Letter from … Oslo

Complacency and lack of clarity prevented Labour from making gains in the Norwegian election, writes Fiona Twycross

For the second time this year, everyone lost an election. The two main Norwegian political parties, the Labour party, Arbeiderpartiet, and Conservative party, Høyre both lost seats in the general election held on 11 September.

Until recently, Arbeiderpartiet had been widely expected to make significant gains having been well ahead of Høyre in the polls this time last year. A combination of lack of clarity on its message over higher taxation, a whiff of scandal in the leader Jonas Gahr Støre’s financial affairs (accounts in the Cayman Islands are never a good look) and complacency, meant their lead dissipated. They were left with a handful more seats in parliament out of the 169 total than Høyre, but with the sitting Conservative prime minster Erna Solberg looking to continue the ‘blue-blue’ rightwing coalition with the far-right Fremskrittspartiet, which has been in power for the past four years.

This Norwegian general election result is a lesson in being careful what you wish for in terms of electoral reform. As the print deadline approached, the Kristelig Folkeparti – or Christian Democrats – with a total of eight seats were weighing up either continuing to work with the rightwing coalition or shift support to the centre-left or ‘red-green’ parties. The Christian Democrat’s hesitation can be attributed to the fact that they also lost seats. This was largely down to their association – by voting with the coalition – with the far-right Fremskrittspartiet, including controversial minister for immigration Sylvi Listhaug. Imagine the Liberal Democrats voting with Nigel Farage as home secretary. Populist to the core, Listhaug caused an international incident during the election when she visited Sweden to point the failings of the Swedish approach to immigration.

Politics and voting systems aside, the Norwegians do democracy well. It is made easy to vote with polls opening a month in advance. Voting takes place where people go. You can vote ahead of time in shopping centres, hospitals and council offices, as well as in schools on polling day. Turnout is high – at over 77 per cent – compared to other western democracies. If you vote before the final polling day, you can vote in any part of the country. On polling day, you can vote anywhere in the district you live.

Traditionally, booths in Norwegian town squares allow parties to set out their stalls for voters. I have witnessed queues of voters waiting to talk to party activists. Voters are much less likely to be contacted directly by political parties in Norway than in Britain but far more likely to be contacted by the authorities reminding them to vote. From text messages and emails to a video on the bus reminding voters of the elections and a smiling offer of home visits for the bed-bound. People proudly wear badges declaring ‘I have voted’ and enjoy waffles at polling stations – Norway is a country that values democracy.

In the United Kingdom we prize our privacy more than other rights; in Norway everyone is registered to vote automatically through the central register ‘folkeregister’. In an age where individual registration in the UK is putting barriers in the way of people voting and a 70 per cent turnout in June seemed remarkable, we have a lot to learn from our northern neighbours.

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Fiona Twycross is a member of the London Assembly. She tweets at @fionatwycross 

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