Tobias Drevland Lund (Red Party, Norway): ‘We need a Nordic Defence Alliance that can stake out a third position between Russia and the US’

Tobias Drevland Lund, an MP for Norway’s radical left party Rødt (Red Party) speaks to Federico Fuentes about the party's rise, Norwegian politics and Russia’s war on Ukraine. Lund represents the electoral district of Telemark in Norway’s Storting (parliament) and sits on the Nordic Council, an advisory body for Nordic inter-parliamentary cooperation. 

While a lot is known about radical left forces in Western Europe, such as Podemos and Syriza, much less is known about the Nordic radical left. Could you tell us a bit about the rise of the Red Party?

The Red Party was founded in 2007. It was formed out of a merger of two different parties. One was the Workers’ Communist Party, a traditionally Maoist party. The Workers’ Communist Party did not stand in elections, seeing itself instead as an activist party with a strong focus on trade unions. While historically it played an important role in many workers’ conflicts, following the fall of the Soviet Union, the Workers’ Communist Party went into decline. The other party was the Red Electoral Alliance, a left-wing populist party that ran in elections. 

The Red Party was established with the goal of building a modern, radical and socialist movement for change in Norwegian politics. We took inspiration from other European left-wing populist and socialist forces, like Podemos and Syriza which you mentioned. We also took a lot of inspiration from the Danish Red Green Alliance: we see ourselves as their Norwegian counterpart. We have a lot of contact with them to strategise and develop common party programs and policies together. 

It took us ten years to build up our party to the point of being able to win seats in parliament. We first entered the Norwegian parliament in the 2017 elections, with our party leader winning a seat. In the 2021 parliamentary elections, we passed the national 4% threshold to obtain proportional representation — becoming the first new party to surpass the threshold since its introduction in 1989 — and as a result won 8 seats from across the whole country. 

Over this period of time, the Red Party has also experienced an important growth in membership: we have gone from something like 1500 members when I joined the party in 2010 to about 14,000 members. Today, we have a much stronger organisation with numerous elected local councillors. 

The rise of the Red Party can in part be explained by the decline of the social democratic Labour Party, which has dominated Norwegian politics since World War II. We have been able to reach out to disappointed social democratic voters and unionists who have historically been social democrats who have seen their party move to the right, just like Labour parties in Britain and Australia. These voters want an alternative. Our aim is to build a strong, grassroots socialist alternative. 

I am optimistic of a bright future for left socialist parties in Europe, particularly if we can learn from each other and meet the fall of the social democratic parties with the rise of radical left parties. Given the rise of the far-right and the cost-of-living crisis people are facing, we need a radical left more than ever.

While Nordic countries are generally associated with strong social democratic governments, recent elections have seen conservative and right-wing populist parties elected to government in Sweden and Finland. Is the situation similar in Norway? If so, how do you account for the rise of these parties?

In the 2021 parliamentary elections, we elected a centre-left/centre government formed by the Labour Party and the agrarian farmers’ Centre Party. These elections saw parties from the left of centre obtain their strongest vote in many years and win a combined total of more than 100 seats out of 169 seats in parliament. This vote represented a strong message for change, coming as it did after eight years of conservative/right-wing populist government in which the populist right-wing Progress Party governed with the Conservatives for 7 of the 8 years it was in power. 

Unfortunately, despite the clear message for change coming from the electorate, voters were quickly left disappointed by the Labour-Centre government, which has not been able to deal with the problems facing ordinary people, such as rising electricity and food prices, housing costs and the general cost-of-living crisis. As a result of this, many people are now very angry at the government — which they see as having failed them — and are once again turning to right-wing populist parties, as well as the Conservatives, which are currently seeing their best polling results since their golden era of the 1980s, when conservatives such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were in power [in the US and Britain, respectively]. 

Given this, we — along with the Socialist Left Party, the other radical left party in Norway — have as our main objective tackling the cost-of-living crisis by pushing the government to implement measures that take back control from the market. For example, amid the housing crisis, we are demanding rent controls. We are also demanding price caps be implemented in the electricity market. Norway has traditionally had low electricity prices due to the clean green energy we produce through hydropower. But we are currently seeing extreme electricity price rises and people are suffering. We are also calling for pensions and social welfare payments to be raised to help the poorest amid this crisis. That is our main focus right now: getting the government to do something about rising prices for ordinary people — otherwise they are going to lose power.

Many voters do not know who to vote for. Some say they will not vote at all. Others will end up voting for the Conservatives because they see them as the main alternative to the governing Labour Party. It is not that people want more conservative politics: if you ask people on the street “do you want more privatisation?”, “do you want tax cuts for the rich?”, the majority will answer “No”. What the electorate really want is for the government to tackle the cost-of-living crisis. Unfortunately, the left is still struggling to present itself as a credible alternative to voters.

You mentioned the Socialist Left Party. Are there any particular differences that set the two parties apart?

The Red Party and Socialist Left Party are allies, with the difference being that the Socialist Left Party continues to negotiate with the Labour-Centre government and provide it with parliamentary support, while the Red Party was not invited to the negotiating table and remains outside the government, from where it seeks to challenge and pressure it to move further left.

Another difference is the voters the two parties tend to attract. The Socialist Left Party generally attracts more higher educated voters and women workers in the public sector; while the Red Party tends to have greater reach among men in the private sector and in more unionised industries. In this sense, our electorates are different, which I think is good because it allows us to grow together, side-by-side. 

I would like to now turn to the issue of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Could you outline to us the Red Party's stance on Russia’s war against Ukraine, particularly as it has evolved since the invasion to the new position statement adopted at your recent congress in April?

Russia's aggression against Ukraine shocked the left in Europe and across the world. Grappling with Russia’s invasion has been quite difficult and something we have had to collectively think through as a party. For example, the Red Party was initially against delivering weapons to Ukraine because we thought it would make us a co-participant in the war. We were worried that Russia would sanction Norway or even attack us given it was so difficult to know at the time what the endgame in all this was. However, after a year of discussions within the party — and in light of how the Ukraine war has developed — we saw it necessary to support Norway supplying weapons so that Ukrainians can fight back against the invaders. 

To be clear, we never opposed Ukraine getting weapons, but we thought Norway could play another role, a diplomatic role in the conflict given our relationship with Russia. This position, however, has proven to be wrong. 

Of course, all of this was a very big discussion within the Red Party. This is understandable as, historically, we have been very anti-US and anti-NATO. For some members, taking the stance we did was difficult to accept. But, in the end, we got an agreement based on an understanding that we want peace — but a just peace for Ukraine. This means providing Ukrainian people with weapons they need to defend themselves against the war crimes and indiscriminate bombings being carried out by Russia. It was a very difficult discussion, but I think we came out of the convention as comrades with a common position to move forward with.

The statement does draw a line at sending aircrafts and tanks. Was this part of finding a consensus position or is there a sense that such weapons constitute crossing a certain line…

There was consensus on this issue because we believe that providing tanks and aircraft will further escalate the war and we do not want Norway to play a part in that. As the Red Party, we agree with Norway supplying defensive weapons to shoot down missiles but see tanks and aircrafts as crossing a line, which is something we need to be very careful about.

At the same time, the Red Party continues to believe Norway can play an important role in diplomatic peace efforts? Why is this the case?

We believe that we can take diplomatic actions while simultaneously providing Ukranians with the weapons they need to defend themselves. We can do both; it is what other countries like France and Spain are doing. 

Moreover, we believe Norway can play a special role in this conflict as a neighbouring country that has not been at war with Russia for more than a thousand years. Even during the Cold War, Norway had quite a good relationship with Russia. Today, Norway has, on the one hand, taken a strong stance against Putin’s authoritarian leadership but, on the other hand, had a balanced relationship with Russia. It is not only in Russia’s but also in Norway's interest to ensure that the Nordic region is not militarised and peace is kept in our part of the world. 

We believe Norway should be playing a more proactive role when it comes to bringing about diplomatic solutions. Even NATO’s general secretary Jens Stoltenberg has said this war is not going to end on the battlefield but at the negotiating table: that is where all wars finally end up, and this conflict is no different. Unfortunately, Norway has not been proactive enough in advocating for peace; it has been too passive, relying too much on the European Union which has not been moving quickly enough. We need to push harder for peace. 

We have taken action together with Finland’s Left Alliance, Sweden’s Left Party and the Danish Red Green Alliance. As members of the Nordic Green Left Alliance, our MPs on the Nordic Council sought to pass a resolution ensuring that Nordic countries remain nuclear free. Sweden and Finland joining NATO cannot be used as an excuse to store nuclear weapons in the Nordic region. Unfortunately, this proposal was rejected. But we will continue to push for actions to promote peace rather than further escalate the war — which is critical given the very real fear of a nuclear war outbreak. We will continue to work with left parties in Europe and in the Nordic countries to push for more actions that help ease tensions.

Putin's invasion has clearly been exploited by Western powers to strengthen NATO and boost defence spending. What is the Red Party’s view on NATO and its role in the current conflict? 

NATO's role in the Ukraine conflict is obvious: they have a self-interest in Ukraine winning and seeing Russia weakened as a result of the war. And before the war, I think NATO should have taken a different stance towards Russia. So, it is not the case that NATO did nothing wrong before the outbreak of war. But it is Russia and Putin's fault alone that the war happened; it was Putin who ordered the invasion and killing of civilians. Fault for this war lies solely on Putin and Russia's side: no security interests, no spheres of interest or other pretexts can justify a war of aggression.

In terms of the Red Party’s position on NATO, while leaving NATO remains our goal, we are not in a position to push to leave NATO now, given the current situation. Until we have a strong enough defence force to stand on our own, we do not think Norway can leave NATO. I still believe leaving NATO is the right position. We don't have any expectations of changing NATO, given it is an imperialistic tool of the United States. But leaving NATO is not something we can do right now. 

In place of NATO, we have promoted the idea of forming a Nordic Defence Alliance. We believe this is the best solution for Nordic countries: to stand together, as a neutral bloc, and stake out a third position between Russia and the US. Unfortunately, the possibility of a Nordic Defence Alliance is more unlikely than ever due to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Instead, as a result of the invasion, Sweden and Finland have joined NATO. 

In terms of military spending, the Red Party agrees with Norway spending more money on its own military, because we need a stronger defence force if we want to leave NATO. If we are going to have a reliable defence policy that people in Norway can believe in, then we need to have a strong defence force, given our location on Russia’s border. We need to be able to show Norwegians that we take security and defence seriously. Together with the other Nordic countries — which currently spend more on defence than Norway — we believe we can forge a Nordic Defence Alliance that works internationally for disarmament. But until then, leaving NATO will not be possible unless we have a stronger defence force — that's just the reality of the situation we face.