Norway: decisive defeat for Conservatives – Labour stands at the crossroads

On 13 September, Norway held its parliamentary elections. These elections came at a very significant period in Norwegian politics: They are the first elections since the outbreak of the pandemic in March last year. The pandemic revealed the contradictions hidden under the surface.

Despite the image that Norway has among the international left as a bastion of socialism, the last decade in Norwegian politics has been marked by increasing cuts, austerity, and privatizations. There are more billionaires than at any point in Norwegian history, and this group has continued to grow, even under the pandemic. Hospitals, kindergartens, welfare services, and so on have all faced fairly significant cuts and privatizations. The pandemic turned these cuts into open gashes and showed the extent to which the right-wing government has crippled the welfare state.

Fed up with eight years of austerity, and a mismanaged pandemic, in which hundreds of billions of Norwegian kroner were given to the richest while deepening cuts were inflicted against workers and welfare, the right-wing coalition was decisively defeated at the polls. The final result was a 100 to 68 clear majority for the left. Although no government has yet been formed, the most likely formation is a “Red-Green” coalition consisting of the Socialist Left Party, the Labour Party, and the agrarian Centre Party.

After eight years on the defensive, the Norwegian labour movement has put the Red-Green coalition back in power, and it expects results. The vote was a clear “no” to bourgeois austerity politics. But will the Red-Green coalition be able to deliver the results?

The economic situation in Norway

The election results did not come as a surprise for anyone. For a long time, the opinion polls had given indications of the coming of a new government. The bourgeois parties had been struggling in the polls even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Norway. In the spring of 2020, when the first lockdown was imposed on Norwegians, it could seem that the pandemic was going to save the government. Then the government parties, especially the conservatives, were soaring in the polls. But when it finally became clear for everyone that the rescue packages were mainly directed towards the big capitalists and that the working masses only got crumbs, support for the “blue-blue government” plummeted.

Just like in the rest of the world the state had to supply the capitalists with cash to hold up the capitalist system – like a patient on oxygen. A common illusion among Norwegians is to compare Norway as a safe harbour in a stormy sea, insulated from the economic crises that have caused so much suffering in the rest of the world. And it is not totally wrong: in their famous oil fund, the Norwegian bourgeoisie has piled up a big reserve, which gives them a greater degree of freedom during economic crises. Unlike other countries, the Norwegian state did not have to borrow to fund its rescue packages.

Being a capitalist state, Norway is as entangled in the world market as any other capitalist country, being dependent on other countries for its exports and imports. Every disturbance in the world market has its impacts on the Norwegian economy. That is the reason why the Norwegian workers have seen their welfare system whittled down, ironically this is done in the name of rescuing it. Nonetheless, the austerity measures being implemented are not comparable to other countries, and the majority of the people have not really felt its affects. As always, the austerity measures have largely affected the most vulnerable – the unemployed and the incapacitated rather than working people in general.

This is one of the contradictions about Norwegian society. The media bombards us with the message that the economy is still doing well, yet the international situation makes it necessary for the bourgeoisie to implement cuts – and deeper cuts are yet to come. Even before the pandemic, both the OECD and IMF requested cuts. They recommended cutting the sick leave for workers and decreasing the real wage to make Norway more competitive. Thus, for several years now, Norwegian workers haven’t seen an increase in their real wages.

Taking as a whole, it is no wonder that the right-wing government witnessed a tremendous loss, and that the workers have high expectations for a new left government.

Election results: collapse of the traditional parties, historic gains for the left

One of the most significant outcomes of this election is the collapse of support for the traditional parties. In all preceding elections, the Conservatives and Labour had always obtained a majority between them. This time it didn’t happen. The Christian Democrats, which had been so crucial to the formation of a stable conservative coalition in 2017, have now had their worst election since World War II, falling beneath the electoral threshold for the first time and losing nearly all their candidates. The Left party, which in reality is a liberal-capitalist party, barely crossed the electoral threshold. The far-right Progress Party (FrP), which left the government at the beginning of 2020 in a calculated attempt to boost its image and distance itself from an increasingly unpopular government, has had its worst election since 2005.

The coalition, which formed after the 2017 election, was built on a foundation of quicksand. For the right wing, it had been necessary to form a stable and united conservative coalition to maintain order while implementing austerity and fighting against the rising class struggle. However, a stable coalition in the context of a global capitalist crisis was never a possibility. The crisis of capitalism means a polarisation of society along class lines, and a collapse in all these establishment parties. The pandemic merely accelerated the coalitions’ slow but certain death.

Rodt Image OslonattThese elections saw the parties to the left of Labour take almost the same percentage of the vote as Labour itself. This included a breakthrough for Rødt, a party that describes itself as Marxist. With this breakthrough for the left, Labour now knows that workers can see there is an alternative to themselves / Image: Oslonatt

Although the Labour party (AP) is the “winner” of this election, it is certainly not a victory to brag about. Despite how deeply unpopular the government was, Labour was only able to muster up 26.4% of the votes, their worst result since 2001 (and 2001 was their worst result in 100 years!). Although Labour is the “winner” of the election, it is not so much because people see the Labour party as an alternative as much as they see it as a “lesser evil” against the conservatives.

The Labour Party is the traditional mass organisation of the working class, and is in many ways the parliamentary wing of the Trade Union Confederation (LO). It therefore retains a very high level of support from traditional working-class areas and groups. But since the 1980s and 1990s, the party has moved more and more in a rightward trajectory, comparable to “New Labour” under Tony Blair in Britain, adopting politics that prioritise capital over labour. The leader of the Labour Party is himself a former conservative and multi-millionaire, and their former leader, Jens Stoltenberg, is the current general secretary of NATO. The Labour Party is seen by many as just another establishment party, and has reaped what it has sown this election.

Ironically, the processes which caused the collapse of the Labour Party’s base of support were the very same that allowed them to come to power: The rise of the Centre Party and the historic growth of the socialist parties to the left of Labour.

The Centre Party (SP) occupies a very peculiar place in Norwegian politics. Despite being a conservative agrarian party that favours hard protectionism and “decentralisation”, in previous elections it was regarded as being on the left, often holding the balance of power as to whether or not a left-wing government could form. Although its programme was not so distinct from that of Labour or the Right, they were able to steal a sizable amount of votes from both due to the fact that they are seen as being outsiders who represent the common people in the forgotten rural areas of Norway. They encouraged the impression that the fault lines are between the cities and the rural districts, together with the austerity budgets which have straightjacketed the spending capacity of municipal budgets, causing job losses and cuts into welfare, healthcare and public services that hurt the rural areas the most.

On the other hand we have the two leftist parties, The Socialist Left Party (SV) and Rødt (the Red Party), both to the left of Labour, both seeing an increase in their support, with Rødt exceeding the electoral threshold for the first time with 4.7 % of the votes. Together with SV which got 7.6 % of the vote, the two left parties obtained a total of 12.3 %. Among the parties to the left of Labour we must also include a third party; the Greens (MDG) who achieved 3.6 % of the votes, falling just 0.4 percentage points below the threshold. The Greens fell short in what was predicted to be a great election for them as they were not able to reach out to the broader layers of society. The Greens are an extremely contradictory party with a class base mainly amongst the middle class, and combine apolitical activism with fairly pro-capitalist politics. Their support for measures unpopular amongst workers such as road tolls to reduce driving and carbon taxes, policies which Rødt correctly call “greenwashing” of capitalism. They banked on the election being a “climate election”, but they ignored that on top of the climate, workers must eat and live as well, and they cannot do this when their services and wages are under attack.

For Marxists, the growth of Rødt is a fact of the highest significance. Going from one to now nine parliamentary seats, this is the first time since 1945 that self-proclaimed Marxists have had such a sizable parliamentary group. Rødt emerged in 2007 from the Red Election Alliance, the electoral front of the Maoist Workers Communist Party (Arbeidernes kommunistparti(Marxist-Leninistene), AKP-ml), which was at that time the largest self-proclaimed Maoist organization in Europe. As is almost a historical law, the Maoist group swung from virulent sectarianism towards reformism, laying the basis for Rødt: a radical electoral alliance of self-described Marxists and socialists, and later extended to include “left” social democrats. Although the party has distanced itself from its more revolutionary side, and its leaders routinely publicly denounce communism and revolution, it is an incredible development that, for the first time since the 1990s, a self-proclaimed Marxist organization has gained national recognition as one of the most militant fighters for the interests of the working class. Most importantly, it has an increasing base of workers and youth, who are using Rødt as a channel to fight for socialism. On the back of its success, 1,000 new members joined the party in just 24 hours after the election.

In what we might call ‘normal’ times, the parties to the left of the Labour party could expect to get a total of 16% of the votes. But if we look at the numbers at this election in the main cities like the capital, Oslo, the three parties SV, Rødt and MDG obtained 30.1% of the vote, exceeding the Labour Party which got 23%. In the second biggest city, Bergen, they took almost the same vote as the Labour Party, and in Trondheim, they took 23%, compared to Labour’s 30.3%. We see the same trend in almost every city: the three parties regarded as to the left of the Labour Party took an almost equivalent number of votes as the Labour Party itself. This shows that even in Norway there is a simmering dissatisfaction with increasing inequality, the seemingly never ending increases in housing prices and prices in general.

Unsurprisingly, the bourgeois parties initiated a small campaign against the spectre of communism, hoping it would deter people from voting for Rødt. In the end, however, it didn't prevent Rødt from becoming the first new party to rise above the electoral threshold since its establishment. But to the relief of the bourgeois parties, Labour and the Centre Party, the AP, SP, and SV are capable of forming a “red–green” government, much as they did eight years ago, without having to depend on the support of Rødt and MDG. Political commentators have noted, with poorly concealed glee, that Rødt will have a hard time getting any of its proposals through, which they imagine will mean that the party will be pushed back below the parliamentary threshold at the next elections. That may turn out to be a false hope. The reason that the parties to the left of AP (Labour) have risen in the first place is the general discontent with the capitalist alignment of that same party. Thus, the results are also a warning to the AP that if they don't change course, there exist other options for the working class.

Which way forward for the Red-Green coalition?

Many workers and youth are relieved that the right-wing government has been defeated and have high expectations for the coming government. However, it must be underlined that all of the left parties are reformists of different hues. They all, to one degree or another, imagine that austerity is a political choice – because of neoliberal ideology – and that they can solve the contradictions in society by putting “responsible” reformists at the helm and introducing tinkering with reforms.

The most likely outcome will now be a majority government of the left consisting of AP, SP and SV. Contrary to what many may believe, it will not be plain sailing from here. The situation the Red-Green coalition is inheriting from the Conservatives is a precarious one. Labour has pledged to undo some of the most dramatic cuts of the Conservatives, such as the cuts in unemployment benefits, vacation pay, and to the welfare system. However, economic pressure sets hard limits on what is possible without upsetting the economical equilibrium itself. But by not upsetting the economical equilibrium, they risk upsetting the political equilibrium. That is what we’ve seen on a small scale on Monday. The economic situation makes it difficult to introduce reforms, and any improvement for one section will mean a deterioration for another. They will have to choose which layer of the working class to please and which to neglect.

One problem they’ll encounter is that after the pandemic all workers expect to see their situation improve. Further, the new government will have to face an unresolved dispute with nurses and teachers, which saw a strike before the summer for better wages, which was ended by government intervention. This dispute will blow up again next year. Expectations are high among nurses and teachers. But accepting the demands of one layer of the working class will raise the expectations of other layers. When they read in the media that the economy is back on track, all layers of workers expect to see wage increases. But higher wages are unacceptable for the Norwegian capitalists now. Rather, increasing competition on an international scale requires higher productivity, or greater exploitation of the workers.

From experience, we know that reformists always give in to capitalist forces at the end of the day. We don’t need to cross the border to find proof of this fact. The last time the three parties were in government they forced through the pension reforms, in which pensions were eroded. We also know that the reformists never learn from their failures. SV was badly punished for joining the red-green coalition and giving in to the AP in every major decision. Now the same leaders cannot wait to join a new Labour-led government. To avoid risking a split in the party, they will put the voting agreement before the rank-and-file before joining. Regardless of the outcome, the leadership will try to find a way into the government, creating conditions for the further growth of Rødt.

The tendencies we have seen in the rest of the world – with polarization and increasing class struggle – are now coming home to Norway, albeit on a smaller scale for now as events lag behind.

There is a common misconception in Norway that our bourgeois parties are further to the left of others. Some claim that the Conservatives in Norway are closer to the Labour Party in Britain than to the Tories, and that the Republican Party in the United States are further to the right than the far-right party FrP. This might be true, but that is not because the Norwegian bourgeoisie is further to the left than the ruling class in the rest of the world. Rather, it is because their parties are forced by necessity to adapt themselves to the social-democratic status quo if they do not wish to disappear from the political scene. Monday 13 of September turned out to be a small political earthquake, causing consternation among the bourgeoisie and the right reformists. They note with concern that even before deeper cuts have been implemented, which they expect they will have to make at a certain stage, there has been a sharp shift to the left.

What we are witnessing are wider and wider layers of people drawing radical conclusions as they seek a way out of the crisis. A growing portion of the trade union movement and the youth are looking towards parties like Rødt and the Socialist Left rather than Labour. As we wrote, the class struggle in Norway is still lagging behind the rest of the world. But the elections on Monday indicate that workers in Norway can catch up with a bang.

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