No-one expects to be 'raised up' by Wouter Bos

3 July 2009

No-one expects to be 'raised up' by Wouter Bos

Attempts by the governing elite to push through its models of progress are the most significant cause of the gap which has opened up between rulers and ruled, says Agnes Kant. In her view the role of a real people's party is to listen to the people and take what they say seriously.

Agnes KantAgnes Kant is leader of the SP in the Dutch parliament

Social democracy can accomplish nothing without the elite, because, as Labour Party leader and finance minister Wouter Bos argued recently in the leading Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, raising up the people demands leadership and moral. He would have done better to assert that the governing elite can do nothing without the people and must always be their ally. Social achievements such as the right to vote, the minimum wage, the right to health care and affordable, decent housing did not come about thanks to a 'leading elite', as Bos thinks. They were in general exacted through the struggles of ordinary people, through strikes, demonstrations and self-organisation, in trade unions and action groups, through the establishment of pension funds and tenants' cooperatives. The elite has rarely wanted to share its power and has often acted as a brake on changes which served the people.

There can be no progress without an elite – cultural, intellectual and political. But this elite of pioneers often consists of people who persuade others, and carry them along, from a base of acquired authority. This is something other than a self-proclaimed governing elite which stands above the people and always knows what is good for them. .

Politicians cannot impose progress. Such thinking has in the past saddled people with a great many problems, and social democrats in government have been the worst culprits. They knew what was good for the people and attempted to force them into their governmental mould.

So education must be subject to repeated cuts, whatever students and their parents thought. Public services were organised on an ever larger scale, because amongst the governing elite the opinion that the market must take over ever more state functions was dominant and because economies of scale would lead to greater efficiency. Once again, this was without the people having asked for these policies or being consulted about them. And so we saw the creation of anonymous learning factories in which students were lost. Disappearing local police stations left neighbourhoods to their fate. And now we see huge health-care facilities, from which all warmth and intimacy has been expunged.

The task of running public services has been turned over to managers. The users of these services have ever diminishing influence over their housing corporations, their public transport providers or their energy utilities. The governing elite has in this way given away what was not its to give, but which belonged to us all. The people were put quite consciously at a distance. Attempts by the governing elite to push through its models of progress are the most significant cause of the much-discussed gap which has opened up between rulers and ruled. The cynicism of the people has been organised by the politicians themselves. If the population has rejected the European Constitution, the elite knows better what's good for the people and via the back-door approved nevertheless a scarcely altered version.

These same citizens are not sitting around waiting for members of this governing elite such as Wouter Bos to come along and 'raise them up'. People want above all a government that takes their problems seriously. One which is their ally and takes the initiative to stand with them in solving their problems together. Which doesn't stand by as their neighbourhood becomes a ghetto, but works hard to ensure integrated schools and integrated residential areas. Which doesn't cut police numbers, but ensures that their are sufficient local officers on the street. Which doesn't raise the pensionable age to 67 when every party in the governing coalition promised that it would remain at 65. Which doesn't tolerate a situation in which some members of this governing elite line their pockets with taxpayers' money. People want to see the government returning to its role as guardian of the general interest and of the public property.

I understand why people have become cynical and are angry with politicians who seem always to know better. And why they are turning away from politics or limiting their involvement in it to the casting of a protest vote. Those who govern must learn to show an interest in what moves people. To take their problems seriously. To look constantly at what is happening amongst health care workers, teachers, police officers, people down in the neighbourhoods, people with disabilities, business people, workers, young people and old people, so that their ideas and solutions are expressed and reflected in parliament.

Politics is about more than public relations and advertising. Members of governments who think that they should merely be explaining their policies better are in for a rude awakening. They should get out amongst the people, learning this lesson. Politicians must give people a voice. The role of a true people's party is to listen to the people and take them seriously, to make itself the spokesperson and ally of society's pioneers. To make it clear that it is not above the people, but standing by their side. Only then will people feel themselves involved, will they devote their energies to society as a whole. That is the first precondition of any progress.

This article first appeared in Dutch in the daily newspaper NRC Handelsblad on 1st July 2009

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