Every time student elections come back to Imperial, I always remember the sheer confusion of my old flatmate when deciding whom to vote for: “Back home in Italy, there is always a left-wing and a right-wing candidate in student politics. Choosing who to vote for was much easier there”.
I won’t get into what this says about Italians in general, but I do acknowledge it’s an interesting approach to student politics. The “pressure” of properly reading all the manifestos and the guilt of voting for whoever looks friendlier in the photo is taken away. It’s just so easy. But that’s not what happens in the UK. Here we vote on manifestos.
At first sight, pure manifestos just seem like the right approach: you read what each candidate proposes and decide rationally, depending on the issues you care about, without any ideological prejudice blurring your mind from choosing the right one. It just seems like the thing you should do.
If you let your curious mind to think this through further, though, you start to wonder whether this approach would work in real life politics. It’s a claim many centrist parties like to make: “vote policies, don’t vote ideology. Read manifestos and vote for the proposals you care about. Politics isn’t football, so stop cheering for your party like it’s your team, and put some effort into voting with your head. Controversies are just tools the left and right use to stir things up”. Centrist parties love to promote this kind of thinking. They adore coming out as the purely enlightened sensible option. Emmanuel Macron claimed several times he was neither left nor right. Similarly Albert Rivera, leader of Spain’s centrist party, has claimed the same thing during campaigns.
“We know that you need the concepts of left and right to have a serious candidate”
Keep digging further into this way of voting, however, and you’ll eventually find it’s just nonsense. At least in the long run. And there’s a simple, nearly mathematical reason why. Candidates can copy policies. If a policy is uncontroversial and its goodness is universally accepted, every candidate will put it in their manifesto. And why wouldn’t they? It’s for the greater good!
So how are candidates supposed to differ, if, in the long run, all universally good policies are adopted by all of them? They differ in how they approach controversial policies. Be it deciding between public cuts and public spending, military intervention in the Middle East, immigration policies – it is the answer to controversial questions that really defines a candidate. At least the serious candidates in real world politics. This is, in fact, the only reason the concept of left and right wing politics exist, and why it will always exist. It makes the whole process of sorting out controversial positions easier. What baffles me, then, about every student election here at Imperial, is that some candidates often differ because they propose different uncontroversial proposals, which just shows a massive amount of sheer incompetence. How difficult is it to copy the proposal? How out of the loop are you as a candidate, that others are proposing easy, uncontroversial policies and you haven’t even heard of them? Just do your research, please. I implore you.
Ok, we’ve established that you need the concepts of left and right to have a serious candidate, so now our own beliefs come to play in the vote. We often complain that students at Imperial are very apolitical. While some of it might come from privilege – you don’t need to take a strong stance on issues if the system grants you everything you need– some of it might come from the intrinsic nature of the Imperial student. Scientists and engineers value taking rational decisions based on facts, and they are used to solving problems where there is a factually right solution backed by evidence. Backing a certain candidate or ideology certainly feels like it’s against evidence and reason, because ideology, in the end, is just an assortment of collective myths and beliefs.
Let’s define a spectrum so you, as a reader, can have a bit of an interactive experience placing yourself at some point in between two extremes. On one extreme there’s the sceptical, doubting, open-minded person. Someone who’s not completely sure who to vote for in the next election. This type of person is a shape-shifter; an ever changing, hard-to-pin down voter. On the other side of the spectrum there’s the believer by will. The true believer thinks that her ideas are better for the world. Much more close-minded and hard to convince, she knows exactly who she’s voting for and why.
“You need to actually believe in something in order to change the world”
Each side has its peculiarities. The ones on the sceptic side tend to love having arguments, and are particularly strong against any ad-hominem attacks because it’s so hard to pin them down. But it’s hard for anything of value to come out if your ideas are not grounded at all and lack the necessary depth.
Being on the other side is different. When you’re so convinced of your ideas, because you are much harder to sway to the other side, you can potentially end up becoming a Nazi without noticing it. And this is a big dilemma, because you can only truly change the world if you really believe in what you are doing. Be it an entrepreneur, a social activist or an artist, it’s hard to imagine them having any positive impact on the world without firmly believing they can do it without any factual evidence. And this is the big problem. You can’t change the world through politics by being a shape-shifting, ideologically-empty centrist who just focusses on hard facts. You have to take a side and affirm your beliefs in a well-grounded ideology.
But it’s hard. If you’re on the sceptic side of the spectrum, you know how hard it is. Some people are so firm in their beliefs it’s close to admirable. Some lefties are born lefties; some religious people are born religious (by born I of course mean nurtured by their families). But other people go through shattering processes of destruction and rebuilding of their own values, constantly rediscovering and re-examining their views of the world.
If you’re one of those Imperial students who have become apolitical because you’re on the doubting side of the spectrum, fear not. There’s one advantage: you’re generally a politician’s most prized target – you’re the swing voter. They all compete for your vote. But you do have to get out of this situation at some point: remember, you need to actually believe in something in order to change the world. Here are some things you might want to consider:
- Acknowledge that your scepticism is a healthy initial approach to ideology – no one wants to end up being a Scientologist.
- Realise that even Maths is based on axioms we choose. Yes, they tend to be self-evident, but we still need axioms to say something meaningful about anything.
- Set up your first principles: these will be your axioms. You can ground them in intuitions if you want: things you feel that are essential and self-evident. You might feel that equality, freedom or universal happiness is a basic principle in which you can ground your ideas.
- Once you are firm in your ground, start moving into the other side of the spectrum. Tread slowly but firmly. You can approach it in a Cartesian way, if you like, doubting everything you know and accepting things very carefully.
- Realise that there are no right or wrong answers, and that what matters is what you’ve decided to matter, so it’s important to you and so you’re willing to convince other people about it.
And just like that you can end up being a healthy sceptic with well-grounded ideas. Combine this with a little passion and perseverance and you’ll end up changing the world.
Oh, and to those of you who thought this article was about how to vote in the union elections: I’m sorry. I have no clue. Maybe try to make an effort and read the bloody manifestos. But we both know you’re not going to do that, so just look at the pictures and vote for someone who doesn’t seem incompetent. Who the fuck cares?