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A way to win

Looking outside Britain can restore your faith in the left's chances

September 23, 2008
4 min read

The trouble with defending things is that 99 times out of 100, you fail. The average ‘anti-something’ campaign ends with the unfeeling stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen, or at best a stitched-up ‘vote’. It can be really demoralising. That’s why it was great to hear to Astørn Wahl, of Norway’s Campaign for the Welfare State, speak at the convention today.

‘It is important to share the positive things,’ he told us. ‘The successes in fighting the system.’ And Norway has had a lot of them.

Ah, well, you might think, that’s Scandinavia. Of course they’ve got a left-wing utopia. But Wahl made Norway a decade ago sound eerily similar to Britain today. The trade union movement was depoliticised. The Labour government was shifting ever-further to the right under a Tony Blair-style leader. Norway’s Labour Party (or ‘Arbeiderpartiet’) was forcing through telecoms privatisation and health marketisation – and, worse, public opinion seemed to be on their side. In polls, most people surveyed were either in favour of privatisation or would at least tolerate it. Something drastic had to be done.

The Campaign for the Welfare State started in 1999 as an alliance of six trade unions. One year later, it had 15 unions, plus students’ and women’s groups and others also affiliated. In a country of only four and a half million people, the campaign represented a million of them.

The campaign decided to contact local councils and ask them to sign three-year contracts promising that there would be no privatisation. In return, the unions pledged to modernise public services themselves, without any loss of jobs. Some left-wing councils signed up, and that was that: they had their pilot project.

After the three years were up, surveys found that both users and workers were more satisfied with the public services, and even that the local economy had improved. ‘It was a win-win-win situation,’ says Wahl, ‘It proved that privatisation is just ideological.’

Then, in 2003, came Trondheim. In Trondheim’s local election, the union branches developed their own 19-demand policy platform and put it to the political parties, promising to campaign for any party that supported it. They then used their resources not to donate to the parties, but to put out huge amounts of publicity listing the supportive parties and asking their members to vote for one of them. The result was that left-wing parties got 60 per cent of the vote in the election, and were able to form a coalition to implement the unions’ demands.

Public services like old people’s homes, refuse collection and school maintenance had already been privatised in Trondheim – but the new council took them back. Trondheim became an inspiration to the entire Norwegian left.

In 2005, Norway’s version of the TUC decided to take a leaf out of their book. This time 54 demands were sent to all the parties, and their answers publicised. It was the biggest issue of the election, and the result was to sweep away the right-wing government and force Labour into a coalition with the Socialist Left Party (Sosialistisk Venstreparti). From there it was goodbye privatisation, so long anti-union laws – and hello to increased public spending.

‘Not all their policies are perfection – but there is no privatisation. That would now be impossible in Norway.’

Wahl went to the trouble of setting out his campaign strategy in four easy steps:

1. Polarise the political discussion (don’t let them get away with blaming ‘globalisation’).

2. Develop trade unions as independent, political organisations.

3. Create new, untraditional alliances.

4. Put forward concrete alternatives to privatisation.

But he did add two warnings. First, it has taken the campaign in Norway a decade to get to where it is today – there are no shortcuts. And second, proportional representation is pretty much a precondition for getting left-wingers elected. ‘There is no way of making progress unless we change the electoral system,’ one contributor pointed out. ‘That is why there is a left in Scotland and Wales but not here – they have a different system.’

So if we can’t have a revolution, can we at least have proportional representation? It’s not that much to ask, really.

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