In Norway’s elections last week it looked like a repeat of the previous election. Not so writes Asbjørn Wahl
By Asbjørn Wahl, Norwegian trade union and political activist
The centre-left failed to remove the so-called blue-blue government at the parliamentary elections in Norway on 11 September. The Labour Party was the main loser, while small parties on the centre-left advanced slightly. Nonetheless, the parliamentary basis of the right-wing government has started to unravel. A deeper political crisis may be looming in the background, as social contradictions are on the rise. Social Democracy followed the general European downward tendency (except Britain).
First, some basic facts on the Norwegian electoral system. There are 169 members of parliament, who are elected through proportional representation. The 19 counties serve as the electoral constituencies. There is a threshold of 4 percent to qualify for the proportional distribution of representatives, although it is possible to win direct representation from the counties although the national gain of votes is below the threshold. Two political parties won representation in that way.
In the previous four-year parliamentary session, Norway was governed by a minority government formed by the Conservative Party and the so-called Progress Party (a right-wing populist party). Therefore the name blue-blue government. It was supported by two other parties – the Christian Democratic Party and the so-called Liberal Party (which in reality is neo-liberal, but with a touch of green). This support was established through a formal agreement, but to secure a parliamentary majority for the government, it was sufficient with support from only one of these two parties.
Norway has seen an increasing political fragmentation in the recent past. Following the current elections, there are 9 political parties represented in Parliament. The four on the right are mentioned above, while the centre-left opposition includes the Labour Party, the Centre Party, the Socialist Left Party, the Green Party and the Red Party. As in many other countries, however, the entire political spectrum has moved to the right during the neo-liberal offensive since around 1980.
For the blue-blue government, two important things changed following the current election. The Christian Democratic Party claims that it is no longer willing to sign a contract of support with a government in which the right-wing populist Progress Party takes part; and the government is dependent on both of the two former supportive parties to achieve a majority in Parliament. In other words, the Government’s political basis is much weaker than in the previous legislative session, something which opens the possibility of a collapse of the blue-blue government. Since Norway does not permit calling an election during a parliamentary session, this can lead to a lot of political turbulence or an open political crisis.
Many people expected a centre-left victory at this election, since the blue-blue government had initiated many unpopular policies. The discontent was particularly strong in the trade union movement. However, the Labour Party’s election campaign proved to be quite disastrous under its new leader, Jonas Gahr Støre. One of the big “mistakes” was a flirt with the so-called political centre (centre right), that is with the two political parties which had supported the blue-blue government and by that had also supported attacks on the labour law and other economic and social gains for the working class. Further, the Labour Party was not even able to take a clear stand against the on-going and very unpopular commercialisation of core services in the Norwegian welfare state. Neither did the party come up with a credible policy against the undermining of labour market regulations, which to a high degree is promoted by the increasingly authoritarian, neo-liberal European Union. This is a policy which in Norway is being implemented through the European Economic Area (EEA), an agreement which is strongly supported by the Labour Party.
The right-wing populist Progress Party, on the other hand, was successful in setting the agenda for much of the election campaign, first and foremost by playing the anti-immigration card and by focussing on identity policies. The Labour Party was unable to respond to this with the only measures which can really confront such right-wing policies, namely a clear class policy. This did not necessarily happen because the party’s leadership is unwilling to do so, but simply because class politics are strongly in deficit in today’s social democracy – although still deeply rooted in a social partnership ideology.
While social democracy is on the verge of breaking down, and even being eradicated, in large parts of Europe today (Greece, Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands, France), much suggests that also the Norwegian, actually the Nordic, social democracy, despite its fame as the creator of the Nordic welfare model, is now following this downward trajectory of their European sister parties, although more gradually. Power relations do not seem to be part of the actual social democratic narrative – their ‘raison de vivre’ is obviously to administer capitalism within the limits dictated at the time by the existing political power constellation – not to shift the balance of power. Thus, the right-wing political offensive is not being effectively confronted by social democracy.
The golden age of social democracy was based on a class compromise and a balance of power which made it possible to move forward socially within the framework of a regulated capitalism (i.e. the welfare state). The material basis for such policies is now coming to an end with the deep crisis and stagnation of capitalism, and the subsequent neo-liberal offensive. The social democratic attempt to re-establish the class compromise, with its successful tripartite cooperation and social dialogue, even without class mobilisation and confrontations, is an illusionary project in the current political conjuncture.
Maybe the Norwegian election is just another sign that the era of social democracy is now coming to an end. All those, all over the world, who has been looking at the Nordic Model as their final aim, may have to rethink and reassess their policies and strategies. But who on the left is it that can now provide us with a class policy with perspective?
Norwegian parliamentary election in figures
Party Percentage Gain/loss from Number of MPs
votes last election
The right-wing coalition:
The Conservative Party 25,0 -1,8 45
The Progress Party 15,2 -1,2 27
The Liberal Party 4,4 -0,9 8
The Cristian Democratic Party 4,2 -1,4 8
The centre-left opposition:
The Labour Party 27,4 -3,5 49
The Centre Party 10,3 +4,8 19
The Socialist Left Party 6,0 +1,9 11
The Green Party 3,2 +0,4 1
The Red Party 2,4 +1,3 1