Millionaire Labor Leader Fails to Excite Norway's Working Class

  • Labor Party could post worst election since 2001, polls show
  • Reviving economy is handing Conservatives path to victory

Norway’s millionaire Labor Party leader is having trouble rallying the party faithful.

Born 57 years ago into an upscale Oslo family, Jonas Gahr Store studied at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (where Emmanuel Macron and most French presidents have refined their leadership skills), taught at Harvard and at the Norwegian School of Management. His personal wealth, built on an inheritance (his father was a ship broker) is estimated at 64 million kroner ($8.2 million).

Jonas Gahr Store on Sept. 6.

Photographer: Kyrre Lien/Bloomberg

At the helm of Norway’s biggest party since 2014, he had been expected to cruise to victory in the Sept. 11 parliamentary elections. Latest polls suggest a much tighter race, with Labor heading for its worst showing since 2001.

Gahr Store’s election campaign has focused on traditional social-democratic principles, denouncing unfair tax cuts that he says have widened Norway’s social divide.

“Norway has become a colder society with bigger differences, less trust between people and harder edges," he says on the campaign trail.

But the pitch hasn’t gone perfectly. The Norwegian media have accused him of double standards for resorting to private health care and employing foreign workers to paint his house. His assurances that he will hand over control of his investment company to his two sons if he becomes prime minister have failed to persuade critics who fret about potential conflicts of interest.

Miscalculations

Gahr Store has made matters worse with a couple of miscalculations. His proposals for tax hikes are proving less popular than anticipated and overtures to the Christian Democrats and Liberals have alienated traditional Labor supporters, pushing many of them further left. Meanwhile, the economic recovery is killing his argument that Prime Minister Erna Solberg has mismanaged the economy even while tapping the nation’s massive wealth fund.

It’s of course “very unusual” that a multi-millionaire is leading the Labor Party, but the underlying politics could be playing a greater part, according to Bernt Aardal, a professor of political science at the University of Oslo.

“When we look at the pattern of the shift away from Labor it looks like the left-side of the party has had some fuel added to its fire by some strategic decisions and been mobilized,” he said.

Those who know him well say part of the problem is also that Gahr Store isn’t a natural Labor leader.

“It’s clear to everyone from his way of speaking, his style and cultural expressions, that he’s not originally born and raised in the Labor Movement," said Kristin Clemet, a Conservative politician and former minister who’s now head of the think tank Civita and first met him in her 20s.

‘Super Jonas’

The decline of Gahr Store comes as a surprise to many. The former health and foreign minister was known as "Super Jonas” in the media and was the handpicked successor of former PM and now NATO leader Jens Stoltenberg.

At the age of 29 he became a special adviser to Gro Harlem Brundtland, a beloved former PM who went on to head the World Health Organization. In 2005, he was made foreign minister by Stoltenberg. It was while working at the Foreign Ministry -- where he made a name for himself by negotiating peace in the Middle East and finalizing Norway’s lengthy dispute over its maritime border with Russia -- that he survived a Taliban suicide bombing that targeted a Norwegian delegation staying at the Serena Hotel in Kabul.

He’ll now have to muster all those skills. With the party underperforming in the polls, Gahr Store may have to go beyond Labor’s traditional allies in order to form a governing coalition. Having unsuccessfully huddled with the center, his other option involves reaching out to the radical hard left and the Greens. 

That’s where his diplomatic background may come in useful, said Marte Gerhardsen, the granddaughter of Einar Gerhardsen, Norway’s longest serving Labor prime minister.

"He has extensive leadership experience and he’s good at listening and talking to people," said Gerhardsen, who worked with him at the Foreign Ministry and now heads Agenda, a left-wing think tank. And "what’s really needed to build a coalition is diplomatic ability."

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