Hacks are horrid, soulless people who have hijacked an innocent debating society and turned it into a pit of depravity, political intrigue and stained reputation. (And stained everything else, while we’re at it.)
Or so the argument goes.
It’s less of an argument than a rant, really, and you’ve heard it before. Many times. Hell, if you’re anything like me you’ve probably said it yourself, and more likely than not upon hearing that your Union-ite pal just got a £50,000 job in the City.
But despite everything that can be said against them – in fact, despite the things I am about to say against them – hacks deserve far less of our vitriol, and far more of our patience than they ever get.
No, I don’t mean as hard-working politicians who do incredibly good work. To begin with, between the fact that so many promised speakers never materialise (a note of warning to freshers: don’t get too excited by all the speakers with ‘Date TBA’ next to their name) and the equally pertinent observation that much of what is promised at parties often falls through, one eventually has to lose a little faith in the idea that the Union does entirely what it says on the tin. But while following through on commitments has never been the strong point of the Union, it isn’t entirely the fault of its officers.
Politics and event planning are more complex than they appear (just ask your ball president) and the non-sabbatical officers hardly have time to breathe. So while every officer may begin the term with the highest hopes and sincere commitment, few of them have the chance to deliver on their promises. Oxford hacks are not entirely unlike Oxford relationships: the less of their time you expect at the outset, the better.
Frankly, I don’t really care about how they actually behave as officers. If the constant anti-hack rant is correct, no one else cares either – not as far as elections are concerned, anyway. Elections are really about the ability to win loyalty, and through it, votes.
Even those who advertise themselves as “non-hacks” are really only hacking under a different name. Hacking is about getting someone to buy your personality. It’s about finding people who like you enough, personally, to not only vote for you, but also to make their friends do the same. For most of the voters, it’s not in the least about how well you will fulfil your obligations. And at a university, that seems infuriatingly wrong. But is that the hacks’ fault?
Perhaps the reason we are so outraged by hacks’ success is because, deep down, we realise that, despite our constant affirmation of the opposite, the Union’s not actually that far from the real worlds of politics and business. If there is one skill that almost all successful politicians have, it’s not the ability to create sound fiscal policy, but schmoozing.
That slightly creepy ability of a very good hack to remember eight hundred names will, one day, come in handy. Their confidence at parties, their irritating habit of dropping in only long enough to greet the entire room and then leave, and their light chatter will be how they make the connections they later need. And that kind of poise isn’t actually easy.
I myself managed to prove my complete political incompetence on the one night I attended President’s Drinks, in which I fell over, skinned my knee, and mortified myself in front of Peter Gabriel – all within two minutes. Those that manage to effortlessly glide around parties aren’t so much being mindlessly shallow as they are honing skills they will later need.
Sure, this is university, not the real world, and we could do better. We could be better than the sleazy politicians who kiss babies and hug hoodies. But under current election regulations, you do have to wonder why we would – or why hacks would, anyway. In the average member’s eyes, no one set of officers run the Union in a significantly different manner than those who came before or after. Union elections, for the large part, are politics without policy. As a result, hacking is rarely a game of good ideas so much as good manners.
And as long as they can’t tell you to vote for them, they’re left little choice but to sell the only thing they have: themselves.