In Norway local elections herald a shift to the right
- Hans Kristian Thorbjørnsen (Creative Commons)
For the first time in a century, Norway’s Labour Party failed to top the country’s local and regional elections, pipped to the post by the centre-right conservatives. Ingrid Wergeland looks at the election, and the political trends behind the result.
A dark blue wind
A dark blue wind has blown across Norway in the municipal elections held on September 11. Høyre (the Conservative Party, 25.9 percent, +5.8) and the right-populist Fremskrittspartiet (Progress Party, 11.3 percent, +3.1) have gained power in a majority of cities. Many municipalities, which have known Arbeiderpartiet (Labour Party) leadership for decades, have also turned right. And – for the first time in 99 years – the Labour Party is not the biggest party in a Norwegian election.
The biggest losers of this elections are the two parties that form the national government, the Labour Party (21.6 percent, -3.2) and Senterpartiet (Centre Party, 8.2 percent, -6.2), dropping around nine percentage points, roughly equal to the increase in support for the two conservative parties. Elections in Norway alternate every two years between the municipal and national levels. With the government parties widely perceived to be passive in the face of inflation – particularly higher power costs and interest rates – such a decline was no surprise.
The green party, Miljøpartiet (4.2 percent, -2.6), also lost support. In contrast, the left-wing Sosialistisk Venstreparti (Socialist Left Party, SV, 6.9 percent, +0.8) had its best election in twenty years, while the other socialist party, Rødt (Red, 3.5 percent, -0.3) held its ground compared to the previous vote four years ago.
Summer of scandals
Since June, Norway’s political scene has also played host to a succession of scandals. Two ministers appointed close friends to board positions, while another bought stocks in the same Norwegian arms firm that the government was entering into major contracts with to supply weapons to Ukraine. The Foreign Minister’s husband also bought stocks from the same company, along with a range of other investments where the Norwegian state was involved.
Towards the end of the campaign, news about problematic stock trading by the former Conservative prime minister’s spouse also surfaced. The extent of his trading seems to be quite significant, but the details were to be revealed after the election, and thus had less impact on the voters. Not even the socialists went unscathed by scandal, with the long-term leader of the Red party, Bjørnar Moxnes, forced to resign after he was caught stealing a pair of sunglasses in an airport store. The party’s deputy chair took over as the party’s new leader only weeks before the campaign.
A tale of four cities
Throughout the last four years, the Labour Party governed all of Norway’s big cities in a variety of coalitions with parties of the left or centre. At this election, while the Labour Party suffered significant losses in most municipalities across Norway, this retreat was somewhat smaller in areas where it had been in power. This is particularly true for the country’s four largest cities and the six largest towns.
Both Oslo and Norway’s second city, Bergen, began ambitious public transport projects under Labour Party leadership, albeit at the initiative of Labour’s progressive coalition partners. In Oslo, however, the increased road tolls and the building of cycle paths at the expense of parking spaces have increased tension between cyclists and those who depend on a car in their daily lives. Such conflicts were largely absent from the campaign, but they fed a general dissatisfaction among some voters, especially those living in the suburbs.
Taxes or welfare
Norway’s municipalities are responsible for providing many key welfare services, such as childcare, after-school programs, and elderly homes – as well as financing and organising public transport. These services, and how to fund them, was the subject of a classic left/right conflict over welfare and taxes that also made its mark on the election campaign.
In the Labour-led city of Stavanger on the west coast, public transport was made free of charge for a preliminary period starting in the summer of 2023 until the end of 2024, bringing both social and environmental benefits. Likewise, in Oslo, the coalition of the Labour Party, SV, and the Green Party had secured free participation in the after-school program for young children. Previously, this had cost 250 euros per child per month, a prohibitively expensive sum for many families. In some schools, removing charges saw participation rise from 27 percent to 100 percent – a great success, which is about to be rolled out on a national level.
Oslo’s governing red-green coalition made a point by emphasising how this reform, along with the increased number of nurses and other personnel in the elderly care sector, was made possible because of a local real estate tax. Linking the tax to the benefits of specific welfare reforms made the tax easier for many to swallow.
The parties on the right, however, have announced plans to cut taxes, although they have rarely spelled out which welfare services they intend to reduce as a result. And while the Conservative Party has indeed called for the privatisation of nursing homes, the high support for universal welfare services has led them to propose using public money to pay private companies to continue providing the same services.
Rural protest voters
The governing parties’ losses were heaviest in some communities and cities on the western and northern coasts of Norway. A new protest party, the Industri- og Næringspartiet (Industry and Business Party) has experienced breakthrough results, reaching as high as 15 percent in some of these coastal municipalities. Some commentators attribute the party’s sudden popularity to widespread opposition in coastal communities to a base rate tax for the salmon farming industry introduced last spring.
The Industry and Business Party’s welfare politics are traditional social democratic, while its industrial politics are fundamentally protectionist, and it presents itself as a party of the political centre. However, it averaged only 3 percent across the country, campaigning largely around high electricity prices, opposition to wind turbines, and supporting continued investments in oil and gas. Given its fierce opposition to the Green Party and many environmental policies, it is more likely to form coalitions with the right.
Food lines and the cost of living
Norway is a rich country, but higher food prices, rising electricity prices and increased housing costs have hit the working population hard. The food lines in front of charities have lengthened and the number of people who cannot afford unforeseen expenses is rising. Despite the cuts to welfare they will bring, however, the right was successful in focusing popular attention instead on their proposed tax cuts.
Universal welfare services are beneficial for everybody, unbureaucratic and efficient, but the attraction of money immediately saved by tax cuts seems to have appealed to voters struggling with increased bills.
The co-operation required for common welfare projects relies on confidence. The people have to have faith in both the ability and the trustworthiness of the political leaders. Otherwise, they are better off spending their money privately.
The way forward for the left may still be to point out even more cases where universal goods are less bureaucratic and thus more cost effective than the right’s idea of benefits only for the desperately poor, needy and helpless. This may demonstrate the benefits of solidarity for the vast majority of the population. The time for common welfare reforms is not over.
Ingrid Wergeland (born 1978) is a Norwegian sociologist and writer. She works in political communication at Manifest Think tank. She has published pamphlets on various topics concerning the welfare state and workers’ rights. She is a member of the Socialist Left party.