Strained alliances in Norwegian politics

Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre (Ap) and his cabinet during the opening of the 167th Norwegian Parliament on 3rd October 2022

First published at Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.

The first two years of Norway’s Arbeiderpartiet (Labour Party)/ Senterpartiet (Centre Party) coalition government have seen the challenges mount up, with debates about solidarity dominating at the international level, while domestic economic inequality has increased.

A new hope?

The expectations for real political change after the 2021 elections were high. The centre-left and socialist parties had won a solid majority in parliament, after eight years of conservative-liberal welfare and public sector cuts, tax cuts for the wealthy, and increased public spending on commercial health services.

Eight years earlier, Labour and Centre had governed together with the Sosialistisk Venstreparti (Socialist Left Party, SV) in a so-called ”red–green coalition”, and throughout the 2021 campaign, Labour used a slogan possibly inspired by their Danish sister party: “Now it’s the ordinary people’s turn”.

The three red-green parties did not present a common platform upfront, but the Centre Party declared they would form a government with Labour, thereby distancing themselves clearly from the Conservatives. Labour in turn signalled the inclusion of SV as a natural coalition partner together with the Centre Party.

After the votes were counted, the same three parties once again had the opportunity to form a majority government, and with the national breakthrough of another socialist party, Rødt (Red), the political winds had definitively turned left. While Labour, Centre and SV explored the possibilities for negotiating a governing platform, however, they could not find common ground. Leaving the negotiations, SV declared that political impact was more important than ministerial positions and warned the Labour/Centre-led government against “slaloming” in parliament between the Conservatives and Socialists.

Political commentators in the mainstream media seemed surprised that SV would not give up more of their politics in order to gain influential positions. But the tables soon turned – while they were not part of government, the balance of power SV now held in parliament gave the party a leading role in developing and landing the national budget. Suddenly, all eyes were on SV.

The party successfully held the line on its two main priorities – the fight against economic injustice, and cutting environmentally damaging greenhouse emissions – and collected many political victories in the budget negotiations that followed, earning public recognition as a leading force on social and environmental issues. SV secured partially-free participation in the after-school program for young children, increased capital tax and income tax for the highest incomes, increased social benefits for families with children, increased the carbon tax for the oil industry, and ensured that no new oil search licenses would be granted in 2022. What the national budget did not foresee, however, was the rise in power prices that was about to come.

Power price crisis

Norwegians are used to low energy prices due to the country’s natural resources, but closer connections to foreign markets have exposed consumers to price fluctuations, and ultimately what seems to be lasting higher prices. The steep rise in electricity prices in autumn 2021 put the government in a difficult position. The Centre Party, founded on rural and agricultural interests, would traditionally have criticised the unfavourable consequences for consumers of connectivity with the European energy market. As a government party, however, Centre could not articulate its general opposition to the EU in an unrestrained manner, while Labour embraces the European Economic Area as stated policy.

The government quickly implemented economic supports for households’ increased electricity bills, but this solved only a small part of the problem. Power intensive industry has benefited from access to cheap power in Norway for more than a hundred years, and both the unions and industry began to express concern. While this would be a worry for any Norwegian government, Labour’s close connection with the unions made them especially vulnerable, and as these industries are typically located in rural areas, Centre’s credibility as a party promoting rural interests was at risk.

Most of the power companies are publicly owned, either by the state or regionally, but are run as commercial companies. Both SV and the Red party intervened in the public debate, insisting on more political control of power distribution, instead of allowing the market to decide the price and then subsequently patching up the problems with public benefits.

However, the ministers refused to instruct companies to lower their prices or secure sufficient water storage in the hydropower facilities. The result was an absurd situation, with publicly owned companies taking in as much money as possible with one hand, while the government returned parts of the profit with the other hand as supports.

The empire strikes back

Foreign policy is rarely a useful source of political support in Norway, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought conflicting issues into the public debate. Attitudes towards and relations with Russia differ between parts of the country. Those living close to the shared border in the north have a long history of trade and cultural exchange across the border, and the memory of Russia as an ally and liberator in WWII may also be keener there. The most common view of Russia, however, is of a superpower looming uncomfortably close.

Since the Russian invasion, both Labour and Centre, together with liberal and conservative parties in Norway, have shared a consensus position on Norwegian foreign policy, and have remained close to the NATO strategy from the beginning of the invasion. In contrast, the two socialist parties have spent the long year since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine engaging in debates on Norway’s relation to NATO and military support to Ukraine.

For SV, the issue has been whether or not to support Norwegian membership of NATO in principle, while Red has been grappling with the question of whether the party should support sending weapons to Ukraine. Even though these discussions were held in two rather small socialist parties (SV 7,4 % and Red 4,7 %, 2021), both debates took place in the public sphere. Arguably, the debate also exposed a shift towards a more mainstream approach to foreign policy.

When the government started sending weapons to Ukraine, SV’s national board was divided on the question, voting 21 to 18 votes against sending weapons just six days after the invasion. After a few weeks’ debate, SV’s national board held a new meeting, agreeing to the supply of “defensive” weapons. Red on the other hand, stood firm for almost another year before also deciding to support weapons aid.

While these debates took place very publicly, they were unlikely to have any major political consequences. SV have never proposed putting Norwegian NATO membership up for vote in the parliament, and if they did, could not have dreamt of winning support for an exit. Likewise, although Red only decided to support weapons to Ukraine more than a year after the invasion, they hold a mere 8 of 169 seats in parliament. Still, while critics condemned both debates as navel gazing, they were the only debates putting the country’s foreign policy under the scrutiny it deserves, instead of just falling in behind most of the Western hemisphere.

Norway is itself a producer of weapons, but since a parliamentary debate in 1959 has had a restricted policy on selling arms to countries presently at war, threatened by war, or experiencing civil war. Only a few days after the Russian invasion, Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre announced that Norway would deliver weapons – both so-called defensive weapons as well as missiles – to Ukraine, an arms donation worth 2 billion Norwegian kroner (almost 200 million euros). Apart from SV and Red, there was from the outset near-unanimous parliamentary support for the move. Nevertheless, the question was raised whether Norway should be playing such an active role. Some feared that Norway, due to its shared border with Russia in the north, risked getting too involved in the conflict by donating weapons.

No more “no to NATO”?

With SV´s decision on supporting weapons, however, a new debate started on whether the party should maintain its historical anti-NATO, with some in the party arguing the invasion was an occasion to rethink the party program. For many members, however, this question touches on the very soul of the party. SV, or rather its precursor, was founded in 1961 by former Labour members, based – among other things – on opposition to Norway’s membership in NATO and to nuclear weapons, and on support for a “third way” in the geopolitical standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union.

In recent times, NATO’s out-of-area-operations and the dominant role of a nuclear power, the USA, in the alliance, have been fundamental issues for many of the party’s members, keen to maintain active opposition to NATO membership. Others, however, have argued that the party’s defence politics were simply unrealistic. They argued that the idea of a common Nordic defence alliance – something long proposed by SV as an alternative to NATO – was no longer an option, especially with both Sweden and Finland abandoning their positions of neutrality in order to join NATO.

The debate continued in local and regional party branches until the party’s national congress in March 2023, which endorsed a statement explicitly renouncing the goal of taking Norway out of NATO, as had been set out in the party program for the period 2021 to 2025. The five-page statement made sharp criticism of NATO’s out-of-area-strategy and of nuclear weapons and expressed a desire for a European or Nordic centre of gravity within the NATO-alliance. This way, both sides of the debate were acknowledged, and what many had feared would remain a divisive question found a tolerable compromise: congress delegates voted 184 to 24 in favour of the statement.

In stark contrast, Red has maintained a strong anti-NATO position. In January 2023, three party veterans made a clear statement in support of sending weapons to Ukraine, leading to an internal debate, to great interest from political journalists and commentators. Some party members argued that, because NATO is an aggressive, imperialist alliance, by sending weapons, Norway would be deeply integrated in the war. They argued that what was needed was a dialogue for peace, not more guns. In response, those who supported sending weapons argued for showing solidarity with the Ukrainian people and emphasised that Norway would have had a similar need for assistance if we were in their situation.

Another debate also broke out – similar to the “soul of the party” discussion in SV – on whether or not Red is a pacifist or peace party. One argument was made that sending weapons to Ukraine would open the door to sending weapons to the Palestinians and other peoples engaged in armed struggles after having become victims of violations of international law. In the end, 107 delegates at Red’s congress voted in favour of supporting supplying weapons to Ukraine, with only 74 against.

The Russian disregard for international law has forced a worldwide reassessment of the geopolitical situation, something that is reflected in Norwegian politics. Foreign policy discussion has shifted towards geographically closer threats and has created a generally more NATO-friendly climate, with critical voices becoming marginalised. While an informed debate on the country’s foreign policy remains necessary, a simple debate for or against NATO membership is too narrow to shed light on the current state of imperialism and how to respond to it.

Expensive times

As mentioned above, another major challenge Norway faces is increasing class differences. Rising electricity prices hit the working population first. A change in the cost of living hits everybody, of course, but it hits people already struggling even harder. In just a few months, general inflation has reached record levels. Norway’s central bank is not under direct political control, but operates independently to secure low inflation by controlling interest rates, and has now raised rates to the highest level in fifteen years. Three out of four Norwegians are house owners, and consequently the debt ratio is high, making Norwegian households vulnerable to interest rates hikes. This exposure to the increased cost of living may be a reason for renewed focus on poverty and the low levels of welfare benefits. Both SV and Red have pointed out these problems for years, but now they are on the general agenda.

Even so, Red has been played out on the left field, so to speak, as their votes aren’t needed to secure a majority. In the campaign before the 2019 local elections, the Red party leader said repeatedly that the role of Red in Norwegian politics had changed, arguing they are no longer a watchdog, but a “sled dog”. Where they had previously been barking about the shortcomings of other parties’ policies, they would now present radical, progressive alternatives to drag the political scale further to the left. At the same time, Red has made it clear on numerous occasions that they have no intention of being a part of any governing coalition, an articulated reluctance to seek power that distinguishes Red from SV, who tried to negotiate a government platform right after the elections in 2021, and has repeatedly expressed willingness to start new negotiations.

Current opinion polling for both socialist parties is better, overall, than their results in the last election, but polling for the governing parties, Labour and Centre, has dramatically worsened. With potential governing majorities now slipping out of reach, there is not much schadenfreude among the radicals – their welcome progress does not make up for all the votes that seem to have vanished from the moderate left in Norwegian politics.

A common fight for common welfare

In September 2023, there will be new local elections (Norwegian elections are held every second year, alternately local and national). Labour is currently governing most of the big cities, in a variety of different coalitions with parties of the left or centre. Many progressive voters, along with the unions, fear that the attrition in national government support will affect the local elections.

This could have far-reaching consequences, as the municipalities run welfare services such as elder care, kindergartens and child welfare. The Conservative party is openly calling for handing responsibility for many of these services to commercial companies. Support for universal welfare services remains high, so the Conservatives simply propose spending the public’s money on paying private, profit-driven companies to provide public services, arguing that services will become more efficient and better than if they were supplied by staff on the public’s payroll directly.

The left, along with the unions, argues that commercialised services will be insufficiently staffed, salaries will be pushed down, and pension benefits will get worse. Also, the transparency laws which governmental institutions have to obey may not apply to private companies. Indeed, experiences from Sweden prove that both users and employees will suffer, while company owners collect massive profits from the taxpayers’ money.

In May 2023, the centre-left government established a base rate for the salmon farming industry, similar to taxes on petrol and waterpower. The super-profits of the salmon industry, yielded to a significant extent by our common fjords, gave this new tax broad acceptance across the political scale. The level of this tax, on the other hand, has been heavily debated for eight months.

To the surprise of many, the government found support from the Liberal party for a soft version of the tax, instead of cooperating with SV as previously anticipated - in addition to a higher tax rate, SV was arguing for environmental requirements. As SV had warned during government formation, the government finally made a “slalom turn” to seek support from the conservative parties, rather than pursue a more socially and environmentally just outcome.

When the revision of the national budget began in the middle of June 2023, however, the centre-left government once again sought support from SV, presenting them with a chance to win further red and green political victories. Among the wins secured were an historic increase of the universal child benefit, greater social benefits, free dental care for vulnerable groups, subsidised solar panel-projects, support for green industrial transition (resembling the Net Zero Industry Act in EU), and more money for forest protection and public transport.

While the socialists’ strength may have made the conservatives more willing to compromise, as the case of the salmon base rate shows, political craftmanship may be the left’s most powerful tool to keep the government from straying.

Ingrid Wergeland (born 1978) is a Norwegian sociologist and writer. She is a member of SV and works in the field of political communication at Manifest Think tank. She has published pamphlets on various topics concerning the welfare state and workers’ rights.