The Norwegian Method: on alliance policies and experiences in the fight against neo-liberalism (II)

Wednesday 1 August 2007 by CEPRID

Asbjørn Wah CEPRID 16 -VIII -07

OUR ALTERNATIVES When the attacks on public services started in the 1980s, neo-liberal politicians exploited the discontent which already was prevalent with existing public services, linked to bureaucratisation, low quality or limited accessibility. For those of us who wanted to defend the many gains which were won through the welfare state, it was important to admit these weaknesses, to fight for improved services, but without giving way to the neo-liberal reforms. This was solved by a principle stand against privatisation and competitive tendering, while at the same time we said yes to reorganisation and development of public services on our own premises - and within the public sector. In the political climate which existed at that time, this was not an easy position to carry forward. Market solutions were in, and competitive tendering had come to stay, we were told. As a trade union we should rather focus on securing wages and working conditions, as well as trade union rights, within the tendering system, we were advised, including from strong currents inside the trade union leadership and the Labour Party. We rejected this position. Our view was that it was deregulation and privatisation itself that posed the threat; which undermined working conditions. This clear principal stand led to the situation that our union as well as its president, over a long period of time, were systematically abused in editorials in dominant newspapers. However, the union did not limit itself to this defensive struggle. It also took the initiative to a more offensive effort - through the so- called Model Municipality Project. The union entered into three- yearly agreements with a number of municipalities with sympathetic, political majorities. The aim was to mobilise the employees to further develop and improve the quality of the public services - under the following three preconditions: no privatisation, no competitive tendering or no dismissals should take place. The project was based on a bottom-up process, where the experiences, the competence and the qualifications of the employees should form the basis, together with the experiences and needs of the users of the services. Two independent research institutions followed the first model municipality (S?rum) and concluded as follows: the project had led to higher user satisfaction, better working conditions for the employees and better financial situation for the municipality - a win- win-win situation8. More than anything else, this proved that the policy of privatisation not primarily was about improving public services, it was a political-ideological struggle to change society in the interest of market forces. The new centre-left government, which won power in 2005, has now adopted the Model Municipality Project as government policy, by launching in the autumn of 2006 the so-called Quality Municipality Project. Indeed, it represents a modified version of the Model Municipality Project, but the aim is to increase the quality of local public services and strengthen local democracy - without privatisation and competitive tendering. This was an important victory for the fight against privatisation.

A MORE POLITICALLY INDEPENDENT TRADE UNION MOVEMENT Finally we have the example of Trondheim, which inspired us greatly in the struggle against neo-liberalism in Norway. Before the local elections in 2003, the trade union council of Trondheim, together with its allied partners, broke with an old trade union tradition. Usually trade unions´ role during election campaigns have been to support political parties on the left (most often the Labour Party), and the political programmes on which they campaigned. Before the 2003 elections the local trade union council turned into an important political actor itself. Through a comprehensive, democratic process, 19 concrete demands were developed on how Trondheim should be governed the coming four years. The demands were sent to all political parties - with the following message: we will support those parties which support our demands. This had a strong educational effect on a number of the political parties - not least the Labour Party, which hardly could stand to loose the support from the trade union movement. The new initiative in Trondheim received positive answers from the Labour Party, the Socialist Left Party, The Red Electoral Alliance, The Greens, the Pensioners´ Party and a local list. The Centre Party supported about half of the demands, and it was kindly included as a supportive party. Subsequently, the trade union alliance urged its members and the voters to vote for one of these parties, at the same time as it continued to campaign for its own political platform (the 19 demands). The traditional financial support from the trade union council to the Labour Party was cancelled this year, since the resources rather were used for its own campaign. Thus, a more politicised trade union movement was decisive in revealing the real political contradictions in society, as well as pushing the Labour Party and other, smaller parties, to the left. The Conservative Party, which had dominated this third biggest city in Norway the last 14 years, became the main looser in the election. The trade union initiated political alliance won a clear victory, with mot than 60% of the votes. The three parties linked to the labour movement, the Labour Party, the Socialist Left Party and the Red Electoral Alliance alone achieved a majority of the votes (51%). Those three, together with The Greens, and with solid representation from the trade union movement, worked together to develop a joint political platform for the new majority. They were later also joined by the Centre Party, on a platform which included most of the 19 demands from the trade union alliance. The political platform of the new majority was not only about abolishing the policy of privatisation, but also about taking back into public sector services which had already been privatised. So far, the result of this has been that two nursing homes and half of the refuse collection services in Trondheim, which had been privatised through tendering under the previous, conservative majority, now have been taken back to the public sector. The same has happened with the maintenance of public buildings. Social benefits have been increased, the public transport fares have been reduced and an extensive maintenance and new construction programme of public schools has been introduced. Through an agreement with the municipal workers´ trade unions, Trondheim has moreover joined the growing number of model municipalities. Before the parliamentary election in 2005, the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO is the Norwegian abbreviation) partly followed up this model. A comprehensive project, "You decide on your side", was developed in order to collect the demands and priorities of the members. 155,000 proposals from 44,000 members were received. 54 concrete demands were identified and sent to all political parties. Their answers were collected and sent to all 800,000 members at the same time as LO, through the long electoral campaign9, mobilised for a new political course, including majority for a coalition government consisting of the three parties; The Labour Party, the Socialist Left Party and the Centre Party - which also won majority.

SO WHAT HAVE WE ACHIEVED? Alliance building, new social movements and more politicised trade unions represent the new developments which have contributed most to the important changes on the left in Norway over the last few years, and which has given us some important political victories. We have been able to change public opinion, from a situation in which about half the population was in favour of privatisation in the middle of the 1990s, till almost 70% were against in opinion polls before the elections in 2005. This contributed strongly to moving also the Labour Party from a pro- to an anti-privatisation platform in the same period. We have increasingly been able to expose the real contradictions in society and to sharpen the political/ideological debate - even to the degree that, when the Conservative Party were to proclaim its main opponent in the local elections in 2003, it pointed to the Norwegian Union of Municipal and General Employees, which obviously did not stand for election, but which the party anyway saw as the main barrier against its neo-liberal offensive, and correctly so. It was a brilliant situation for the trade union, of course, which by this even to a greater extend than before could define the premises for the political debate. Both in the Trondheim example and in the parliamentary elections in 2005 we experienced stronger than usual political polarisation between the right and the left. These experiences have in practice confirmed that it is when the political alternatives stand clearly against each other, when the real contradictions in society are exposed, that the left can most successfully mobilise. The simplistic comprehension that if the voters move to the right, the left parties have to go to the right as well in order to catch the middle-voters, has once again proved wrong. Political movements are not linear - it is rather a question of conflicting interests, as well as political- ideological confusion or clarity. Over the last few years, by means of our alliances, our politisation of trade unions and our alternatives, we have been able to slow down, and partly stop, the policy of privatisation and to get rid of the most right wing, neo-liberal government we have ever had in Norway. It was replaced by a centre-left government after the elections in 2005, where all the three political parties had to campaign on an anti- privatisation platform, not least because we had succeeded in changing public opinion, heavily supported by the fact that privatisation was no longer only theoretical promises, but concrete experiences, which did anything but meet the rosy expectations which were created by the neo-liberal pundits. It was important also, of cause, that the Labour Party experienced a formidable electoral defeat in 2001, when it was punished by the voters for its neo-liberal excesses in the previous period. The party´s score was reduced from 36 (in 1997) to 24 per cent, the lowest ever since the beginning of the 1920s. The demand for a new political course therefore also received strong support from great parts of the party´s own rank and file. By moving politically to the left in the 2005 elections, the party recovered many of its voters. The political platform of the three-party coalition government was in many areas surprisingly radical in its contents10. The government´s morning gift to its people consisted in the redemption of a number of the most important demands which were raised by the trade union and other movements. The privatisation of the railways was stopped. The full opening for private primary and secondary schools was stopped (11). The destruction of the labour laws, which was carried through by the previous government, was reversed. Billions of fresh money has been put into the municipalities, which carry out most of the public services. Demands on a number of developing countries to liberalise their services sectors through the WTO GATS agreement were withdrawn. And Norwegian soldiers were withdrawn from Iraq.

NEW POLITICAL COURSE? After this morning gift, however, it has, with some few exceptions, been difficult to catch sight of the new progressive political course in Norway. It seems as if the Labour Party´s right wing has taken the offensive, while the Socialist Left Party shows all its weaknesses - among them a lack of insight into basic power structures in society. Even if they pretend to be a left socialist party, they obviously do not have any well developed strategy for their participation in government. The matters in which the party has chosen to take internal conflicts in the coalition government so far have turned on foreign policy and environmental questions, while the social struggle is more or less absent as a subject, in spite of the fact that the poverty gap is still growing - and social dumping and anti-trade union policies are on the increase. This lack of roots in the social movements and in the social struggle is the main weakness of this political party. The building of alliances with social movements outside the parliament is therefore also non-existent. They rather encourage people to stay calm, “so that we can carry out our policies”. Even if the centre-left government is still able to carry through progressive decisions, like the cancelling of debt to some developing countries, or the recognition of the new Palestinian government, it seems as if the limit is where it will have to confront strong economic interests. Structural reforms, which can contribute to shifting the balance of power in society, are therefore completely missing. On the contrary, the government is currently pushing through a pension reform which will weaken the existing, redistributive pension scheme. It has also proposed a regional reform, in which it fails to take the opportunity to structurally strengthen and consolidate local democracy. For quite many of us, it was clear from the outset that the new centre- left government would only represent an opportunity, but real developments would depend on a strong and continuous pressure from outside the parliament. There are many reasons for this. Firstly, a lot of power has been transferred from democratic bodies to the market in the neo-liberal era. Secondly, the political space has also been reduced through a number of international agreements over the last 10-15 years, where the EEA12 and the WTO agreements are the most important ones. Thirdly, the pressure from the political right and capitalist interests is strong, and the government gives way. Fourthly, the right wing still hold the most important positions in the Labour Party, while the Socialist Left Party neither has the strategic perspective, nor the social roots which are necessary to pose an alternative stronghold on the left. The party political misery on the left has in other words not been overcome. Neither have the radical parts of the trade union movement nor other social movements proved to be strong enough to maintain sufficient pressure on a government which many consider to be their own, and where, although weakened, loyalties still dampen the ability as well as the willingness to take actions from below. The implementation of a new more left-oriented political course will, however, completely depend on such a pressure in the current political situation. So far it is therefore the right wing populist party (The Progress Party) which has been the big winner in the opinion polls since the centre- left government took office in Norway. Neo-liberalism creates a real basis for anxiety, discontent and contradictions in society. The right wing populists have specialised in exploiting all such discontents - and in channelling it in perverted political directions (against immigrants, against single mothers, against people on social benefits, against `politicians´, etc.). The only way to challenge this situation is through policies from the left parties which take people´s discontent seriously, politicises it and channels it into a social struggle for collective solutions.

THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES! The next parliamentary election in Norway will be in 2009. The following could be the most extreme alternative developments up to these elections: Worst case scenario: The centre-left government has not delivered or lived up to its expectations. The enthusiasm in the movements which brought the coalition government to power, is dead. The Campaign for the Welfare State and the other alliances have been demobilised. The conservative party together with the right wing populist party win power. Best case scenario: The government has delivered. It has introduced a real new progressive political course and created enthusiasm in those movements which brought it to power. The Campaign for the Welfare State and the other alliances have been strengthened, and the centre- left government wins a new mandate period for a new political course. It is too early too conclude which of these main tendencies we will end up with. What is clear, however, is that the present government has problems with delivering according to the expectations it created. It looks as if most of the government defines a new political course, not as a comprehensive new approach to politics, but as a list of single issues which will be implemented (if possible?), while politics at large will continue as before - along a soft, neo-liberal path. Irrespective of these developments, the most important experiences from the last few years´ political fighting in Norway are the new alliances which have been created and the political independence which has developed in important parts of the trade union movement as well as in allied movements13. It is these developments which have led to the victories we have won. It is here we can find the most important and positive parts of the Norwegian Method. It is here the potential can be found to further change power relations in society. The struggle continues!


8. Information on the Model Municipality Project can be found here: http://www.fagforbundet.no/omstilling/. Choose the key world “Modellkommunemetodikken” in the left margin and on the new page you will also find some documents in English. 9. It started a year before the elections and was named "the long electoral campaign" by LO itself. 10.Only the Foreign Policy part of the platform is available in English: http://www.regjeringen.no/en/dep/smk/Documents/Reports- and-action-plans/Rapporter/2005/The-Soria-Moria-Declaration-on- Internati.html?id=438515 11. Most schools in Norway are publicly owned and managed. Only schools linked to alternative faiths or alternative pedagogics are allowed. The previous government, however, carried through a new law which gave free way to the establishment of private schools based on the same curriculum as publicly managed schools. 12. The EEA (European Economic Area) is an agreement between the EU and Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein which makes these countries part of the Single Market - with some limitations regarding agriculture, fisheries and foreign policy. The agreement was carried into effect as from 1 January 1994. 13. As this is being written, the President of the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) is being forced to step down after a dramatic process which was triggered off by an internal personnel conflict. She had, in a couple of important cases, pursued a more independent political position in relation to the Labour Party, also by forcing the party and the centre-left government on retreat on a couple of occasions. Her resignation can, therefore, have important political implications, as more moderate currents are now on the offensive.

Asbjorn Wahl is the National Co-ordinator of the Campaign for the Welfare State in Norway

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