Meeting the high expectations of Norwegian voters is becoming increasingly difficult for the Labour-led coalition
After seven years in government, the Norwegian red-green coalition is backed by some wonderful statistics. People’s purchasing power has increased robustly, and is now 30% higher than it was ten years ago. In the same period, the work force has grown tremendously and unemployment is at barely 3%.
But recent polls show that the rival centre-right parties have a solid lead. Jens Stoltenberg’s conservative rival Erna Solberg polls equally well when people are asked who they prefer as prime minister, and the conservative party has been ahead of the Labour party in several polls in recent months.
One of Norway’s most prominent political commentators, Frank Aarebrot, puts the coalition government’s downturn in fortunes down to their recent conflicts with core-voters. Public sector unions have been on strike, and farmers are disappointed with what they perceive as a shamefully low increase in subsidies this spring. If this is the case, the government can expect these voter groups to return as the dust settles. They have gained much in the last seven years, and wouldn’t see similar returns from a conservative government.
Aarebrot also argues that the government has failed to deliver on care for the elderly and on infrastructure. But Stoltenberg can counter with a substantial list of improvements on both these issues and more. The welfare-budget has grown significantly, thousands of additional caretakers have been employed and there has been a massive increase in the number of kindergartens.
Furthermore, a tough stance on illegal asylum seekers has made it difficult for the right-wing party to play the immigrant card, and the waiting list for prison places has decreased. It is difficult to see how voters, if they weigh single issues against each other, can conclude that the current government has failed to deliver.
The most recent poll, from 2 July, indicates that Labour have not lost too much backing, at 32%. The problem is that the support for the three coalition partners together, barely reaches 40%.
Clearly, a bigger picture is needed to explain the gap between political results and public support. As far as I can see, there are three main factors at work:
Firstly, voters see Norway as the richest country in the world, and have extremely high expectations when it comes to the quality of public services. When something does not work as well as it should, they blame the government, because in Norway “everything should be shining”.
Secondly, partly due to a hard stance from Labour’s coalition partners, the farmers party (Senterpartiet) and the leftist party (Sosialistisk Venstreparti), it has been extremely difficult for the government to implement reforms aimed at making the welfare state more cost-effective and thus in better shape to meet the challenges from an ageing population.
No other country in the history of mankind has spent so much money, as Norway currently does, to preserve a settlement pattern that was created when it was a nation of poor farmers and fishers. Roads and bridges are built to small communities at a cost that exceeds 1 million kroner (120,000 euros) per capita. Unemployed people in the villages don’t have to move to the bigger cities to find jobs; surprisingly many of them get a disability insurance instead (which means that the state takes the cost and not the municipality). Over 10% of the population within working age presently receives disability insurance. This is not only a waste of human and financial resources; it also indicates that the unemployment figures are artificially low. In sum, the Norwegian “welfare-model” is so expensive that simply maintaining the current level is very testing.
And thirdly, many Norwegians have started to wonder why they don’t all live an upper-middleclass life. Part of the reason is the labour movement has done a great job limiting the establishment of a low paid underclass of immigrants in the service sector. So while they can live like kings abroad, most Norwegians find it too expensive to eat in restaurants in their own neighbourhood. Worst off are young urban residents, who have to pay progressively more for housing, as prices, both for renting and buying property have risen more than salaries for a long time.
Surely, compared to other countries, the Norwegian Labour party has a luxury problem. But without a sharp worsening of the economic crisis in Europe, it is hard to see how it can regain support merely by staying on course and talking about safe governance. Winning because others fare worse would also be a Pyrrhic victory. It would be much better for the government to be proactive and show that they have ambitions that go beyond slight improvements, a little bit here and a little bit there.
Stoltenberg doesn’t need to search far to get the ideas. Several of his fellow party members have already identified a massive urban housing programme and a promise to build fast train connections between the biggest cities as the right steps forward. He should listen more carefully to these voices if he is to secure a decisive election victory.
Sten Inge Jørgensen is a journalist for Morgenbladet
A contribution to State of the Left - Policy Network's monthly insight bulletin that reports from across the world of social democratic politics
Sten Inge Jørgensen
State of the Left
Norwegian Labour Party