Relationship between LO and Labour Party under debate

The close relationship between the Norwegian Labour Party (DnA) and the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) was on the agenda at DnA's national conference in November 2002. The formal ties between the two organisations are becoming increasingly controversial, and delegates at the conference stressed the need to develop less formal channels of communication and cooperation.

The Norwegian Labour Party (Det norske Arbeiderparti, DnA) held its 59th national conference in November 2002, and one of the items on the agenda was the close relationship between the party and the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisasjonen i Norge, LO). The formal ties between the two organisations (NO9709122F) are becoming increasingly controversial, and have been a source of significant criticism both within and outside the labour movement. Recent developments in terms of declining electoral support for DnA and declining membership for LO, as well as increasing internal tension within both organisations, have added to these controversies. In response to these developments the president of LO, Gerd-Liv Valla, decided not to join the national executive committee of DnA. However, the delegates at the conference stressed the need to continue and indeed strengthen cooperation between the two organisations, but to deliberate and develop less formal channels of communication and cooperation.

Background

The cooperation between LO and DnA has deep historic roots, dating back to the foundation of LO in 1899. The original idea behind cooperation on important policy matters relevant to both organisations was to 'bring politics closer to the people', and enable trade union members to discuss and influence political issues being brought before parliament. The relationship has beyond doubt been an important channel of political influence for LO, in particular during the 'heydays' of Labour rule in the 1950s and 1960s, but also in later years. It also formed part of LO's strategy to be a wide-ranging organisation not just concerned with wages, but also with influencing general welfare and social developments in society at large.

Many formal and informal meeting points have developed between the two branches of the labour movement. The most important of these are: LO representation in decision-making bodies of DnA, such as the national executive committee; LO's financial support of DnA’s electoral activities; and the existence of a collaborative committee in which leading people in the two organisations regularly meet to discuss current policy issues. A number of LO-affiliated unions have also formalised their relationship with DnA in such a way, although the degree of intimacy varies. Some have entered into cooperative agreements and/or provide funds for DnA’s election campaigns, while other LO unions eagerly uphold their political independence.

2002 DnA conference

The period leading up to the November 2002 DnA conference was marked by discussions and debates about the nature and character of a future cooperative effort between the two organisations. The most controversial issue was that of the more or less mandatory representation on the party’s national executive committee of the LO president (and several other LO represenatives). When the current LO president, Ms Valla, chose not to join the committee, this decision represented a significant break with a long-standing tradition in the labour movement. Ever since its establishment, LO has been represented on this central decsion-making body of the DnA. In some quarters, this was seen as an important signal regarding the future direction of cooperation between the two organisations. However, the leader of one of the largest unions within LO, the Norwegian United Federation of Trade Unions (Fellesforbundet), is still represented on the committee.

The delegates at the November conference also discussed how to develop and improve joint policy formation and strategies, including a strengthening of the DnA-LO collaborative committee. This committee is probably the most significant feature of the cooperative venture, involving regular policy meetings between leading representatives of both organisations. It has met on a weekly basis to discuss current issues of interest for both organisations. These meetings have been particularly important when DnA has been in power, not least because of participation by government ministers. It has also been important in cementing the relationship between LO and DnA at times when the latter is in opposition (as at present). The conference delegates agreed to establish similar committees at municipal and county levels. Thus a revitalisation of cooperation will mean a strengthening at all levels, local as well as central.

Commentary

The cooperation between LO and DnA has been on the agenda at the last few LO congresses (NO0105132F), and the LO president's decision not to join the DnA national executive committee may be seen as part of a process to loosen the ties between the two organisations. During the 1990s, the arrangement by which trade unions were able collectively to be members of DnA was abolished, and LO and DnA no longer share the same youth organisation. Furthermore, there seems to have emerged in recent years a greater degree of acceptance of differing views between the two branches of the labour movement on important political matters.

One of the more controversial issues in recent years, at least within LO, has been the financial support given to DnA by LO. The party receives several million NOK to be spent on election campaigns. This funding has been particularly important in recent years, because DnA has lost much of its state subsidy as its political support has deteriorated. This practice has for some time been criticised by other political parties and organisations, and has also been subject to significant criticism from within LO itself. At LO's national congress in 2001, almost a third of the delegates voted against providing such financial assistance. Although a majority voted in favour of providing funds for DnA’s election campaign, it was also decided, for the first time, to provide financial support to the Socialist Left Party (Sosialistisk Venstreparti, SV), a party to left of DnA. Additional pressure has been placed on LO to alter its support of DnA by the fact that the Confederation of Norwegian Business and Industry (Næringslivets Hovedorganisasjon, NHO) has pledged its wish to stop providing financial support for political parties over the next few years.

The shape and form of future cooperation between LO and DnA hinges on several factors. Both organisations want, to a certain extent, to free themselves from the ties in order to be able to cooperate with other political parties and other trade union organisations. For a long time, forces within DnA have called for a more open attitude in relation to possible future participation in coalition governments. Within LO itself, the present relationship is seen by many as an impediment to establishing effective recruitment strategies, since the membership base of LO is no longer dominated by DnA voters, but by people from all sides of the political continuum. The relationship is often cited as an important reason why many employees and trade unions have decided to remain outside LO. DnA is also aware of the fact that the majority of employees are either affiliated to other trade unions or not unionised at all. The party therefore stresses that it will also seek contacts outside LO.

The issue of joint political cooperation has also been on the agenda in several member unions of LO. The Norwegian Civil Service Union (Norsk Tjenestemannslag, NTL) only just managed to foster support for continuation of cooperation with DnA at its national conference in autumn 2002. The Norwegian Military Officers' Union (Norsk Offiserforbund, NOF) has endorsed continued membership of LO despite significant discontent with the LO-DnA connection within its midst - however, it is to reassess its membership before its next national conference. The Norwegian Union of Municipal Employees (Norsk Kommuneforbund, NKF), which has its own cooperative agreement with DnA, will have to revaluate this agreement when it merges with the independent Norwegian Association of Health and Social Care Personnel (Norsk Helse- og Sosialforbund, NHS) (NO0211106F). The latter union is far more reluctant towards such cooperation with DnA.

However, although there is significant discontent within both organisations about the nature and character of the present relationship, there is on the whole a general consensus about the need for continued cooperative efforts in important areas of Norwegian society. This is underlined by the leader of Fellesforbundet, who was recently re-elected to the DnA executive committee. The LO president's decision not to join was widely welcomed, but does not in itself signify a significant shift in the relationship between LO and DnA. However, in a changing political landscape – in which DnA is no longer the dominant party in Norwegian politics – a loosening of the ties may encourage LO to look for broader support and cooperation. (Håvard Lismoen, FAFO Institute of Applied Social Sciences)

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