Iceland Didn’t Tilt Left as Expected. A Socialist Reflects on the Election Loss.

When the world was plunged into crisis during the global financial meltdown of 2008, Iceland was dubbed “the canary in the coalmine.” The country was hit hard by the crash, and Icelanders took to the streets almost immediately, demanding that their long-ruling conservative government step aside for snap elections. The movement succeeded in January 2009, leading to the first left-wing coalition government in Iceland’s history. Sweeping constitutional reform was subsequently put on the table. The canary sang of discontent with neoliberalism and the promise of a left-wing alternative years before the rise of socialist figures like Bernie Sanders in the U.S. and Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K.

Unfortunately, that alternative never emerged. The left coalition ruled as liberal technocrats implementing programs approved by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and it never advanced constitutional reform through parliament despite a lengthy and inclusive drafting process that produced a draft constitution, which was widely approved by voters in a nonbinding 2012 referendum. When the next election came around, in 2013, the right was swept back into power on promises of mortgage debt relief that were branded as populist, but disproportionately benefited the rich. In hindsight, it was like the canary was trying to warn the rest of the world about the appeal of figures like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson in the face of ineffectual liberalism.

Unsurprisingly, that right-wing coalition angered voters by doing favors for special interests, like Iceland’s all-powerful fishing industry, and finally fell apart in 2016 when it was revealed that then-Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson was evading taxes. Another right-wing coalition government followed, but that rapidly collapsed in 2017, after it emerged that government officials did favors for a well-connected child abuser. Since then, Iceland has been ruled by a prime minster from the Left-Green Movement, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, in a coalition with the Independence Party, the conservative faction that dominated Icelandic politics during the rise of neoliberalism in the 1990s and 2000s. Iceland couldn’t seem to decide how to orient itself, years after it was hailed for questioning capitalist orthodoxy and declared a bellwether for doing so.

This year, it looked like Iceland was finally going to make a solid shift to the left. The Socialist Party, which was founded in 2017, was contesting its first national election on September 25 and polling well above the 5-percent threshold needed to win seats in Iceland’s parliament, the Althing. Members hoped this would be enough to influence coalition-building after the vote. The party had already built power by electing a member to Reykjavik City Council, Sanna Magdalena Mörtudóttir, who rose to prominence speaking eloquently of her struggles being raised by a single mother in poverty. The Socialists had also forged ties with the labor movement, in a country where organized labor and electoral politics are often viewed as wholly independent of one another. Most notably, party leaders include union organizers who revived labor militancy in Iceland after being elected to lead the second-largest union in the country, Efling, a trade association with a disproportionate number of low-income Icelanders and immigrants as members. In the past few years, strike action by Efling has won raises for service and municipal workers, and prevented employers from using the COVID pandemic from clawing back benefits won during these struggles.

“We told them: ‘Over our dead fucking body,’” Efling leader and Socialist Party founding member Sólveig Anna Jónsdóttir told Truthout. “Because we said, ‘We have this fucking worker power and we will use it if you take our precious money away.’”

But the Socialist Party performed worse than expected in the election, winning only 4.1 percent of the vote, and failing to send a single member to the Althing. In fact, only right-wing parties made gains, including the People’s Party, which is center-left on economic matters, but far right on immigration, and now controls roughly 10 percent of the seats in the Althing.

Mercifully, Iceland is only so capable of playing the role of the world’s canary. Left-wing movements recently made gains after elections in Germany and Norway. In Norway, a Marxist party, the Red Party, went from one to four parliamentary seats. But there are still lessons to be learned from the Socialist Party of Iceland’s growing pains. Jónsdóttir spoke with Truthout roughly 12 hours after polls closed to discuss what went wrong and how to go forward. The following are excerpts from our conversation, which have been edited for length and clarity.

Sam Knight: It’s the morning after the election. It didn’t go how Socialists were hoping, based on how they were polling. What do you think happened?

Sólveig Anna Jónsdóttir: I think in the end, what our biggest problem was is that we had no money. We are a grassroots party run by people donating their time and efforts, and we were up against many well-funded party machines. In the end, this is going to have a huge effect and it is, of course, anti-democratic as you well know. In America, money in politics is poison. The same applies here.

One other issue we were dealing with: The Socialist Party had this huge open political platform on Facebook with 11,000 members, many not in the party. It’s extremely active and everything is discussed. The rules are not strict about content. Of course, racism and such are not allowed, but freedom of speech is practiced very extensively there, and it kind of gave off this negative vibe. The other parties are much stricter about ruling content in their name, whereas the Socialist Party is not, which can be both good and bad.

Number three: The party was not able to come across as the democratic element for marginalized groups. There are many reasons for that. One of the reasons is that there is a party here called Flokkur Fólksins, the People’s Party. They’ve been dealing with a lot of difficulties, but they have a very charismatic leader, a woman called Inga Sæland, who has gained the trust of marginalized groups here.

Also, part of the issue is that the people here in Iceland who have suffered the most because of COVID are foreign workers. We have a huge influx of foreign workers. They get the worst deal, and are stuck in the rental market, with prices disgustingly high because the market has literally been given over to the capitalist class, which was one of the hideous results of the 2008 crisis. These people are low-income workers, and very few of them can actually vote. They are here, they are the engines of the GDP, but they remain marginalized.

There’s also the extreme power of right-wing media in Iceland. Two of the biggest print papers are owned by ferocious right-wing capitalists who are totally willing to do whatever it takes. It’s a complex matter.

There is a tragic element to this: The socialists were organizing some of the most marginalized workers in Iceland, immigrants who can’t vote. Then the People’s Party, which is anti-immigrant, ends up doing better than expected.

It’s an interesting party because it has this charismatic leader who I like when she talks about issues facing the poor in Iceland, the marginalized people who are forced to live on disability payments, poor older people and children. But the party has this very real petit bourgeois element there, which is reactionary in many ways, which I do not see doing any good.

But I should add this: You have in Iceland people who are born poor here. They live in this rich society. They are surrounded by great material wealth, but from the moment that they enter this world until they leave it, they are in dire straits. You have childhood poverty here. You have people living in housing not fit for human dwelling, and children who are living in such bad housing that they don’t even have access to showers. So these people, when they hear someone talk about their plight in such a convincing manner, as she does — these people, they are not racist, and they are not necessarily anti-immigrant. Low-income Icelanders are the ones working side-by-side with immigrants. That was my experience. But the party has drawn into its orbit people who are shit people. That’s the way it is.

My understanding of labor unions in Iceland is that for a long time, they have kept out of parliamentary politics, and the Socialist Party broke that mold. How do you think that was received?

It is widely known that in Iceland we still have a strong union movement, and that a huge percentage of people who work for a living belong to unions. But this only tells part of the story and we need to be careful not to be flippant when we talk about this. Yes, we have a very large union movement. But, in that movement are people from all walks of society: people who have the lowest pay, people who are at the bottom, and then you have people who I don’t think would be called workers anywhere else in the world — men who have very high income, mostly men who have a learned trade and are firmly positioned in the middle class, with all of the good stuff that entails. We also have educated people with university degrees. So, it’s a very complex, huge movement and therefore it doesn’t have a single political will. It is unified on certain issues, like needing to protect the workers’ movement because that is our strength, and we can band together to fight on certain things. But when you get down to the nitty gritty, quickly these class struggles within the movement become extremely real. I have experienced that myself. When I started in the movement, I knew that would be the case, but I was still surprised by how real it is. In the end, it is surprising that we can still band together and fight on certain important issues. But it is a complex movement, and the Socialist Party still needs to make more inroads.

Do you think one of the reasons why the labor movement in Iceland has conservative tendencies is that the labor movement has taken itself out of party politics for so long?

One of the big reasons is that the leadership of the movement, and how it worked on political matters was very professionalized. For example, Efling was this big union, and quite powerful within the movement just because of its size. But when I was working in the care sector as a low-income woman, never did I feel there was any possibility of any radical activism, working-class, labor struggle stuff. There was no interest in mobilizing and organizing within the low-income workers, the true working-class people.

Instead, the union movement had totally, or almost totally, gone into this professionalism: “We all need just to work together, there is just a certain amount of GDP generated, there is this one cake, and we all need to get together and figure out who will get what slice, and if workers will get too big of a slice, inflation will follow blah blah blah.” And this was never actually even debated with workers themselves. There was a very elitist group of people who saw, as their primary function, to protect stability. This reasoning has especially been used since the crash.

Because the working and low-income people were so marginalized and so powerless, there was never any opportunity for them to say, “Your stability rests on my instability,” and the movement was just perfectly fine with this. So not only was the movement elitist and professionalized, but also just incredibly undemocratic. That was where we were. That is what we are trying to change. We have made great inroads, but like you can imagine, it’s not a simple task.

Can you briefly talk about the history of the Socialist Party in the context of the 2008 crash? It’s interesting that the party wasn’t founded until nine years after. It almost seems like the party was established because during the recovery, society was fragmenting. The gap between the haves and the have-nots was widening when there were years of austerity.

In that aspect, you can say the Socialist Party is directly the offspring of the crash. In the years following, what happened politically was that we had a group of people who were economically affected in a very serious manner. Workers like myself, for example. I was working in the care sector when austerity hit us. I know what it’s like to work in an already-underfunded workplace and then you also have to implement bullshit austerity rules that make your life more shit. You also have people who are maybe not personally experiencing the hardship of the crash — austerity, and the trouble that followed — but who realized how some elements in Icelandic society had just corrupted and taken over so much.
In that way, the Socialist Party is the coming together of these various elements: people who already had a Marxist socialist analysis of power dynamics and wealth, and working-class people who themselves suffered, and people who have, because of what has happened in the past years, come to the conclusion through their analysis that only a socialist political and economic vision and movement can be the way forward for us to not live in this extremely wealthy society where still we have way too many people suffering because of political decisions.

What do you think that those of us outside of Iceland can learn from this most recent election?

I was so excited about what happened in Norway. There was this change, and not only did traditional left parties perform well, but the Red Party became a political machine to be reckoned with. I was very much hoping this would be the result here, that we would have a small left wave that would sort of force the middle parties to acknowledge that we need a more left-wing outlook on economic matters, tax matters and matters of economic justice, and that the Socialist Party would have a good solid election result that would give the party this power to take up this space with its analysis. This obviously didn’t happen.

What I think the lesson is: When you live in a class-based, capitalist society, the task of building up a socialist party and movement is very hard. It will not be done easily. That is the lesson that all socialists know, and the political environment we all live in. It’s no great astonishing insight. What we do now is we keep on going, we don’t give up. We understand what we did wrong, we learn the lessons, and we keep organizing. This is what we will keep on doing.

In the end, that is the only thing that works. Just build the fucking foundation, lay the bricks, do the work, and don’t give up. Use the power and the willingness to work for a just society to propel you forward.

The next election, four years away, is a long time, but getting into parliament is only one part of the big struggle. It is, of course, extremely important because that’s where you get the platform, that’s where you get access to lots of stuff, but it is only one part, and in the end, it’s not even the most important part.