The centre-left failed to get rid of the so-called blue-blue government at Norway’s parliamentary elections on 11 September. The Labour Party was the main loser, while small parties on the centre-left advanced slightly. However, the parliamentary basis of the right-wing government has started to unravel and a deeper political crisis may be looming in the background, where social contradictions are mounting. Social democracy followed the general European trajectory downwards.
First, some basic facts on the Norwegian electoral system. There are 169 members of parliament, who are elected through proportional representation. The 19 counties serve as the electoral constituencies. There is a threshold of 4 percent to qualify for the proportional distribution of representatives, although it is possible to win direct representation from the counties also if the national share of votes is below the threshold. Two political parties won seats that way.
In the previous four-year parliamentary period, Norway was governed by a minority government formed by the Conservative Party and the so-called Progress Party (a right-wing populist party). Therefore the name blue-blue government. It was supported by two other parties – the Christian Democrats and the so-called Liberals (who in reality are neo-liberal, but with a touch of green). This backing was enshrined in a formal agreement, but to secure a parliamentary majority the government required support from only one of those two.
Norway has seen increasing political fragmentation over the last years. After the current elections, there are nine parties in Parliament. The four on the right are mentioned above, while the centre-left opposition includes the Labour Party, the Centre Party, the Socialist Left Party, the Green Party and the Red Party. As in many other countries, however, the entire political spectrum has moved to the right during the neo-liberal offensive from around 1980.
For the blue-blue government, two important things changed with the latest election. The Christian Democratic Party says that it is no longer willing to sign a contract of support to a government in which the right-wing Populist Party takes part; and the government is dependent on both formerly supportive parties to achieve a majority in Parliament. In other words, the Government’s political basis is much weaker than before, opening the possibility of its collapse. Since Norway cannot call an election in mid-term, this may lead to significant political turbulence or an open political crisis.
Many people expected a centre-left victory at this election, since the blue-blue government had carried out many unpopular policies. The discontent was particularly strong in the trade union movement. However, Labour’s election campaign proved to be disastrous under its new leader, Jonas Gahr Støre. One of the big “mistakes” was a flirt with the so-called political centre (centre right) or the two political parties which had supported the blue-blue government and thereby backed attacks on employment laws and other economic and social gains for the working class. Furthermore, Labour was not even able to take a clear stand against the on-going and very unpopular commercialisation of core services in the Norwegian welfare state. Nor did the party come up with a credible policy against the undermining of labour market regulations, largely promoted by the increasingly authoritarian, neo-liberal European Union. This is a policy which in Norway is being implemented through the European Economic Area (EEA), an arrangement strongly backed by Labour.
The right-wing populist party, on the other hand, successfully set the agenda for much of the election campaign, first and foremost by playing the anti-immigration card and by focussing on identity policies. Labour was unable to respond with the only measures that can really confront such right-wing policies, namely a clear class policy. This did not necessarily happen because the party’s leadership is unwilling, but simply because class politics is severely lacking in today’s social democracy – deeply rooted as it still is in a social partnership ideology.
While social democracy is on the verge of breaking down, and even being eradicated, in large parts of Europe today (Greece, Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands, France), much suggests that also Norwegian, in real terms Nordic, social democracy, despite its fame as the creator of the Nordic welfare model, is now following the downward course of their European sister parties, albeit more gradually. Power relations do not seem to be part of the current social democratic narrative – their ‘raison de vivre’ is obviously to administer capitalism within the limits given within the prevailing power relations and not to shift the balance of power. Thus, the right-wing political offensive is not really confronted by social democracy.
The golden age of social democracy was based on a class compromise and a balance of power which made it possible to move forward socially within the framework of regulated capitalism (i.e. the welfare state). The material basis for such policies is now coming to an end with the deep crisis and stagnation of capitalism and the concomitant neo-liberal offensive. The social democratic attempt to re-establish the class compromise, with its successful tripartite cooperation and social dialogue, even without class mobilisation and confrontation, is an illusionary project in the current political conjuncture.
Maybe the Norwegian election is just another sign that the era of social democracy is coming to an end. All those, all over the world, who have been looking at the Nordic Model as their final goal, may have to rethink and reassess their policies and strategies. But who on the left can now provide us with a class-based policy with a future?
Norwegian parliamentary election in figures
|Party||Percentage votes||Gains/loss from last election||Number of MPs|
|The right-wing coalition:|
|The Conservative Party||25.0||-1.8||45|
|The Progress Party||15.2||-1.2||27|
|The Liberal Party||4.4||-0.9||8|
|The Christian Democratic Party||4.2||-1.4||8|
|The centre-left opposition:|
|The Labour Party||27.4||-3.5||49|
|The Centre Party||10.3||+4.8||19|
|The Socialist Left Party||6.0||+1.9||11|
|The Green Party||3.2||+0.4||1|
|The Red Party||2.4||+1.3||1|