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Katrín Jakobsdóttir - party leader during times of change

Katrín Jakobsdóttir - party leader during times of change

| Text and photo: Guðrún Helga Sigurðardóttir

She is young, skilled and popular and has just been elected party leader for Iceland’s Left-Green Movement (VG). She will lead her party into parliamentary elections at the end of April, under what for Iceland are unusual circumstances were the former party leader is one of the party’s strongest candidates in the election.

She walks quickly down the corridor, knowing she is late for the meeting with the journalist. The new party leader Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s programme is full. Her job is to be the party’s voter magnet. Opinion polls indicate VG stands to loose in the election, but perhaps the young party leader can turn the trend.

The Nordic Labour Journal meets Katrín Jakobsdóttir in her office in central Reykjavik. Is there a generation shift in Icelandic politics?

“There have been great changes to Icelandic politics since 2008. The question is only how lasting these changes will be,” she says.

Changes are coming

There have been unsettling times in recent years. Katrín Jakobsdóttir points out that Iceland has gone through major changes. New political parties are emerging but so far they have not had much support during elections. Politicians also sense that changes are coming. They don’t tend to stay as long in their seats as in the past, when they remained in position for years and sometimes decades.

VG’s former leader, Iceland’s Minister of Industries and Innovation Steingrímur J. Sigfússon, is one example of that. He had been VG’s party leader for 24 years when he recently decided to give up that position.

“I don’t find it problematic that the former party leader runs in the parliamentary elections, but it is of course unusual,” says the new party leader Katrín Jakobsdóttir.

Expectant party members

She believes Iceland’s political culture is changing. People expect things to  change. Katrín Jakobsdóttir notices how party members are expectant and want to fight for her party to do well in the elections. The newly elected party leader is realistic, though.

“Choosing a new party leader doesn’t always mean good election results,” she says calmly.

The debate sometimes centres on which coalition governments might emerge after the elections. VG aims to cooperate with the other parties of the left. But which post would Katrín Jakobsdóttir demand in a new government - the Prime Minister’s office or Minister of Finance?

“When it comes to my own ambitions I find it hard to think more than one day ahead. I am happy with being the Minister of Education and Culture. To me it is without doubt the most interesting ministry,” she says.

“But of course I would like to try something new. Politicians never know what politics will bring. It doesn’t pay to think too much of the future, it can hamper you in your job.”

The government faces big and difficult economic issues during the election period, including what for Iceland counts as record high unemployment. Katrín Jakobsdóttir is proud of the government’s results when it comes to industry. She points out that unemployment has fallen.

Youth education

Unemployment policies have been focusing on the young. They now have more study places and Iceland’s employment service has been following up individuals. Other unemployed people have also used the opportunity to study. They did not have that opportunity before. Unemployment is now below five percent.

“Studying is always useful,” says the Minister of Education.

Equality questions have been important to Iceland’s government. Katrín Jakobsdóttir says the government has done well both when it comes to legislation and not least in the fight to bridge the gender pay gap. But there is still work to be done.

“We need to decide how we can achieve equal pay for equal work. We must also continue the fight against gender-based violence,” she points out.

Katrín Jakobsdóttir quotes British philosopher John Stuart Mill and says that the most established injustice is the discrimination between men and women.

“Discrimination pops up again and again, just when you think you have solved the problem,” she says, disconcerted with the fact that state companies and public institutions have acted less than exemplary in this matter and have failed to address the pay gap problem.

But Iceland’s government must act economically, sadly also when it comes to questions of equality.

“I am realistic. We don’t have chests full of gold. We must save,” says Katrín Jakobsdóttir.

“We must also think of people with handicaps and older people. They have got it even harder since the crash and we have to do something about it,” she continues. 

More than fisheries and aluminium

The government has focused on creativity and innovation in its business politics, partly by introducing tax rebates. This is partly to do with the economic importance of creative industries.

“This is about more than fishing or producing things, we must also think about value creation, productivity and the products’ worth,” says Katrín Jakobsdóttir.

She thinks Iceland should not compete with countries which rely on primary production. Iceland should focus on innovation and inventions. Iceland can exploit its natural resources in a better and more sustainable way.

“As a green politician I think it is not a private matter what we do with our fisheries, our water or other natural resources,” she says.

“It is not our private matter how we exploit natural resources, not globally and not privately. We must think about sustainability and sustainable development and we must think about the future,” she continues.

EU critic

The Green-Left Movement VG is against Icelandic EU membership. Katrín Jakobsdóttir points out that Iceland is part of the EEA and that her party supports increased cooperation with Europe. 

Personally Katrín Jakobsdóttir wants Iceland to end membership negotiations with the EU. She feels the Icelandic people should be allowed to make a potential decision on membership in a referendum. 

“I am critical to the EU. I believe EU policies are too focused on free market principles. EU is too much about global capitalism,” she says.

“Within the Union I see an aggressive fight for the interests of certain groups. People in Iceland are not aware of this because it has been invisible in the Icelandic EU debate,” she claims.

According to Katrín Jakobsdóttir the government’s most pressing task after the elections will be to get the budget under control and to create a stable economy. The government must also ease the currency restrictions which are still in place and make it possible for foreigners to sell their Icelandic kronor. 

“This is urgent. As soon as the elections are over the government must create good conditions for industry and the economy as a whole,” says Katrín Jakobsdóttir.

“Iceland needs a stable interest rate and good economic conditions to face the future,” she says.


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1 minute interview

Which book did you last read?

“The Moral Limits of Markets – What Money Cannot Buy by Michael Sandel. A fantastic book.”

Which work tool do you appreciate the most in your office?

“My mobile. I am a mobile addict. I have a dream that one day I will throw it away and walk free into the spring sunshine.”

What is your hidden talent?

“I am very good at embroidery, many people know that. I don’t get much chance to do it now that I am so politically active, but I do have many beautiful things at home which I made earlier.”

As a child, what did you want to become when you grew up?

“I once wrote that I would either be a surgeon or a pop star. I am neither.”

Katrín Jakobsdóttir:
  • has been Iceland’s Minister of Education and Culture since 2009. She is a Minister for Nordic Cooperation. She has been a member of Iceland’s parliament for the Left-Green Movement (VG) since 2007.
  • has previously been active in student politics and municipal politics, including a period as a deputy councillor in Reykjavik.
  • was born in Reykjavik on 1 February 1976. She is married with three sons. She studied Icelandic and French at the University of Iceland. She has a master degree in Icelandic literature.


At least 14 parties stand in Iceland’s election

Island’s parliamentary elections are held on 27 April 2013. At least 14 parties will be standing, four traditional parties and ten parties which have been founded since the financial crash. Recent opinion polls put the centrist Progressive Party (Framsóknarflokkurinn) as the election’s winners and the country’s second largest party. The centre-right Independence Party (Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn) continues to be Iceland’s largest party. The new party Björt framtid (Bright Future) gets two parliamentary seats. Government parties the Social Democratic Alliance (Samfylkingin) and VG are the election’s losers.


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