7 Ways to Get to Grips With Politics
It’s a tough time not to know much about politics.
A decade ago, it was a reasonable accusation that most politicians looked and sounded more-or-less the same. Pre-financial crash, pre-Trump, pre-Brexit, it was easy to believe that politics was declining into dullness and irrelevance; that the days of political fireworks were over. But the events of 2016 and 2017 have shown how utterly mistaken that view was. No one could accuse Jeremy Corbyn of holding the same principles as Theresa May, or Donald Trump of being an uneventful president.
But if you’re someone who’s never been all that interested in politics – or not had the time to learn as much as you’d like – it can seem like too much is happening too fast for you to be able to catch up. There’s a litany of terms that can be baffling, from Article 50 to executive orders, and it can feel like everyone understands them except you.
The reality is that it’s much easier to get to grips with politics than you might think. In seven easy steps, here’s what you need to do.
1. Get a 101 introduction to the political system
You don’t need to learn every detail of how your country is governed to understand politics; there are probably some elected politicians who don’t know that much detail. But understanding a few basics of the systems of government is a good place to start.
For instance, you should find out how many different elected representatives you have. In Oxford, you’d be represented by a city councillor, a county councillor, a police and crime commissioner, an MP and (at least for the time being) an MEP. In other areas of the UK, there might be district councillors, parish councillors, mayors, MSPs (in Scotland), AMs (Wales) and probably a few other things besides. You don’t need to know every type of elected representative across the whole of the country, but it’s worth knowing roughly who you might be called to vote on, and what they’re responsible for.
Similarly, you might want to look into the voting system used in your country, the different branches of government, the frequency of elections and who gets the right to vote in them. All of these things can vary to a surprising extent even between neighbouring countries that seem politically very similar. You might not think that something like the voting system makes that much difference, but it can make the difference between a country that almost always has coalition governments (like Ireland) and a country that very seldom does (like the UK). Not only does this result in different pressures on government, but it also means that political campaigns are run differently, in order to maximise the chances of winning in the different systems.
2. Understand the parties and their ideologies
The policies a political party espouses will change from election to election; while they’re worth looking at when you’re deciding which way you should be voting, you can’t necessarily base too many conclusions about what the party stands for deep down on their policies at one particular moment in time. For example, the two largest political parties in the UK, Labour and the Conservatives, are at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum on most issues. But that didn’t stop Theresa May copying former Labour leader Ed Miliband’s energy policy almost to the letter.
Instead, start off by learning a little about political ideologies. The most common spectrum on which people plot political parties is a left-right axis, where the left favour higher taxation and higher government spending in order to redistribute wealth from rich to poor, while the right favour lower taxation and lower government spending. But this isn’t the only axis on which to understand politics, as there can be multiple parties of the left or of the right that disagree with one another. For example, there is the libertarian-authoritarian axis, where libertarians favour minimum government intervention in people’s lives, and authoritarians believe government should get involved where possible to improve society. Of increasing importance in many countries is the open-closed axis, where the ‘open’ side favours free trade and minimal controls on immigration, and the ‘closed’ side favours low immigration and protectionism.
To demonstrate this, both the Conservatives and UKIP are parties of the right in the UK; UKIP is often described as far-right. But in fact, many UKIP supporters and politicians advocate for higher public spending than the Conservatives. The axis on which UKIP are more extreme than the Conservatives is not the left-right axis, but the open-closed axis, where they are at the far end of ‘closed’. Similarly, while the Labour party is of the left and the Liberal Democrats of the centre-left, the Liberal Democrats are more likely to support anti-authoritarian policies and are at the far end of ‘open’.
3. Choose a couple of different sources to consult
At this point, you should have enough context to understand a lot more of what you read in the news than you might have done otherwise. So now is the time to start getting up-to-date with what’s going on in the world. It’s best to find a few different sources for your news, so that you get a balanced view, but it’s unlikely that you’re going to have time to read several newspapers a day and cross-reference their perspectives on stories.
A more realistic plan is to pick two different sources: one that suits your own viewpoint, and one that you can rely on to be reasonably neutral. The latter is so that you can keep a handle on the facts and be aware of when your other source is being so partisan as to be misleading. The former is so that you can have the news interpreted for you along the same lines as you might interpret it yourself if you had the knowledge. You might think that this is unnecessary, and that you shouldn’t surround yourself in a partisan bubble; the difficulty is that you’ll then end up reading something and not knowing whether it’s good or bad news. Your partisan source will help you work this out, and with greater knowledge you can then figure out the extent to which you agree with it.
4. Subscribe to a daily email
While having a couple of websites or newspapers that you’ve decided to make your two sources mentioned above is useful, you might not find that you have time to read them in as much detail as you’d like to every day. Thankfully, other people have had the exact same problem, and the solution is out there. Virtually every major news site will have a daily briefing email, landing in your inbox first thing in the morning to run you through all the top headlines of the day that you might be expected to know about. In the UK, there are daily emails available from the Guardian (left-leaning), the New Statesman (ditto), the Spectator (right-leaning), the Telegraph (ditto), the Financial Times (economy-focused, as the name would suggest), the Times (centre right) and a good few more besides. You could sign up to all of them, try them out for a week and then unsubscribe from the ones you don’t like.
The advantage of this is not only that you don’t have to make the effort to seek stories out. It’s also that they’ll have been carefully curated so that you learn about whatever the most important news is on any given day. If you’re someone who’s inclined to skip over headlines that seem dull, depressing or not directly relevant to you, this means that you stay on top of everything going on in the world, rather than just the items that you might naturally select while browsing news stories – so you won’t end up keeping track of Tom Hiddleston’s love life while ignoring stories about missile launches in North Korea or famines in Ethiopia.
5. Follow some key people on social media
In your reading of morning emails and your chosen news sources, you’ll probably start to pick up on a few key names whose writing or insight you particularly enjoy. The good news is that nearly all journalists and reporters are actively on social media, especially Twitter. Find them, and take a look at the kinds of things they post: it might just be lots of links to the articles they write that you’re already reading, but it might also be up-to-the-minute commentary on current affairs.
If you’re an active social media user anyway, having your usual feed of whatever you’re interested in interspersed by occasional news and politics comments can be a low-effort way of keeping in touch with what’s going on. The reasons that this is relatively low on this list are that you need to know which names to search for in the first place, and you also need some context before political Twitter makes any sense. For instance, in the UK whenever Prime Minister’s Questions rolls around (every Wednesday at 12 when Parliament is in session), political Twitter talks about nothing else. However, they won’t usually say “this comment is about PMQs”, so you’ll need to know what PMQs is and the key figures involved to understand why your favourite writer is tweeting things like, “Theresa May’s face!” or “Good tie choice from Corbyn there.”
6. Learn about a key topic that interests you
By this point, you should have a feel for the broad-brush situation in politics in your country today. You probably don’t try to change the subject in a hurry every time politics comes up in conversation, and can contribute a few thoughts of your own. You’re well-informed about what’s happening politically on a day-to-day basis as well. The next step, if you want to pursue this further, is diving deeper into political processes and how change happens.
The problem is that political processes – the campaigns, the petitions, the votes, the whips, the editorials, the speeches and so on – are incredibly dull in the abstract. What makes them interesting is caring about the impact that they have. There must be some political issue that interests you, whether it’s something that affects you personally, such as changes to the education system, something that has a tangible impact such as building infrastructure, or something that you simply feel to be important. Use that issue as your case study, and learn all about it: who are the politicians leading on your side, and who is opposing? How has the issue progressed over time? Is it getting sufficient attention, or is it largely ignored? Is it a topic where the problem is largely ignored, such as prison reform, or is it an issue that’s generally acknowledged but the obstacles to dealing with it are too great, such as the housing crisis? The answers to the questions ‘what is being done?’ and ‘why isn’t more being done?’ are a good starting point for just about any issue that you might identify.
7. Look at campaign and petition websites
The final step is to go from being interested and knowledgeable to being involved. If you’re a citizen of a democracy, you’re involved in politics by default, but just how far you choose to take that involvement is up to you. One low-effort way to dip your toe in the water is to look at petition websites and other campaign websites. You can find out, for instance, who is campaigning for your position on the issue you were looking into above; you can see what kind of action they are advocating; and you can see how much you might like to get involved.
If you’ve done everything else on this list, you may well be better informed than many of the people signing petitions, writing emails to their MPs and any other campaign activities that might be going on, so don’t be frightened to get stuck in. Whether you end up signing a couple of petitions and leaving it at that, or this is the first step you take down the round that ends with you becoming an MP, good luck!