Thursday, 5 November 2009

New books: A political career cut short

The very critical remarks uttered by former Minister of Children and Equality and Labour MP Karita Bekkemellem about Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg in her memoirs Mitt røde hjerte (“My Red Heart”) have attracted much attention in the Norwegian media since its publication last week. But there are more to the book than that.
Karita Bekkemellem tells the story of her own troubled early years with an alcoholised father and her parents’ divorce, her lack of self confidence, her eating disorders and attempted rape. She was only 24 when elected an MP in 1989 and received a frosty welcome, particularly from female Labour MPs. The sour climate in the Labour Party culminated in her attempted suicide.
The personal troubles she experienced helped shape her political focus – eating disorders and violence in relationships and families were among her “pet cases” as a politician. Gay rights also become one of her most important issues along with other family questions.
In the struggle between Thorbjørn Jagland and Jens Stoltenberg over the leadership of the party she supported the latter, who eventually emerged as the winner. Belonging to the party’s right wing like him, she describes herself as one of Stoltenberg’s most loyal supporters. She was never part of the inner circle, but rose to become leader of the Labour Party’s women’s network and was appointed Minister of Children and Family Issues in Stoltenberg’s first government in 2000-2001. When his second government came to power in 2005, she returned to the ministry which was renamed Children and Equality.
She was a popular and glamorous (some thought too glamorous, an issue she deals with at length in the book) minister who did important work, but perhaps had a tendency to take part in debates which strictly speaking belonged to other ministers. Her most important reform was the new Marriage Act, passed in June 2008, which gives homosexuals and heterosexuals the same right to marry and adopt children.
This work she was not allowed to complete. In October 2007 she was fired from the government, not because she did not do a good job, the Prime Minister told her, but because it was time for a multiethnic minister (her successor Manuela Ramin-Osmundsen had to resign a few weeks later after it had been disclosed how she had lied to the Prime Minister and the public about her appointment of a personal friend to the office of ombudsman for children).
The dismissal and the way it was done – the Prime Minister told her quite off-handed and then failed to keep her informed about even the most basic facts about her resignation (such as what day it would take place) – is the cause of many very critical remarks about him and his style of leadership. Several of her colleagues are also criticised for failing to show support or concern. In her version it seems the climate in the Labour Party did not improve much during her twenty years in parliament and government. She apparently had quite a few run-ins with leading figures of the party in her remaining two years as an MP before she left Parliament at this autumn’s election.
The book has been criticised for being too personal. It is indeed very personal, but Karita Bekkemellem also manages to show how personal experiences influenced her political priorities. It is no doubt very courageous to take on the Prime Minister, who, after the election victory, is stronger than ever. One can only hope that her openness will lead to something being done about the problems she exposes.
She had dearly wanted to continue the important work she had begun as a minister, but was denied the chance to do so in order to make way for a replacement that very quickly proved herself to be incompetent. It would be understandable if this made her bitter. She insists in the book that she is not, but I am not quite sure if she convinces me about that.
To replace Karita Bekkemellem with Manuela Ramin-Osmundsen must have been one of the worst decisions of Jens Stoltenberg’s premiership. That, and what Karita writes about the unsupportive colleagues she encountered as a young MP, indirectly also points to something else which may soon cause a problem for the Labour Party: its failure to build up younger politicians to be the party’s future. This was also quite clearly demonstrated when Parliament was constituted and the government reshuffled in October – although the 30-year-old MP Torgeir Micaelsen was given the important position as leader of Parliament’s Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs, none of the younger Labour MPs were found worthy of a cabinet position. On the other hand two middle-aged former ministers from the early 1990s returned to the government at the same time as Karita Bekkemellem and a number of other “young veterans” left politics.

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