Norwegian Labour Party Lessons for Democrats
Universal social welfare policies, a pragmatic approach to climate and energy, and an “everyone participates” model
In the great Netflix series Occupied, fictional Norwegian Prime Minister Jesper Berg shuts off all the country’s oil production sparking the European Union to allow Russia to invade Norway to keep the oil flowing. Exciting if wildly implausible hijinks ensue over the course of the show making for a nice diversion for those who like geopolitical intrigue and cool shots of Norway.
In reality, the soon-to-be new Prime Minister of Norway, Jonas Gahr Støre, just led the Norwegian Labour Party to a decisive victory in national elections by running on a far less radical but important agenda of national social investments and a pragmatic approach to climate.
Based on exit polls and early results, the Labour Party is on track to hold 48 of 169 seats in parliament, with Støre’s preferred center-left bloc holding a slight majority of 88 seats.
Although the exact configuration and program of the new center-left coalition remains in flux, there are many interesting lessons from Labour’s rebound that U.S. Democrats should examine.
(1) Universal social welfare policies grounded in the importance of work garner broad support. As Democrats debate the contours of their massive reconciliation package, it’s important to recognize that the expansion and defense of social welfare policies works best when designed universally rather than in a targeted manner.
“The welfare state must embrace everyone and ensure good schools, a world-class health service and generous care for our elderly, no matter who you are and where you live,” Labour said in its party program ahead of the election.
For the current party manifesto, Labour stressed a through line based on the importance and dignity of work: “Work is the key to freedom and independence for the individual. It is also the basis for growth and value creation for our country. It is the prerequisite for our welfare model. Everyone has to contribute because everyone is needed. Thus, work is the party programme’s common thread.”
Democrats seeking to explain their massive social spending plans should stress and articulate a similar through line for their policies. “These plans put people to work and ensure that all those who work are financially secure.”
Investments in good jobs, top notch schools, healthy and safe families, and secure retirements for all remains a winning center-left approach to politics and governing.
(2) Pragmatic energy policies that protect people while moving to cleaner energy sources are more realistic to voters. Labour’s win is being overstated as a victory for a “pro-oil” stance given the party’s call for continued fossil fuel exploration past 2050. However, the actual policy approach of Labour is more nuanced stressing the need to use ongoing fossil fuel resources to drive the next generation of engineering and production of cleaner energy sources.
“I believe that calling time on our oil and gas industry is the wrong industrial policy and the wrong climate policy,” Støre said after voting.
"The demand for oil is on a downward path. We don’t need to decree it, but instead [use the revenues] to build bridges to future activities,” Labour’s energy spokesman, Espen Barth Eide, told Agence-France Presse.
Democrats would be wise to follow suit here in reconciliation by talking about pragmatic solutions, such as clean energy tax credits and new power grid investments, that move us closer to net zero emissions without radically disrupting existing fossil fuel jobs.
Stress the opportunities for new jobs and successful businesses, and the importance of bringing everyone along in the process, as we do what is needed for the environment.
(3) An “everyone participates” model of social and cultural policy works better than ideological division. One of the more compelling aspects of the Labour platform is the commitment to genuine solidarity over division.
We live in an age where there are forces that pit groups against each other. Us against them, men against women, town against countryside. To stand outside is the beginning of marginalisation and exclusion. This is where an individual may start experiencing either little or no sense of communal responsibility.
Historically, the labour movement has striven to bring people together. This initiative is needed again. We will create a Norway in which people can be different but equal. We will create a Norway in which everyone contributes, because everyone is needed. Everyone participates.
The old Third Way chestnut of “opportunity, responsibility, community” still makes sense to many voters even if it’s due for an update. Everyone gets a fair chance. Everyone does their part. And everyone helps to secure a good local living environment for all citizens.
Although American politics seems hopelessly divided, Biden and Democrats can and should resist this division and continue pressing for the wellbeing of all.
An American Occupied would certainly be interesting as political theater this fall. But as Norway’s Labour Party shows, a smart, values-based, center-left pragmatism where “everyone participates” is a much wiser and electorally viable approach.
As Democrats move into the final contentious phase of legislative wrangling over reconciliation, they should focus less on the overall price tag and ideological posturing of their big bill, and more on designing and promoting smart policies that invest in America’s economic success and help all people build dignified and secure lives.