Europe’s Next Left Government?

An interview with
Katrín Jakóbsdottir

Katrín Jakobsdóttir, the leader of Iceland’s Left-Greens, discusses this weekend’s election and what will happen if they win.

Katrín Jakóbsdottir in 2009.

This Saturday Iceland goes to the polls for the second time in a year against the backdrop of yet another government collapsing in scandal.

In this election, however, the leading opposition to the dominant right-wing Independence Party is the Left-Greens, a party descended from the country’s socialist tradition aiming to lead a government for the first time.

Formed in 1999 by groups opposed to the social-liberal policies of the new Social Democratic Alliance, the Left-Greens aligned themselves with anti-neoliberal and movement-based parties across Europe. In 2009 they entered government for the first time as junior partners to the Social Democrats and won re-election later that year amid the country’s financial crisis.

Their participation in that government was controversial, with cuts to government spending and their support for repayments to British and Dutch governments related to the collapse of IceSave Bank proving unpopular.

But, four years after leaving government, the party, standing on a platform of defending Iceland’s welfare state and renewing its politics, is on the cusp of power, vying for first place in the polls with the Independence Party as election approaches.

Jacobin Europe editor Ronan Burtenshaw speaks with Left-Green Movement leader Katrín Jakobsdóttir about the reasons behind the party’s rise, its platform for this election, and what it aims to achieve in government.


The Right has historically been dominant in Icelandic politics, with left-leaning coalitions governing for only four years since 1980. What has changed to allow a party like the Left-Greens to poll so well?

KJ

For most of our history the Independence Party has been the strongest in Iceland. Briefly, after the crash, they were replaced by the Social Democratic Alliance, but today the Right is in power again. So Iceland has a different history to the rest of the Nordic countries and Scandinavia.

At the moment what we are seeing is a polarization of politics — the Left is strengthening but the Right is also reassembling its forces. The unusual factor in this is the Left-Greens being ahead of the social democrats, both in the last election and in the polls. Since the Social Democratic Alliance was founded they have always been the larger party, with between 25 and 30 percent support until 2013.

The Left-Greens were in government after the crash [as junior partners to the social democrats]. We lost ground in the election afterwards, but since then we have been steadily growing. It is difficult to analyze yourself and your performance, but I think the reason for our growth is that we have adapted our approach. We are no longer so much an anti-establishment party — after going into government it is difficult to claim that title — so instead we have talked about what we learned from the experience of government, the good and bad policies we were responsible for, and made clear we are ready for government again.

In your program there are some radical proposals — shortening the working week, a referendum on NATO membership, significantly extending parental leave, a new constitution — but also guarantees about not raising taxes on most people and a proposal to adopt a “cross-party, professional” approach to the financial sector. Since the Left-Greens are no longer an anti-establishment party, how much change does it propose?

KJ

The main strand of our program is social, specifically the welfare system. We have been talking about public health care and education — and how public money is being used to facilitate privatization in these sectors. There has been a lot of response to this and it is one of the reasons we are polling so well. We are also discussing broader welfare questions, such as expanding maternity and paternity leave, and housing, ensuring that the government and communities have responsibility for its provision rather than just the market. We also propose to raise taxes on the wealthy — increases in the capital gains tax and also a one percent wealth tax. This has been a key theme of the campaign and an attack used by the right wing in recent weeks.

We are the party the farthest to the left in Icelandic politics, so we know if we are to enter government we will have to win a consensus on many issues. For instance, in relation to the financial system, we want to carry out restructuring. Now, because of our efforts, more parties are thinking about this, saying we need to do more than simply comply with European regulations and sell the banks nationalized in the crisis. We are arguing that we need to think systematically, to make use of these banks that we own and that we shouldn’t sell them until they have been restructured. We also propose to keep at least one bank in state hands, and make sure that the public benefits from dividends through infrastructure investment and new technologies, for instance in how money changes hands, through state ownership.

Iceland’s response to the financial crisis has been widely mythologized, with commentators presenting it as the country where “bad bankers” went to prison and a citizen revolution overthrew corruption in politics. Clearly, given recent scandals relating to the Panama Papers [Ed: and Glitnir], this isn’t an accurate portrayal. How do you reflect on the Left-Greens’ time in government during that period?

KJ

It is important to say we were in government in the middle of a crisis. The deficit was ISK 200 billion [$1.4 billion at the time] in 2009. If you really want to change society, that is a difficult position to be in. But we managed to balance the books by the time we exited government and without any privatizations. We did this by raising taxes on the wealthiest and big companies such as the fisheries, as well as making some budget cuts which were very difficult for a left-wing party. We had to work with the IMF, which was not something we wanted to do — but when I look at the experience of other countries in Europe, the ones who worked with the European Union and the troika, I think our way was better.

We made some progressive reforms in taxation, before the 2009–2013 government Iceland had a largely flat system and we replaced this with progressive taxation. It was controversial and we received substantial opposition from the right wing on those reforms. We also increased the resource rent received by the public, particularly from the fisheries, which has traditionally been the largest export industry in Iceland. We established the idea that these resources were common and that they should benefit the public. We also focused on trying to bring about a new constitution, which had significant consultation and input across the country, but that wasn’t approved because of the strength of opposition. We still haven’t finished that process.

What we didn’t do, unfortunately, was fundamentally restructure the financial system. That is why we have been emphasizing this policy in our campaign. For example, we want to create a legal environment where you can have a different kind of banking — cooperatives, for example — which hardly exists in Iceland. We have the opportunity to do that while so much of the system remains in public hands.

The Nordic left is known for prioritizing feminist issues and they are prominent in the Left-Greens’ electoral platform. What would a feminist government in Iceland look like, and what policies would you aim to introduce?

KJ

We are discussing two key policies at the moment. The first relates to employment — ending the gender pay gap and also changing the job market where, in Iceland, we have certain sectors dominated by men and others by women. To change the latter you have to start in the education system as part of a long-term plan to make employment opportunities more equal for men and women.

Our other big issue is gendered violence, which is something we have campaigned against since we were founded. While we were in government we introduced policies to tackle this. First, we made the purchase of sex illegal to combat prostitution, adopting the Swedish model. Second, we changed the law on domestic violence to one where the violator rather than the victim is taken out of the home. We have more proposals to improve this if we are elected again.

In terms of feminism, there is a broad consensus in society. Everyone wants to be a feminist in Icelandic politics — even those who do not propose feminist policies. But even though we are leading in gender equality we are not yet an equal society. It is a deep-rooted inequality. So we want to be feminist in action as well as in words. As a woman who is leading a political party I see the differences. Discussions about me are often gender-based — talking about my looks or how charming I am. I’m very surprised if I read that I have done something intelligent.

Iceland is a member of NATO at the moment, something you oppose in your election platform. What would the Left-Greens do to withdraw the country from the military alliance?

KJ

The Left-Greens are the only party in Iceland that wants to leave NATO. The issue was high on the agenda during the Iraq War, when two ministers from the current government decided that Iceland should join the “coalition of the willing,” which was deeply unpopular. But, so far, we have been too isolated to advance the case for leaving very far. Given the fact that we don’t have a consensus in society we have proposed a referendum on our membership of NATO.

But we realize this is a complicated path. We also want to make sure that, if we are in government, any money spent on security goes to civic security rather than militarized forms. This is an important step to take and we have emphasized it in our campaign.

How important is the issue of environmentalism to your campaign and what changes would you make if you win the election this weekend?

KJ

I think sustainability is about equal rights across generations, so it is inextricably tied to left-wing politics. When we were founded in 1999 the Left-Greens were focused on protecting the resources of Iceland in the highlands and so on, but we have been expanding our environmentalism over the years since. Clearly, the issue of climate change is crucial today and we have campaigned with a pledge to make Iceland carbon neutral by 2040.

But environmentalism is not just about this, it is also about changing the system we are living in. Capitalism works against our ecological interests — it revolves around increasing consumption and growth, but sustainability requires that we reduce these things. In Iceland we have highly developed renewable energy resources. Our aim is to expand these and use them to transition in to newer industries and a more sustainable economy.

If, as the polls indicate, the Left-Greens are in a position to form a government after this weekend, what will the next steps be?

KJ

It will be very complicated, especially if there are eight parties in the Icelandic parliament as polls suggest. Our priority is for a coalition to support the welfare system and combat privatization, to ensure tax justice measures and to rebuild the political system in Iceland after the crash. Clearly, we would prefer to form a government with parties of the left and the center.

But this will be a complicated path. Polls at the moment show that there is a possibility for both a left-wing and right-wing government. If this is the case, and the parties in the center have power to decide, it will be difficult. In Iceland we don’t have a tradition of a left-wing bloc and a right-wing bloc, as in Scandinavia, where you often know the likely coalitions. There is also a demand from the public for us to govern with the right wing, the Independence Party.

This is something we hear a lot from voters who want stability. Their opinion is that the best way to achieve this is a government which is not ideologically strong. We haven’t excluded that — but it is not what we want. Our aim is to have a government of the left which can achieve results.