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Setting the Right Course for the Future of Norway

The Worries of Wealth

September 09, 2017 | by MI AH SCHOYEN and ARE VEGARD HAUG

YME Platform outside Stavanger, Norway. Photo by L.C. Nøttaasen via flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

On September 11, 2017, the Norwegian population will be heading to the polls to elect a new government. Apart from the choice between centre-right or centre-left, the country has to make important strategic decisions.

Coalitions are the norm in Norwegian politics. For the last four years the country has been ruled by a minority centre-right coalition of Høyre (Conservatives) and the populist Fremskrittspartiet (Progress Party), headed by Prime Minister Erna Solberg. Eyes are now on Arbeiderpartiet (Labour Party) leader Jonas Gahr Støre, if he can strike back. But what does the Labour Party really stand for?

Labour’s centre-left comeback is challenged by two dilemmas: On the one hand, the party is in the squeeze between supporting future investments in the oil and gas sectors or directing more resources to the transition to a low-carbon future by investing in renewables and green technologies. On the other, it is wavering in its approach to immigration: should they attract voters who would otherwise vote for the populist Progress Party by following a populist track or stay true to their historical roots of international worker solidarity on an ideologist path?

Brown or green energy? Blue or white collar workers?

With regard to the first dilemma, Labour goes normally far in pleasing the Confederation of Trade Unions (LO), traditionally the main financial sponsor of Labour’s electoral campaign. This year the total financial contributions from LO and Fagforbundet, the largest private sector union within LO, equal the record high amount of 15 million Norwegian kroner (more than €1.6 million). Especially some of the large blue-collar unions within LO warn that declining investments in the oil and gas sectors will lead not only to further job losses but also jeopardise the high level of public social services and benefits provided by the Norwegian welfare state. At the same time, Labour, along with other parts of the LO, recognises that the country needs to invest in more future-proof industries and technologies to reduce economic dependency on the country’s oil wealth, meet the commitments of the Paris Agreement and more generally secure a future emphasis to Norway’s first female prime minister and former Labour leader Gro Harlem Brundtland’s famous notion of “sustainable development”. The choice between brown or green energy policy, represented by contrasting images like oil versus fish and tourism, or offshore gas versus renewables, can also be framed as a choice between solidarity towards current workers or securing the welfare and economic prosperity of future generations.

Win back votes from the populists

Regarding the second quandary, one would think that it comes natural to Labour to advocate a liberal approach to immigration and the integration of foreigners. Appealing to international worker solidarity is a tradition inherent in their ideological roots and still they sing the old socialist anthem L’Internationale at Labour assemblies. However, Labour is challenged by an aggressive and well-trained Progress Party, with which they compete for working-class voters. This right-wing populist party is sceptical of mass immigration, mobilises heavily on the current migration challenges, invokes the preservation of so-called traditional Norwegian values, frequently adopting an “us and them” rhetoric. Faced with this competition from the right-wing party, Labour seems to have some difficulties defining a coherent position in debates about immigration. The party leaders keep repeating that they support a “hard but fair” line towards immigration and the treatment of migrants. What that means in practice is not always evident.

The winner’s homeworks

The dilemmas that Labour faces stand, more generally, for the main challenges that the Norwegian society currently has to tackle. The blessing brought to Norway by the rich petroleum and gas reserves located off the Norwegian shores has turned into a real political challenge, which, if not handled in a sensible way, could turn into a curse not only for Labour but for Norwegian politics in general. Thus, the authors of the latest Norway Country Report of the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) remarked: “The oilprice drop since 2014 has had a significant impact on the economy, exposing its vulnerability.” To manage the effects of a potentially long period of significantly lower oil and gas prices they strongly recommend “reducing the dependency on the oil and petroleum sectors”.

The populist right, in Norway represented most successfully by the Progress Party, often sets the agenda in the debate about immigration. Not only Labour, but all main political parties have to define their stance on immigration, if they do not want to leave this field to the far right. The main challenge here is to better integrate migrants. As the authors of the SGI Country Report put it: “Integration policy is fairly well-organized and well-funded in Norway (...) and policies have to date been less than fully effective.” The issue is highly controversial in the Norwegian society. Not surprisingly, Progress Party’s Sylvi Listhaug, the current Minister for Immigration and Integration, advocates a restrictive approach to immigration and more sticks than carrots in integration policy. Her strategy and rhetoric frequently alienate especially parties and voters at the centre and on the left in Norwegian politics.

According to latest polls, Labour is unlikely to win a majority of the seats in the Storting, the Norwegian parliament. Even if they succeed in winning the most seats, they will need coalition partners to form a government after the election. However, the choice between “oil or nature” is crucial here, too. The political parties that can be considered potential junior partners in a Labour-led government, such as the Sosialistisk Venstreparti (Socialist Left Party), the Senterpartiet (Centre party with core voters located in the periphery) or Miljøpartiet De Grønne (Green Party, which is particularly successful in urban areas), advocate a more prudent and environmentally protectionist line in favour of nature tourism and the fishing industry.

Whoever emerges as the winner in the election on September 11 will have to make important decisions. New effective approaches in integration policy and setting the course to reduce the high dependency on the oil and gas sectors are the great deal of homework that has to be done by the new government no matter if it’s centre-right or centre-left.

Mi Ah Schøyen holds a PhD in political and social sciences from the European University Institute and works as a researcher at NOVA (Norwegian Social Research), Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences.

Are Vegard Haug is a political scientist (PhD) and Head of Health and Welfare Studies at NOVA (Norwegian Social Research), Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences.

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