Norwegians Voted for a Stronger Welfare State. We Need to Make That a Reality.

In Norway's recent election, the Labor and Centre Parties formed a new government — but they need socialist support on crucial bills. The current battle over the budget will decide if the swing to the left at the polls will bring real change for working-class Norwegians.

Jonas Gahr Støre (C) from Norway's Labor Party meets with Audun Lysbakken (L) from the Socialist Left Party and Trygve Slagsvold Vedum (R) from the Centre Party in Hurdal, Norway. (Torstein Bøe / NTB / AFP / Noway OUT via Getty Images)

This fall’s general election saw large gains for the Norwegian left. After eight years of conservative rule, 100 of 169 seats in the parliament created by the September 13 vote went to the array of center-left forces. Meanwhile, both of the parties supporting the previous government — the Conservatives and the far-right Progress party — each lost seats, thereby creating the most left-wing parliament since just after World War II.

Still, the new government is not so radical, consisting of the social-democratic Labor Party and the agrarian-populist, economically moderate Centre Party. The two radical-left forces — the Socialist Left and Red Parties — both made electoral gains, but haven’t joined the new administration. Yet, if the government is to secure a parliamentary majority for its legislation — and a budget due to be decided next week — it will rely on the support of the Socialist Left. This new strategic situation has the potential to produce real social change and climate action, if we can force the government to cooperate.

Mandate for Change

The dominant media narrative of the election highlights the Centre Party’s surge. However, within the broader center-left of Norwegian politics, it was socialist and ecological forces who gained most, from the radical-left parties to the progressive Greens. At the same time, the Labor party lost support.

The message from the Norwegian people was unmistakable: after eight years of inaction on the climate crisis, tax breaks for the upper class, austerity for the welfare state, and budget cuts for people on low incomes, it’s time for change. Norwegians voted for social justice, an expanded welfare state, new social reforms, a more redistributive tax system, and stronger and better climate and environmental policy.

The Socialist Left party — for which we are both MPs — wanted to form a new red/green coalition including all the center-left parties. We had drawn lessons from mistakes made during our last attempt at participating in government with Labor and the Centre, from 2005 to 2013. We were planning to put the question of participation in government to a vote amongst all our members, thereby deepening the grassroots democracy in our party. The Red Party, on the other hand, made it clear that they did not want to enter government either way, and Labor and the Centre both declined to cooperate with the Greens. In this situation, the only truly viable coalition was Labor, the Centre, and the Socialist Left.

Yet, while Labor and the Centre needed our votes to gain a majority in parliament, during preliminary meetings on forming a government it soon became clear that they were unwilling to deliver anything like the real political change we were asking for. There was not enough policy against the rising inequalities of wealth and power — and not enough to tackle the climate crisis and transform Norway from dependency on oil and gas to a sustainable economy.

Seeing that we were getting nowhere fast, we left the negotiations — thus remaining in opposition while the Labor and Centre Parties formed a government with no majority in parliament. This is possible because of the Norwegian system of “negative parliamentarism”: even a minority government can remain in office until a majority actively votes it out.

The Socialist Left concluded that we could gain better political results, and have more policy impact, by openly taking up fights in parliament, rather than being bound up in government on a platform upon which we could make little impression. Tackling the issues in the open will also make it possible for our party to form alliances with the social movements outside government, building popular demand for reforms, instead of having to fight alone in locked negotiation rooms within the government.

Opposition Pressure

This is the way our party has worked for most of our forty-five years’ existence, and how we’ve achieved concrete results for our voters. Take two of the major social reforms we achieved from the opposition, before and after we participated in the Labor-led “red/green” government of 2005–13. Combining parliamentary action with social movement pressure, we achieved two major reforms.

We negotiated a historic expansion of price-controlled day care for children in 2003. And we got a major improvement on pensions last year, eliminating an unfair rule which caused pensioners to lose money in years of slow economic growth. Both measures passed under right-wing administrations — and the political context should be far better now.

So now, the Socialist Left stands in outright opposition to the government, with no ties or agreements with it. The new government thus has opposition both to its left, from the Socialist Left party and the Red party, and the former government parties to its right. They need to find a majority for everything they want to get past parliament, especially its budgets.  And this means that they need the Socialist Left Party.

They can, in theory, seek support from two centrist parties, the Christian Democrats and the Liberal Party, who both supported and participated in the former right-wing government. But finding a majority to its right will come with a substantial political cost, especially for Labor. Its most important grassroots source of power is the trade unions. And the free-market Liberal Party in particular is considered an enemy of organized labor after years of promoting austerity, tax cuts for the wealthy, and massive deregulation of labor laws.

Budget Battle

This gives us a good hand to play. At the time of writing, negotiations are ongoing with the government parties to achieve a state budget for 2022. Deadlines have been moved, but the clock is ticking. A week or so from now, the results must be ready. Labor and the Centre Party are losing their opportunity to realistically be able to go to the center-right for support, if negotiations should fail with us. They simply have no time to start over again from scratch. But we, for our part, will have to get substantial concessions from two parties that refused to budge during the government-forming negotiations.

So, what are the political concerns and agendas of the different parties now negotiating?

The Centre Party brought voters over from the center-right parties, and boasts of its economic moderation. For instance, it wants to strongly reduce fees and charges, particularly fuel taxes.

Labor’s top agenda, conversely, seems to be forming as stable a parliamentary coalition as it can, with as little drama as possible. It wants to continue negotiations with us in the Socialist Left Party, for the entire coming term, and is still intent on fulfilling its original goal of eventually swaying us into joining its coalition. But we’ve made clear that we need a much stronger political platform than we were offered to join the government.

Its trade union base also looks very favorably on the Socialist Left and would like us in government — having earlier relied on us to pull the bigger Labor Party to the left on important social measures like fighting privatization of welfare services and labor regulations in favor of the working class.

Our party’s top-line goals for this budget are as much political movement as possible for a just climate transition, efficient emission cuts, and reducing inequalities of wealth and power. But the new government started negotiations with a provocative tactic. Its first attempt at a new budget didn’t deliver on these parties’ own campaign promises on rolling back major welfare cuts implemented by the previous right-wing administration.

In particular, the question of the unemployed earning holiday pay on their has become a sort of test case for this tactic — an issue the trade unions especially expected Labor to deliver on. So, why did the governing parties not meet their pledges, despite having a parliamentary majority for them?

The reason is obvious, but also troubling: These parties know that they have to negotiate with the Socialist Left, and they are expecting us to deliver on their own promises — spending our negotiating capital pushing for measures they supposedly already committed to. Because of this approach from Labor, we have decided that we will not negotiate over Labor’s campaign promises.

Our new approach has been met with understanding in the trade unions, who are now outspoken in their demand that Labor delivers on its promises, for example on holiday pay. This gives the Socialist Left a more interesting role in parliament, because we now can focus on all the progressive policies that the Labor Party don’t want. This gives us more leverage in negotiations and will move Norwegian politics to the left.

Using Our Majority

The political stakes are high. The new government is practically continuing the former government’s conservative policies, with little change. In reality, we are negotiating whether this historically left-wing parliament will pass a left-wing budget or indeed any left-wing policy at all, or if it will merely continue with a few small changes along a course set by right-wing parties when they held power.

One bad sign is that Labor and the Centre Party have promised to keep about 30 billion NOK ($3.35 billion) of tax breaks passed by the Right, mostly benefitting the richest. We want a much more redistributive tax system, making the rich pay for their massive wealth, property, and luxuries, while giving tax breaks to people making a regular income. This is also necessary for funding new social reforms, expanding the welfare state, and rolling back brutal austerity cuts imposed over the past eight years.

The Socialist Left Party has prioritized two major welfare reforms for this period. First, we want to make the Norwegian after-school program free for all children from the first to fourth year of primary education. And we want to make dental health part of the public welfare system, with drastically reduced prices. Today’s situation is often described as free, Scandinavian-style health care for the rest of the body, but expensive US health care for the mouth.

Both these social reforms were at least partially promised by Labor and the Centre Party in their manifestos — but both the government platform and their budgets failed to deliver anything on this, even though they knew our party’s votes would have given these reforms a majority in Parliament.

Many were also surprised by how the governing parties are dragging their feet on privatized commercial welfare services, where private owners drain profits from tax-funded welfare. Outlawing this pickpocketing of taxpayers is strongly supported by the trade unions and is an important measure against the right wing’s privatization of the welfare state. It is a true fight between the community and capital — and thus a top priority for the Socialist Left.

The last big issue at stake in the negotiations is emissions cuts — especially for Norway’s large oil and gas industry — and ensuring a just climate transition of our economy. Labor and the Centre Party have deep historical ties to the fossil fuel industry. Today they are protecting this sector, while proving unwilling to do enough to ensure the growth of new, sustainable industries.

The Socialist Left Party, like many of our sister parties and movements in Europe and the United States, have outlined a Green New Deal plan for reducing climate emissions, creating new jobs, and fairly distributing the costs and benefits of the transition. If we are to succeed in stopping the climate crisis and strengthening our welfare state, we don’t have time to wait for Labor and the Centre’s lack of ambition. Rather, we need to be aggressively using the state to steer the economy toward sustainable solutions.

As socialists, we have the responsibility to use our new role in parliament to move the political landscape to the left, on issues of economic equality, climate, and welfare. The coming weeks are also a test of our strategy to deliver change. The only way forward for us as a grassroots party is to build alliances with organizations outside parliament and, together with activists, put pressure on the government from the outside. We have to mobilize for a larger socialist movement in Norway, while also using our newfound parliamentary strength to achieve concrete results for our voters. The coming budget must be a first step in this direction.