At the Polar Circle Turn Left

Thinking of unpronounceable volcanoes or brute football fan chants Iceland will pop up in many minds. In contrast it is much less known that a new established socialist party is causing quite a stir. Klemens Herzog (Vienna) was talking to Reykjavík’s socialist city councilor Sanna Magdalena Mörtudóttir about the left potential at the polar circle.

After Sósíalistaflokkur Íslands was funded on Mayday 2017 the municipal elections in Reykjavik were the first elections the party participated in. You successfully entered the city council in May 2018, gaining over 6 percent of the votes and one seat. Can you tell us about your experiences so far?

Our election campaign was based on narrating the experiences of those that have been worst off in our society. Even though many people visualize Iceland as a society where everyone is pretty equal, that is far from true. Class division, poverty and decision making that increases the benefit of those with capital in our country has been a ruling theme. Economic inequality has been rising, and we felt like there were not many, if any at all, talking for the needs of those that have it worst off in our society. So we stepped forward and spoke up personally about what needs to change in the society so that it can truly accommodate us all. Our list consisted of people who have experienced poverty, the working poor, immigrants, people with disabilities, elderly pensioners and tenants. My experience so far has shown me the importance of including people with real life knowledge of what is being implemented on a political level. 

Can you give us an example of how you  put this approach into practice? 

At the City Council we are for example taking decisions about social housing. It is not enough that people with the experience of homelessness or those that are struggling in the rental market, get to comment on the policies regarding housing, they should be the ones making those policies with us from the start.

Have your own experiences in life shaped your political identity?

Being raised by a single mother who worked a full time job and also a part time job, one of them a low paid position at a kindergarten in Reykjavík city, I grew up in poverty. Sometimes I feel like I am just the little girl searching for coins with my mum so that we can find some money for something to eat. About four years ago I first spoke up publically about my experience on growing up in poverty and the ongoing effects of it and from there I got to know people working on change in the society.

When I last visited Reykjavik in 2019 I noticed a lot of constructions sites around the city compared to my visit before some years earlier. In Vienna we have the problem that a vast part of the building activity is in favor of huge investors and wealthy people, while affordable and nice living for the broad masses has no priority. Do you have a similar situation in Reykjavík? If so, what struggles do you fight?

Yes we have this problem here as well. Prioritizing for the elite has led to the fact that we ended up with properties that no one is buying. For example we have buildings that could be called luxury apartments that have been vacant for a long time. At the same time we have a lot of people on waiting lists for affordable housing. The struggles that I am fighting is that no one should be on a waiting list for a long time, but the average waiting time for social housing in Reykjavík is around three years. 

There is a ruling coalition of social democrats, green-left party, pirates and liberals. Looking at this from outside it already seems like quite a left city government. Is there still space for a radical left party? 

Unfortunately when you look at the political development here in Iceland the representatives of these parties have grown further and further away from their roots. The political parties aren’t representing those they should be and have moved from the left of the political spectrum. In parliament the left-green party is governing with the independence party and many people were really disappointed by the fact that a so called left party could work with a party on the right wing of the political spectrum. 

That is very interesting, because that is something our two countries have in common: In Austria the Green Party serve as a partner for a conservative, right-wing party as well. How do these allegedly opposite political poles interact in Iceland? 

Here in Iceland many people feel betrayed by the left-green party as they started working with the conservative independent party in the national government. The independent party has stood in the way of social welfare ever since, so I can’t imagine how the left-green party saw it as a good idea working with them in the government. Working with them means supporting them and what they stand for and we have watched how this once left party has abandoned what they stood for. I don’t know if they think that they can somehow gain significant changes this way or create some kind of stability. But we are seeing that those that have been left behind economically and socially are still being left behind. I once had a lot of hope towards the fact that having a left party in the government would mean that we would have a more humane legislation regarding those seeking asylum and international protection. We have often witnessed people being dragged away by the police and sent away out of the country, in the middle of the night, including pregnant women. 

Instead of looking at the bosses and corporations that are possibly exploiting the workers, the government is working in ways to target people with a foreign background and those that are seeking help and coming from really difficult situations. So while the left side of our ruling government on the national level has been talking against racism and xenophobia, they surely are supporting actions that are unjust. When you think about it, their words and actions don`t always go together. 

For some years now Iceland is leading rankings like the Global Peace Index or the Global Gendergap Report. Income is distributed as equally as in almost no other country. Let me ask you a provoking question. Is there still need for a socialist party?

Yes there is, this is a really interesting question that I love to answer personally. I was raised by a single mother who worked a full time job at a kindergarten and she had a part time job as well, as a cleaner. Even though the money she earned only went into the basic necessities we never had enough money to last the month and experienced poverty, often not having enough money for food. Iceland has often been seen as some kind of equality paradise where women have it so good, but that is far from being true. As I see it we have been focusing on middle-class feminism, that is getting more women into top paid positions in firms and companies and increasing their visibility there. This mainstream feminism hasn’t been focusing on economic justice for women who experience poverty. When I grew up and as I grew older, I always felt like the mainstream feminism in Iceland wasn’t talking about the emancipation of all women and marginalized people from oppression. I felt like it was mainly speaking around the needs of middle class white women, born and raised in Iceland, that were in a pretty good financial status, able bodied and didn’t need to think about things like how to secure housing, feed your child or get to work number two by relying on public transportation. This is coming from someone who has a mother on disability pension after a burnout. 

Is this inequality a big issue for your everyday work as city councilor?

Yes, of course. I have often been baffled at work in the City Council while debating with other city councilors that do not seem to see, that they are holding down women by paying them a salary that doesn’t meet the basic needs to last the whole month. A recent victory was achieved by the workers’ union called Efling, where the lowest wages were raised. This was done after a strike and shows us the importance of unity and solidarity. 

Originally published at the website of Volksstimme