What we can learn from Norway’s feminist success

Why professional mothers can have it all.

When the speeding fine for 6,500 kroner (£650) dropped on to the doormat last Thursday, I did not immediately reflect on Stavanger's enviable record on road safety.

But as I discussed the fine with Norwegian friends and the explosion of incredulity I had expected at the harshness of the punishment never materialised, I took pause to reflect on the question they were all asking instead: "Why on earth do you imagine it was OK to break the speed limit in the first place?"

That conundrum is at the root of Norway's ability to achieve socially desirable outcomes, and its determination to pursue social-democratic goals – not least, gender equality.

Norwegians are proud of their country and its reputation. Most would agree that it is desirable to have a gender balance in business and politics; the idea of losing vast numbers of talented women from the workforce just because they become pregnant is anathema. But that social cohesion is underpinned by the government's willingness to legislate robustly against those who do not instinctively share the majority's goals.

The result is that the country has just topped Save the Children's Mother's Index for the second year in a row. The UK failed to beat Norway on any one of the 11 criteria that comprise the index. But it is the factors that make up female economic, and political, status which prove particularly instructive about why it is so much easier to be a professional and a mother in Norway.

Quotable quotas

Tellingly, Norway's women earn, on average, 77 per cent as much as men (the highest ratio in the world), and represent 40 per cent of the legislature. In both cases, the government, or individual political parties, have intervened with quotas to help guarantee these figures.

Britain has toyed with the idea of imposing quotas for women in business and parliament – most recently in February, when Mervyn Davies, in his report for the government, rejected boardroom quotas in favour of voluntary targets. A similar approach was attempted in Norway at the end of the 20th century. But, by 2003, when it had become clear that listed firms were failing to promote enough women, the government legislated instead.

The quota is 40 per cent. Boardrooms are now 42 per cent female. Mimi Berdal, a self-confessed beneficiary of the legislation, and perhaps Norway's most prominent female businesswoman, with a CV boasting 90 board directorships, believes that within five years the quota will have become unnecessary. It is a classic example of top-down policy shaping social mores.

The latest example is a tweaking of the maternity and paternity laws which will increase entitlement, while also forcing fathers to take on more of the childrearing obligations. At the moment, the government covers 100 per cent of salary for 46 weeks, or 80 per cent for 56 weeks. Of that time, nine weeks are reserved for mothers and ten weeks for the father, with the rest of the time transferable between partners.

Carrot? Or stick?

The idea, says Kirsti Bergstø, the 31-year-old deputy minister for children, equality and social inclusion is to ensure that fathers have the option of contributing more to childrearing. As of 1 July, the government will intervene again to ensure they do: an extra week will be made available to parents. But the non-transferable paternity element will increase from ten to 12 weeks.

"They either use it or lose it," says Bergstø.

It is legitimate to argue that it is easier to effect such carrot-and-stick politics in an ethnically homogeneous country of just five million people than it would be in a complex polity more than ten times the size.

Yet Bergstø argues that other countries could learn from Norway's preparedness to legislate in pursuit of social democratic goals. Even a challenge as difficult as integrating asylum-seekers and encouraging female refugees into the Norwegian labour market is easily tackled with Norwegian-style compassionate-but-tough legislation, she says.

It starts with the obligations for new entrants to the country to take language classes. "Learning Norwegian is important for the women for integration," says Bergstø. "If they are going to join the labour market it is essential."

The corollary is that their children get free access to one of Norway's first-class state nurseries. Norwegian parents also have access to these nurseries, so professional mothers can avoid the expense of UK-style childcare.

And while those from Stavanger drive their children there in the morning, they might also reflect that there has been not a single death in an accident on the roads since 2008.

Mark Lewis is a freelance journalist based in Norway.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.