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We Don’t Have to Be Polite

Snorre Valen

A leader of Norway's Socialist Left Party on tomorrow's elections and how small, insurgent parties can change society.

Snorre Valen in 2015. Tore Sætre

Interview by
Ellen Engelstad

On September 11, Norwegian voters go to the polls for parliamentary elections. For a long time it looked as though the center-left, led by the Labor Party, would take over government after four years of right-wing rule. However, in the last phase of the campaign the race is much closer, and a lot depends on which of the smaller parties get over the electoral threshold of 4 percent — the ones on the right or the ones on the left.

Still most polls are showing that the conservative coalition will have to step down and be replaced by a Labor-led government, supported by either the Greens, the Christian Democrats, the Farmers Party, the Socialist Left Party, the Red Party, or some combination of those.

For many in Norway, such a development would be relief after the last four years of tax cuts for the rich and attacks on the country’s still extensive labor protections. Those policies have been married to a clamp down on immigration and Islamophobic rhetoric.

Still, Labor Party leader Gahr Støre is no Jeremy Corbyn. In fact, he has likened himself with the French president Emmanuel Macron, and would much rather collaborate with the center than with the Left.

The good news is that voters don’t seem to be buying it. Norway is de facto a nine-party-system, although several other smaller parties exist. On the left, two parties are now surging in the polls, challenging Labor from the left and hoping to have a say on the course of the country’s policies the next four years. We already talked to Marie Sneve Martinussen, the deputy leader of one of those left parties, Rødt (the Red Party). Here, Ellen Engelstad for Jacobin talks to Snorre Valen, the deputy leader of the Socialist Left Party, about how right-wing rule has affected Norway and the future of the country’s left.


To start, can you say something about what the most important themes of the parliamentary campaign have been?


Many of the topics have been fitting for the broad left, like inequality, poverty, and for-profit companies eating into the welfare state. These are topics that both SV and Rødt are mobilizing on, as well as the trade unions. It wouldn’t have worked if unions hadn’t laid the basis in the years prior to this election; we’re standing on their shoulders.

As for the Right, they are trying to divert attention from these topics with a false debate about identity and national symbols. We are trying to focus on our target and strategy rather than respond to them. The Left can easily get caught up in their debate about identities — which are more like a neon-sign culture than real identities. The Right is clearly inspired by the Right in the US and Britain. But they perform poorly when the discussion turns to the economy, and that is our strength.


You have focused a lot on inequality and economic issues in this campaign. Has that been the correct strategy?


Yes, and we haven’t always had that. As we were in government for eight years, we have had to adjust to the experiences we had as a party in power, which means returning to the core of the left project. That core has to do with the distribution of power, which is why we focus so much on the profit that goes to private companies that sell welfare services like child care, elderly care, child protection services, and shelters for asylum seekers. These sectors are financed by taxpayer money, but are increasingly carried out by huge companies rather than the municipalities themselves. It’s a bit dry, and hence bold, to talk about this, but it’s the right thing to do.


In the last parliamentary elections in 2013, SV experienced its worst result ever with only 4.1 percent of the votes, just above the 4 percent threshold. How have you worked since then to strengthen the party?


Four years down the road, we can start seeing something positive in that experience. We have had to rebuild the party, as we lost some members during those years. We were down to 7,500 members, and now we are back at over 10,000. What we have learned is that the party structure needs to be more democratic, and we need to ensure that the entire organization agrees on our electoral platform.

Another lesson we learned in government is that we tried to do too much, a little bit of everything. Now we see our role more as to point out a clear left direction for the country, which is why we have settled on five clear demands this year.

One, a major increase in the child care subsidies per child from the state that all families receive. Two, no to profit being taken out of the welfare sector’s child protection services, kindergartens, and asylum shelters. Three, reducing Norway’s CO2 emissions by at least three million tons. Four, Norway should take a lead in working for an international ban on nuclear weapons; and five, a new law specifying the maximum amount of children in a classroom per teacher.

These things don’t cost much, but they point in a clear direction and are our demand to the Labor Party if they want to collaborate with us.


Why is this question of “profit in the welfare state” — private companies running institutions like kindergartens, elderly care, hospitals, child protection services, and asylum centers — so important to the Norwegian left?


If we allow privatization to go too far, it changes the entire society. If large companies run most schools, kindergartens, retirement homes, etc., then they also get a lot of lobbying power and can start dictating policies. We have seen this in our neighboring country, Sweden, where privatization was rapid under the right-wing Reinfeldt government. It gives capital power over the most important parts of people’s lives, as well as over the employees in these sectors.

That is why we feel that this election can fundamentally change the way Norwegian politics function. And now that the Labor Party states that they would rather collaborate with the center than the Left, we don’t have to be polite, but rather, can raise demands.


In 2013 you had been in government — the so-called red-green alliance — for eight years, together with Labor and the centrist Farmers Party (Senterpartiet). Can you say something about your governmental experience? Are you aiming to join a government again?


The first lesson is that we underestimated how important it was for the party organization to keep the leadership close to the base. We have worked hard since to make processes more democratic.

A second lesson is that it is possible to get the Labor Party to agree to large-scale social reforms. During our time in government we secured every child having the right to a place in a kindergarten, with a maximum cap on the price. We also doubled Norway’s foreign aid, and gave it a much more socially progressive design, and we negotiated major increases in the benefits for the elderly.

The third experience I would draw attention to is that we learned a lot about power. Two-thirds of what we did wasn’t visible in the media, like working hard to prevent a so-called asylum exchange agreement, where the idea is that poor countries agrees to take back their nationals that have applied for asylum in Norway in exchange for money. Doing this behind closed doors made us somewhat invisible and, in the end, unpopular among some voters, which is also a central part of being in power that you have to accept.

Still, the direction is important, which is why we are gathering around five demands this time. We have learned to have a clear strategy on what we want to achieve in advance, and to accept that we will lose some popularity in the process.

As for going back into the government: if we take the three experiences I outlined into account, we can achieve a lot. If it is in the government or by supporting a Labor-led government from the parliament is secondary; what is important is to get them to agree to our demands in exchange for support. It is up to our national board of representatives if we are to join a government again.


Most people will say you have moved left since the last election. How do you view the overall Norwegian left at the moment? The Green Party (Miljøpartiet de Grønne) doesn’t claim to be on the Left, but often agree with you, and then there’s Rødt, with whom many have suggested you form one party. Are the Left too fragmented and stealing votes from each other, or do the parties serve different functions?


It’s worth noting that the contemporary movements we’re inspired by internationally — such as the campaigns around Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn — are movements that have taken place in established structures in ways we have rejected in Norway. So we celebrate Corbyn while at the same time believing that everyone should have his or her own party in Norway.

In this campaign we have built each other up and all three parties are growing, but it is also strategically challenging. The differences between Rødt and SV are not that large. But as for collaborating more and joining forces, that is not something the leadership in the parties can decide. The whole party has to agree, and there is no culture for that at the moment.

Still, it is worth noticing that the Right has earned a lot by sticking together, and there are many places where we could have fought for the margins where we are not today. Of course, I think that SV is the natural gathering point for the broad left, but both parties seem happy where they are at the moment.


Can you tell us something about the history of your party? Where do you come from, and what have been the major shifts in SV’s development?


We are a coalition party that was formed in 1961 by militants that left the Labor Party and independent left socialists. The main reason for the formation was opposition to Labor’s NATO policy and the question of American nuclear arms being placed on Norwegian soil. The party was called SF, the Socialist People’s Party, and in 1973 they ran for local elections together with the Norwegian Communist Party (NKP).

In 1975, the party was reformulated again with SF, NKP, independent socialists, and a large parts of the feminist movement, environmental, and peace movements forming a new party called Socialist Left Party (SV).

Most of these groups still have a strong identity, and we are a less strict party than many others: for instance, we can’t exclude members. From early on we were very concerned about the environment, as Norway got an exclusively Green Party much later than other European countries. We are as green as we are red.


For four years the populist right have been in government, and there have been some scary incidents lately, from the racist knife attack on a Somali mother in an Oslo park, to Nazis marching on the streets in Kristiansand this summer, to our prime minister writing  about the dangers of both left and right extremism, echoing Donald Trump’s comments about danger on many sides. Can you tell us your thoughts on how the political climate is changing?


It’s a bit suffocating, as the whole debate is very concerned with being polite. The conservative right-wing party (Høyre) invited the populist right (Fremskrittspartiet) into the government four years ago, which means that they have allowed this radical shift to the right when it comes to how we speak about other human beings.

In Norway we have a big problem with the word racism: it is hardly used. You almost need to wear shiny boots and have a swastika tattoo to qualify as a racist, because the only meaning we ascribe to the word is whether you are a good or a bad person.

A scary effect of having the populist right in government for four years is that the conservatives have discovered how effectively questions of immigration and integration work as a means to avoid talking about other policies. So they have started their own light version of what the populist right is doing.


Is the Norwegian populist right similar to European counterparts like the National Front and the Dutch Freedom Party?


Not quite, because they are such a broad coalition party. They have members that subscribe to conspiracy theories about Muslims taking over Europe, and argue that we need “a new crusade.” But they also have a lot of members that are more Ayn Rand-style libertarians who don’t care about immigration.


Has Norway turned into a more hostile society during the four years of this government?


I’m not sure if they have managed to change the country, but they have certainly been giving more energy and confidence to the extreme right. One thing that I will draw attention to, and which is extremely sad, is that our big national trauma, the terrorism of the right-wing extremist Anders Bering Breivik, who killed seventy-seven people on July 22, 2011, has become a taboo.

We cannot talk about it, or decide how and where to put up a monument, and that is a betrayal of society and a shame. It will become more clear in the years to come how uninterested this government has been in dealing with this trauma, and history will judge them harshly for it.