støre or other party leaders to step down and none is quitting. They now agree that they need to be tougher in opposition and less likely to enter into compromises with the current Conservatives-led government.
Commentators claim Labour now must come up with climate policies that can be respected and more district-friendly policies to win back voters outside the main cities. Too many of them voted for the Center Party, which many brand as both populist and protectionist. A strong AUF can help Labour attract the young voters that currently have latched on to the Greens.
Støre, highly respected as foreign minister in Jens Stoltenberg’s Labour-led governments from 2005 to 2013, also cracked down on any attempt to undermine Norway’s trade agreement with the European Union (known as the EØS agreement). Eggum has also stirred up criticism around the EØS deal but Støre quickly smashed it, declaring that Labour will defend the agreement and not meddle with it in any way. On that point, Labour and the Conservatives are in total agreement.
Støre now hopes that Labour-led governments at the local level will renew voter confidence in Labour and show, over the next two years leading up to the parliamentary election in 2021, how it can cooperate with other left-center parties. After two terms in office, Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s fractious coalition may also fail to hang on to power, in which case Støre will be more than eager to take over her job.