The Fisher-Price version of the Commons? Tobia Nava, Flickr/Number 10

It’s a Thursday morning. You’ve just woken up and your first port-of-call is to check your Facebook, Instagram, town crier, favourite student newspaper. Bleary-eyed, you see that everyone is talking about the recent student society elections where there was deeply concerning electoral malpractice. No, this isn’t Easter term in Cambridge, this is Oxford in 2020 where a returning officer allegedly rigged the OUCA election. Or it’s Cambridge in 2000 where this very publication (albeit erroneously) ran a story on Suella Braverman rigging a CUCA election. Or you’ve woken up in 2021 where CUCA had yet another election-rigging scandal. And they say time is a flat circle.

With our ancient universities having such a strong and time-honoured tradition of rigging elections, can we really blame Max Ghose for trying to do the same? After all, he seems to be in good company, not only with fellow Union hacks (Cambridge or otherwise) but also with the architects of Tory Britain.

“Westminster grifters lead hacks to push the boundaries of what they can do in their own chambers”

Oxbridge and their Unions are historic training grounds for the future elite, with alumni being the likes of diplomats, civil servants, journalists, and prime ministers. Though a horrendously dreary thought, Union alumni do tend to graduate from the Fisher-Price equivalent of the Commons into the real thing, meaning that we’re more than likely to find a beloved hack standing for election in the next decade – limp handshake and all.

Of course wanting a career in politics isn’t a bad thing. Being a representative of the people is a noble path, after all. But this isn’t what the Unions teach. They don’t teach the “delicate art” of debating nor instil a rigorous adoration of the scrutiny of policy. No, instead they teach hacks that considered and perfectly-argued oration isn’t what gives you the leg up. Instead it’s the thrill of ‘the game’ that promotes you from pondlife to Union royalty.

And here is our chicken-and-egg problem. Should we really blame student ‘politicians’ for getting their hands (and ballot boxes) dirty, or does the blame lie in Westminster? After all, if the Union resembles Westminster even down to the furniture, then surely its political culture also trickles down into our universities.

“Perish the thought of what Johnson would have done if he had a “Boris4UnionPres” Instagram”

With most of the student population here being between 18 and 21, many of us have grown up and had our political awakenings under the Tory regime with both Brexit and the election of Trump strengthening the iron grasp of populism in our politics. All of this while the Boris bus paraded the streets adorned with lies, Cambridge Analytica subtly rigged the referendum and Trump helped usher so-called “alternative facts” into the political discourse. So for a politically-minded Union hopeful, the lessons hitherto learned from national politics are that if you want to win, you have to play dirty.

While the idea of playing dirty might have been exacerbated recently, it certainly isn’t a new phenomenon. And to prove this we need to look no further than everyone’s favourite mop-haired disgraced former PM.

Boris himself was a Union man in his Oxford days, becoming president in the Hilary term of 1986 – here was where he learnt the love of the ‘game’ of politics. From late-night hacking in the Union bar to orchestrating connections with people he could use to further his campaign, Boris’s Oxford mirrors our own Cambridge (even down to the stereotype that the only students wearing suits “for fun” were Union types). Perish the thought of what he would have done if he had a “Boris4UnionPres” Instagram.


Mountain View

Reflections on a year in student politics

Sixteen years later he entered parliament, no doubt benefiting from the skills he learned while hacking at uni, and eventually climbed to the office of Prime Minister where he shaped politics in his own image, scrawling “BORIS WAS ’ERE” into the wood-panels of our institutions with his Etonian born-to-rule attitude. But even before his accession, Boris’s Bullingdon buddies were already shaping political culture while we were in our own adolescence, flushing an opaque black sludge of sleaze from Westminster down to where the Thames becomes the Isis, and shipping it to Cambridge too for good measure.

This sleaze problem is, however, a two-way street, with Unions shaping the game of politics to a similar extent as the opposite, teaching future political practitioners that people and principles are expendable so long as it brings about victory. And here is where the tragedy truly lies. With the normalisation of sleaze in our political culture and the Unions only making this worse, politics becomes a self-perpetuating loop. Westminster grifters lead hacks to push the boundaries of what they can do in their own chamber and, seeing it mostly work, proceed to do the same once they reach the Commons (of course with a pit stop pushing papers in a Magic Circle firm that daddy helped procure).

With a political culture as toxic as we have in Tory Britain then, who can blame student politicos for rigging elections – after all, even the big boys are dipping their toes in it, as Jacob Rees-Mogg admitted. What I’m not saying however, is that we should let election riggers get away with a slap on the wrist. Instead, we should perhaps see our little student squabbles with electoral malpractice as not the fault of over-ambitious hacks, but instead a problem with the system we’ve been shaped under our entire lives. With sleaze seemingly being the golden ticket into Westminster then, who can blame Max Ghose for just trying to get a head start?