The Defeat of the Norwegian Left

The lack of a clear political project is an important part of the explanation of the defeat of the red-green government coalition in Norway.

Seen from abroad, the defeat of the red-green government coalition in this years’ election may seem strange. After eight years in power, the Labour party (Ap), the Socialist Left Party (SV) and the Centre party (Sp) are handing over a country in strong economic growth to a new right wing government coalition.
Europe’s lowest unemployment rate and a good public welfare system are among the reasons that Norway often is found in the top end of international rankings measuring the quality of life of citizens. During the red green coalition’s two executive four year terms in government, Norwegians haven’t noticed much of the economic crisis, besides hearing more Spanish and Greek spoken in kitchens and back rooms of Norwegian restaurants.
The advance of the right wing can also be difficult to understand for those who primarily remember Norway for the terror attack from the right wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik in 2011. The leadership of Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg was cherished world wide, but is now apparently put in question by the Norwegian people, and Breivik´s old party, the Progress Party (Frp) is now entering government.
The red-green government´s lacking of a clear political project, and the Right´s adopting of a social democratic rhetoric are two of the most important explanations to how this could happen.

The Loss of Direction

When the red green coalition gained government power in 2005, it was due to the strong mobilisation of popular movements, in particular trade unions. The coalition was also a result of a reorientation process within the Labour party, after a devastating election result in 2001, showing the voters´ discontent with the Labour government´s massive privatisation and marked oriented reforms.  
In the first years of the red green government, the popular movements had clear demands to the new government, and they weren´t afraid to express them loud and clearly. After a few years, this changed, and the political conflicts were being handled behind closed doors. The smallest parties in the coalition, especially the Socialist Left Party, lost grounds in elections, and weakened their position within the government.
The result was a government project that appeared to have lost its original project. Instead of improving and extending the collective solutions that have proven to be such a success for the Norwegian society, the governing parties have become defenders of the existing order at best. A complex welfare state is never without problems, which the Right of course have been using as ammunition in the election campaign. But these attacks would not have hit the red green coalition as effectively as they have, if the governing parties had pointed out visions and a clear direction in which they wanted to go.

The Rise of the Right

The victory of the Right wing in this years´ election was crushing, but does not necessarily mean a severe Right wing orientation of the traditionally social democratic Norwegian population. Polls show that a large majority of the population is willing to pay the same amount or more in taxes to maintain the same quality of the public welfare services. Most Norwegians are also sceptical towards handing over the public welfare services to private companies.
The success of the Right, especially the conservative party Høyre, has to be seen in relation with the party´s make-over process in the past few years, with party leader Erna Solberg´s favourite phrase “people, not billions”, as a mantra. Høyre has been learning from the successful strategy of it´s Swedish counterpart Moderaterna, and have adopted a social democratic rhetoric, illustrated by the attempt to rebrand the party as “the new labour party”. Thus, the Right have created the impression that a new government will not change the fundamental things in Norwegian society – they will only make things a little bit better, with a little more contributions from the private sector, and a little less tax. The Progress Party (Frp) has also changed their rhetoric, smoothening their edges on xenophobia, making themselves more acceptable as a coalition partner. This has also happened partly due to their impact on Norwegian immigration policy, where both the Labour party and the Conservative Right have been moving in their direction.

Need for Ambitions

Given that this year´s election result is not a result of a severe right wing orientation of the Norwegian population, the battle is not lost for the Left. A government coalition as far right as possible in the Norwegian political landscape may have a mobilising effect on many, as workers´ rights and social benefits may come under attack. New alliances can be built, and old ones reinforced in the building of a new strategy towards the next election. But the Left cannot only concern itself with defending the achievements that have already been made. New ambitions on how the Left’s emancipatory project can be improved and extended are deeply needed.