Norway’s Socialist Left Is Ascendant

Norway’s Labor Party took a hit in this week’s elections. But the radical left surged — showing that socialist politics are still alive in the Nordic country.

An exterior view of the Stortinget, the Norwegian parliament, on October 3, 2011 in Oslo, Norway. Ragnar Singsaas / Getty

On Monday, voters in Norway went to the polls to choose the mayors, city councilors, county representatives, and other local officials who will govern the country’s municipalities and counties for the next four years. Preelection polling suggested that the electorate planned to punish the three largest parties — the center-left Labor Party, the center-right Conservative Party, and the far-right Progress Party — and they did. All three lost support, as voters flocked to parties decrying everything from administrative centralization and excessive road tolls to environmental degradation and for-profit welfare providers.

While commentators continue to sort out what it all means, there is already talk of “the great protest election,” “the polarization election,” and “the election that changed everything.” So, what changed?

From the Left to the Center

The most significant development on Monday was the strong showing by the Green Party, an environmentalist outfit whose support is concentrated in Norway’s cities. Along with the Labor and Socialist Left Parties, the Greens have governed Oslo since 2015, leaving their imprint with ambitious anti-carbon goals (for example, cutting emissions by 50 percent from 1990 totals), new automobile-free areas, and a Climate Budget to guide the implementation of eco-friendly policies. On Monday, their national support grew by 2.6 points to 6.8 percent, and in Oslo, they nearly doubled their share to 15.3 percent. At a celebration in the capital, Lan Marie Nguyen Berg, a city council member and the de facto face of the party, declared that a “green wave” is coming in the 2021 parliamentary election.

It may be joined by a red one. While the Norwegian media has focused on the success of Berg and company, they have largely overlooked the surge of Norway’s bifurcated radical left. Together, the Socialist Left and Red Parties boosted their national share by 3.8 points to a combined 9.9 percent. The Socialist Left, led capably by Audun Lysbakken, has decades of credibility as an eco-socialist and feminist party with an unswerving commitment to combatting poverty, reducing inequality, and protecting the social-democratic welfare state. It suffered a bit after participating in government with the Labor and Center parties between 2005 and 2013 but rebounded at the national level in 2017 and at the local one on Monday. The Socialist Left Party alone polled 6.1 percent.

The success of the Left was all the more striking for being shared: though competing on a relatively similar platform, the Red Party nearly doubled its national support to 3.8 percent. Founded in 2007 from the remnants of the Maoist left, the Red Party captured its first parliamentary seat in 2017 under the leadership of the young and charismatic Bjørnar Moxnes. “Bjørnie,” as a few Bernie Sanders–loving supporters christened him, and other young members of the party have earned a reputation as savvy, uncompromising politicians. As a city council member, Moxnes faced criminal charges (which he beat) for leaking a confidential report detailing mistreatment of a patient in a care facility. Later, from his solitary seat in parliament, he helped engineer the removal of Justice Minister Sylvi Listhaug, a bombastic xenophobe, for a Facebook post suggesting the Labor Party supported ISIS. Along with representatives from the Socialist Left, he has stood firm against tax cuts, deregulation, and opening social services up to for-profit providers, or “welfare profiteers.”

This clarity on the Left, juxtaposed with the half-hearted stances of the center-left, helps explain the Labor Party’s catastrophic election result. Helmed by Jonas Gahr Støre, a peppy if uninspiring millionaire, Labor — one of the most successful parties in the history of multiparty democracy — not only posted its second straight electoral defeat (24.8 percent of the national vote, a 8.2 point drop) but its worst-ever performance at the local level. Though Labor will retain control of key municipalities like Oslo due to the muscular performance of its red-green allies, the contest confirms the main message of 2017: the social democrats are in major trouble. They desperately need new leadership.

Unfortunately for them, the bench is shallow. In 2017, a #Metoo scandal essentially killed the political prospects of Trond Giske, one of two party heirs apparent. Giske, head of the party’s “leftish” Trondheim faction, is a noted creep whose reputation finally caught up to him when accusers outed him for sexual harassment. His fall should have benefited the party’s other heir apparent, Hadia Tajik. But when the public realized that the journalist who broke many of the salacious details about Giske was Tajik’s partner, she stopped looking like a happy-go-lucky party loyalist and started looking like Lady MacBeth.

With these two out, Labor’s best bet for 2021 may be one more ride with Støre, who will likely leverage a decent showing to build a new red-green coalition at the national level. At the very least, this will buy some time for promising young politicians, like Labor Party Youth leader and Utøya massacre survivor Ina Libak, to rise in the party.

In any case, future Labor governments will likely count on working with the Center Party, a rural populist party that mixes economic nationalism and localism with a bit of values conservatism and a tractors-and-overalls vision of Norwegian life. If one had to pick a single winner in Monday’s election, it would have to be the Center Party, which grew its haul by 5.9 points (up to 14.4 percent) and became Norway’s third largest party. Before the coming of its current leader, Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, the local sovereignty-minded Center Party really only boomed when Norway flirted with joining the European Union. And with the rise of the far-right Progress Party, it lost its role as the third largest and kingmaker party.

Monday confirmed that its period in the wilderness may be over. Norway’s Conservative-led government has pursued a ruthless and unpopular campaign to centralize the country’s administration, reducing the number of municipalities, counties, and police stations. Vedum has made the Center Party the locus of local(ist) resistance, drawing new supporters from across the country and making the Center the kingmaker party once again.

A Bad Night for the Right

Monday’s election was bad for Labor but good for their coalition. For the right-wing “bourgeois” (borgerlig) parties, it was simply all bad. After squeaking by in the 2017 national election and duct-taping together a four-party coalition, the Conservatives seem like they are here for the party while it lasts. Their national program, mixing tax cuts and aggressive administrative centralization, has undoubtedly energized protest voters, who turned out on Monday to make their feelings clear: the party dropped 3.1 points nationally to 20.1 percent. In Oslo, historically a Conservative stronghold, they fell 6.4 points to 25.4 percent — their worst performance in Norway’s capital since the 1950s.

The election’s other notable loser was the right-wing, anti-migrant, semi-libertarian Progress Party, which saw its worst local result since 1991. The Progress Party knows all too well that the proportional representation system makes it relatively easy for a new protest movement to break through in Norwegian politics: it allowed them to surf a wave of paranoid xenophobia in the 1970s and 1980s to eventually become Norway’s third largest party.

But while the Progress Party keeps protesting (against immigrants, taxes, elites, socialists, etc.), it is now a junior party in government — and a part of the establishment it claims to detest. It was thus hamstrung when an extremely vocal movement, consisting largely of its former constituents, appeared across the country last year to call for the reduction or outright abolition of road tolls. When movement leaders registered as a political party, preelection polls for the Progress Party collapsed.

It is easy to scoff at the toll contras, at least one of whom has publicly compared the movement to the French Revolution, but their slapdash political party, People’s Action: No to More Road Tolls, is no joke. When the votes from Monday were tallied, they had taken 2.4 percent of the national haul, including an eye-popping 16.7 percent in Bergen, Norway’s second-largest city. One of the questions people are asking now is what these sign-wielding sans car-lottes will do with their newfound power. Already, the answers are surprising: in Stavanger, the Conservative-led capital of the Norwegian oil industry, they have begun negotiations with the red-green parties, including the toll-loving and bicycle-riding Greens.  

Meanwhile, the other parties of the Right, the Christian People’s Party and the Liberal Party, continued to shrink. The Christian People’s Party recently concluded a civil war, instigated by former leader Knut Arild Hareide, who tried to engineer an unprecedented alliance with the Labor Party. It failed narrowly, handing control to a pack of conservative hard-liners. In turn, they chose to formally join the Conservative-led government in exchange for a few ministries and some extremely controversial tampering with the abortion law. The government also welcomed the participation of the Liberal Party, a soft-conservative, semi-green outfit that has done nothing notable in over a century. Unsurprisingly, both lost support on Monday and risk falling below the 4 percent national electoral threshold for leveling seats in 2021.

Looking to 2021

After Labor’s 2017 defeat, leftist journalist and recent Red Party mayoral candidate Mimir Kristjansson declared that it was time for Norway’s largest party to ask: “What would Gerhardsen do?” According to Kristjansson, Einar Gerhardsen — a titan of Norwegian social democracy who served as prime minister for seventeen years between 1945 and 1965 — led a party of and for workers , a party that believed in state intervention and had strong ideological commitments. By returning to these things, he reasoned, Labor could lay the groundwork for a twenty-first-century renaissance.

But if Gerhardsen’s ghost can be found in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and the movement surrounding Bernie Sanders, it appears to have been fully exorcised from the party he led for three decades. Having drifted rightward on everything from taxes and privatization to immigration and the public administration, Norway’s Labor Party is sometimes hard to distinguish from its long-standing Conservative rival.

In the absence of an internal left-wing opposition, Labor is less likely to look to Gerhardsen and more likely to look at the recent social-democratic victory in Denmark and ask: What would Social-Democratic prime minister Mette Frederiksen do? The answer, unfortunately, is play to the welfare chauvinists. Tired of watching Denmark’s xenophobic right-wing vacuum up their immigration-averse voters, the Danish Social Democrats came out in 2019 as pro-welfare, immigration hard-liners. And though the party actually lost support, they made a strong enough showing to return to government with the backing of parties of the left and center. It is not hard to imagine that Støre and the labor leadership are mulling a similar Faustian pact.

While Labor struggles to find a way forward, the Socialist Left and Red parties have formed a phalanx to protect Norway’s distinctive welfare model. They have declared emphatically that profit-making has no place in the world of welfare, and they also agree on the need to wind down Norway’s gas industry, protect areas from future exploration and drilling, maintain or increase taxation, and renegotiate the European Economic Area agreement that gives Norway access to the European common market. While Labor lags, the Socialist Left and Red parties lead.

Perhaps the greatest question that looms after Monday is what awaits Norway’s two “green” parties, the agrarian populist Center and urban environmentalist Greens. The former is once more Norway’s third largest party and the obvious linchpin for a new red-green government in 2021. The problem is that Vedum’s cultural nationalism and values conservatism on certain key issues may make that coalition uncomfortable — perhaps too uncomfortable — for the Left.

The Greens are betting on their own “green wave” in 2021. They may get it, though only or mostly in the cities. The party deserves some credit for the remarkable transformation of Oslo into a pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly city in recent years, but it is too leftist to be a credible center party and too centrist to be credible leftist one. Right now, voters do not seem to care, but at some point the Greens will need to make clear where they stand on the relationship between environmentalism and capitalism, and what, concretely, they propose to do about it.

Overall, Norwegian politics has reached a chapter break: green politics are ascendant, old-school social democrats have reappeared in the guise of hip socialists and communists, and the once-hulking Labor Party looks exhausted and outmatched. Paradoxically, while the social democrats keep getting hammered, support for social democracy is probably stronger than it has been in years. In its own way, Norway’s municipal elections were a referendum on economic, social, and environmental justice — and while Labor lost, the Left won.