Labour goes after ‘ordinary people’

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NEWS ANALYSIS: Members of Norway’s long-troubled Labour Party tried hard to come together during their annual national meeting that extended into the weekend. Reaction was mixed on whether they succeeded: Any return to power in the upcoming election may be based more on the strength of potential government partners than themselves.

Labour Party leader Johan Gahr Støre prevailed on several key issues during Labour’s annual and digitally held meeting. Now he’ll be battling for the prime minister’s office after national elections in September. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

Labour’s core problems are tied mostly to lots of internal conflict in recent years. The party’s oil and transport industry supporters for example, are constantly at odds with the party’s climate activists who want to cut emissions. Labour also faces sheer demographic challenges: Norwegian labourers who once voted for Labour have largely been replaced by lower-paid foreign workers who don’t vote in Norway. The working class that earlier backed Labour has declined as the country’s affluence has risen.

Then there’s been all the personnel problems within Labour in recent years, not least after former deputy leader Trond Giske was hit by sexual harassment charges during the massive “metoo” debate. Giske represented the left side of the party, he fought hard to retain his position after a long career in politics and the ensuing battle tore the party apart. Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre eventually prevailed over Giske and now Støre has his sights set on becoming Norway’s next prime minister.  Støre, a highly educated former foreign minister who comes from a wealthy family, also keeps struggling, however, to win acceptance from what’s left of Labour’s working class voters who haven’t already defected to the Progress- or Center parties.

After a long and difficult pre-meeting process, party leaders working with Labour’s youth group AUF and Norway’s largest trade union confederation LO finally managed to settle on some “green industry” initiatives that narrowed the gap between the climate and pro-oil factions. There’s lots of attention on reducing forskjeller (social differences) among Norwegians and getting those laid off during the Corona crisis back to work, preferably in full-time, permanent jobs.

Back to basics
Labour is also now trying to appeal directly to vanlige folk (ordinary people), highlighting Norwegians living in outlying areas who still rely on their diesel-fueled cars, factory workers in small towns, nurses who earn far less than most agree they deserve and a janitor in Kongsberg whose labour union official can secure her a full-time job.

The goal is to bring Labour back to its roots and, according to some, “regain its soul.” After too many open conflicts that left Labour with an image of being deeply divided, “the table was set for a message about unity around the most important portions of the party program that everyone seemed excited about,” noted Magnus Takvam, Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK)’s political commentator.

Then came a huge new split, though, over the center-right government’s recent proposal to reform Norwegian drug laws. The government coalition went along with the Liberals’ fervent wish to decriminalize use and possession of small amounts of narcotics and there initially seemed to be support for it in Parliament. Labour itself has advocated some form of drug reform for years, not least after it became public knowledge that Labour’s own mighty Stoltenberg family struggled with an addict amongst them.

Drug reform proposal rejected
It soon became clear, however, that Støre opposed the new drug reform proposal and he pointed to 151 Labour mayors around the country who did, too. That set off conflict again with Labour’s mayors in Norway’s biggest city, Oslo, and in Bergen, both of whom supported drug reform. They lost, despite Oslo Mayor Raymond Johansen’s pleas for help in dealing with drug problems and addiction.

That deepened concerns that Labour under Støre is paying far more attention to the interests of Norway’s outlying districts than its big cities. In trying to appeal to “ordinary folks” around the country, and addressing social differences between rural and urban areas, he’s being accused of ignoring Norway’s cities where social differences are arguably the worst. Newspaper Aftenposten wrote that Labour “took a step backward” by rejecting the government’s drug reform proposal.

In order to become prime minister, however, Støre will need to share government power with the district-oriented Center Party led by Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, who adamantly opposed decriminalization of even small doses of narcotics. After heated debate Støre won, meaning that Labour will vote against the government’s drug reform proposal in Parliament later this spring, killing efforts to address addiction problems once again. Some Labour members openly wondered what the late Thorvald Stoltenberg, whose daugher Nini died after years of addiction, would have said. Støre claims he favours humane rehabilitation programs for addicts, but he sided with Vedum instead of Johansen.

Abortion law liberalized
Støre’s leadership was thus criticized once again, but he also exhibited how he could gather support for his own position. Another major issue was also approved with his nod: liberalization of abortion laws so that women no longer must seek special permission for abortions between 12 and 18 weeks of pregnancy. He may have opposed that if he still needed support for a Labour-led government coalition from the Christian Democrats, which he sought and failed to get a few years ago.

In the end, Labour’s annual meeting illustrated how Norway’s long-dominant and largest parties now have to negotiate most all issues with potential government partners. Norwegian politics has become much more fragmented than it used to be, when either Labour or the Conservatives held their own majorities in Parliament or dominated coalitions. Now, as Takvam notes, they have to deal with alliances and remain flexible with regards to potential partners.

Støre did see a need, however, to place Labour itself firmly on the left side of politics despite all the pressure he’s under from the Center Party. He repeated demands that the Socialist Left part (SV) be included in any new left-center coalition government even though Center doesn’t want to rule with SV. The three did rule together earlier, though, from 2005 to 2013.

Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) editorialized that Støre’s opening address to his members was full of “lightweight rhetoric” aimed at placing Labour on the left and hinting that most of Norway’s problems can be blamed on the right. The stage is being set, at any rate, for an election campaign that Støre, after losing in 2017, must win if he’s to remain Labour’s leader.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund