Labour limps into crucial new session

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NEWS ANALYSIS: As Parliament launched into its new session on Monday, Norway’s once-mighty Labour Party is down in the dumps. Not even a new party program that tried hard to set Labour apart from its rivals has managed to win support, leaving the party with its worst poll result ever just when parliamentary debate began.

Corona-induced plexiglass shields set up between Members of Parliament aren’t the only thing dividing them as the new session began this week. PHOTO: Stortinget/Benjamin A Ward

The new public opinion poll conducted by research firm Kantar for TV2 shows Labour with just 18.4 percent of the vote. That was only 2.2 points higher than its former “junior partner” in the last left-center government, the Center Party. Center scored 16.2 percent after months of luring away Labour voters in Northern Norway, within the oil industry and even in a district of eastern Oslo that’s been a Labour bastion for years. That may make it increasingly difficult for Labour to view the Center Party more as a rival than a political ally.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, could still head into the new session of Parliament as Norway’s largest party with 24 percent of the vote, with Prime Minister Erna Solberg continuing to enjoy more public confidence than any other top politician. Her minority government’s two partners, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals, also scored more than 4 percent each, the level needed to win full representation in Parliament. Their former partner, the Progress Party, claimed just 12.8 percent, compared to 15-16 percent in the last two elections, leaving the four parties short of a majority.

It all means that the swing votes of other small parties (the Reds, the Greens and the Socialist Left) remain crucial for forming a government if the poll trend continues in the run-up to next year’s national election. And that makes this year’s Parliamentary session more important than ever, as all nine parties currently holding seats jockey for position. While the Parliament’s president urged respect and cooperation during the new session, that spirit and the opposition’s support for Norway’s government during the early months of the Corona crisis last spring appear mostly gone.

New party program was supposed to help
Labour has the most at stake, and not least its struggling leader Jonas Gahr Støre. He failed to unseat Prime Minister Solberg in 2017 and just hasn’t been able to muster enthusiam since succeeding Norway’s charismatic Jens Stoltenberg as party leader in 2014. That made him the opposition’s candidate for prime minister, but Støre is regularly accused of waffling on issues and lacking clarity when he speaks. He was also harshly criticized for not being tough enough when party veteran Trond Giske was widely accused of a history of sexual harassment. Giske was allowed a quick comeback, until grassroots protests finally halted his move to become leader of Labour’s large Trøndelag chapter.

Controversial Labour veteran Trond Giske showed up for his last session of Parliament on Monday, but is on his way out in the wake of the MeToo movement against sexual harassment. PHOTO: Stortinget/Benjamin A Ward

Now Giske is in his last session as a Member of Parliament, but only after several prominent Labour women left the party and politics in disgust as well, complaining about Støre’s alleged lack of leadership. Party faithful still hope that Støre’s constant stumbling will end, with a new proposed party program that aims to bring Labour back to its roots.

Commentators generally applauded the program when it was presented at a national party meeting in September. Newspaper Dagsavisen, with roots in the Labour Party, had  editorialized before its presentation that Labour needed “to show that it’s a good alternative to the Solberg government.” The problem, Dagsavisen argued, is that Labour hasn’t managed to present itself as that “good alternative.”

The party that once dominated Norwegian politics has lately lost voters to the Reds, the Socialist Left, Center and the Greens because they don’t think Labour has been radical enough, hasn’t appealed to those living in remote areas of Norway who want extra government support, and has lacked good climate policies. Some moderate Labour voters have even defected to the Conservatives. Many think Labour’s former image as an environmentally friendly party has drowned in oil and industry, while working class voters don’t see Støre, who comes from a wealthy family, as their champion. That was illustrated in the recent bus strike, when striking bus drivers demanded an end to local governments putting bus contracts out to bid. Labour supports such bidding and avoided addressing the issue even when meeting with striking bus drivers, though it’s resulted in wage levels that lag other groups.

‘More state steering’
Labour ended up presenting a program that turns the party more to the left and involves “more state and steering.” Støre himself called the program “familiarly social democratic,” and he was pleased that both trade union federations and Labour’s own youth group AUF had managed to formulate climate- and energy policy together.

Newspaper Aftenposten noted how Labour’s program doesn’t just want to retain state ownership stakes in major companies, it wants to exert more authority over them. Labour wants “more active ownership” in companies like Equinor and Telenor, also in the Oil Fund. Labour doesn’t want to sell off more of the recently shamed Equinor, in which the state currently holds 67 percent, but rather prod it away from oil and into more “green” investments. Labour also differs also sharply from the current government on tax policy, which poses a big battle over the state budget that the government will present on Wednesday.

Labour’s struggling leader Jonas Gahr Støre (right), in a conversation with the leader of the Conservatives’ parliamentary delegation, Trond Helleland, as political debate formally began on Monday. PHOTO: Stortinget/Benjamin A Ward

Labour also now wants to take over state ownership of ambulance services (also subject to controversial bidding processes at present), offer more state-supported dental care, restrict creation of private schools and make sure new, often hotly contested reforms of public services don’t have unwelcome consequences in outlying districts. Police reform, for example, has led to consolidation and closure of many local police stations, just like hospital reform has also closed local hospitals in favour of larger regional hospitals.

Støre, known for being on the moderate side of Labour, acknowledges that the new program puts Labour more firmly on the left side of Norwegian politics. Commentators think that’s important, not least in more clearly differentiating the party from the Conservatives, the Liberals and Christian Democrats. “This is a clearer direction,” Støre said when the program was unveiled.

The new direction, however, wasn’t enough to boost Labour’s standing in the polls. Støre has faced one challenge after another lately, both at the party level and personal. He confirmed last summer, meanwhile, that he’s now placed his own large fortune in the bank, so as not to have any more conflicts over private investments made by fund managers that damaged Labour’s election campaign in 2017. Støre also hopes to ward off more conflicts within Labour, never an easy task.

Unless Labour enjoys a sudden surge of popularity, though, many commentators think Labour will have to get used to the idea of also cooperating with either the Reds or the Greens in addition to Center and SV. The non-socialist Liberals, meanwhile, are trying to get the Greens over to their side, too. Corona issues, meanwhile, will continue to play a major role as well, as debate continues over how to bring down unemployment, save jobs and preserve entire industries.

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund