The biggest problems in the world are political, not scientific or technical, yet there are few courses where you can learn how to do practical politics. Many university courses study problems, but arguing in a seminar or essay is easy. Doing something about the problems is much harder. When you act, you soon learn that bright ideas, argument and evidence are not enough. You need contacts, skill and persistence. If students really want to make a difference, they need to take the initiative.

There is a lot of knowledge about how to solve most problems, but conflicts of interest, differing priorities and power inequalities make them difficult to solve. People disagree what the problems are — climate change, domestic violence, drugs, poverty, going to Mars or whatever. Then they disagree on what to do about them — use punishment, market incentives, action by the state or something else — and how much money to spend on them.

‘Who Gets What, When and How’ is the concise description of politics by Harold Lasswell, writing during the Great Depression in 1936. Over two thousand years earlier Aristotle called politics the ‘master subject’ because it set priorities for everything else. For Aristotle, the aim of politics was to create a good society, but he preferred rule by an elite and taught the art of politics to three future rulers, Ptolemy, Alexander the Great and Cassandra.

Today, in a democracy where citizens can choose their government and take part in politics at all levels, everyone needs to learn how the system works and have their say. You can ignore politics, but it won’t ignore you and will make decisions about your life.

Politics is difficult

Politics is difficult, whether you are campaigning for change from the outside or happen to be in government with the power to push things through. All governments make mistakes that cause harm and cost money. Grenfell Tower, the Iraq war, financial crash, housing crisis and countless blunders by government were ultimately the result of poor political decisions.

Most campaigns fail — think of Occupy, student fees or campaigns against wars in Iraq, Vietnam and Yemen. But social progress is the result of people campaigning for change — the abolition of slavery, child labour, apartheid and polio; or votes for women, clean air and gay marriage, to mention only a few. Even the benefits of science, technology and markets were made possible by political action. People today live longer, enjoy more free time and are safer because of political decisions.

Most politics is not democratic. It happens in the offices of civil servants, companies and organisations that decide the rules, allocate budgets and set priorities which govern our lives. Public politics is only the tip of the iceberg. But if you can learn how to see what’s happening behind closed doors you can influence it.

Why can’t you learn practical politics?

Universities teach how to do competitive activities such as business, law and sport, but not politics. If you want to make money or disrupt the economy by creating a new business, you can study enterprise, marketing and corporate strategy. Business is now the biggest subject in the UK, with 1 in 8 (12.2 per cent) of all UCAS acceptances. Universities help academics work with industry and exploit the commercial potential of research, but they do comparatively little to help local communities deal with social and political problems.

This reluctance is understandable: politics is about taking a stand, challenging authority or competing for power and influence. It would be a huge mistake for universities to take sides between political parties. But universities encourage people to look at the evidence, think for themselves and make up their own mind. In a democracy, universities should also enable all students to understand power structures, analyse what is happening and learn how to influence events so that they can apply their knowledge to bring about change in society, not just in business.

Three ways students can learn how to do politics in practice

Students have always taken part in politics, through campaigns, political parties and pressure groups, learning through trial and error. But you can become more effective by studying practical politics and influencing skills.

Three steps students can take are:

  1. Set up a study-action group, to read key texts (listed below), work with a campaigning organisation and carry out a change project or campaign;
  2. Invite campaigners, policy-makers and politicians to speak about their experiences and run workshops on how to make a difference;
  3. Ask your tutor, course leader or head of department to explore the practical politics in their subject (suggest they read Practical Politics: Lessons in Power and Democracy, and get the library to order it).

Every subject has a political dimension, from how to get funding for research to its role in society. The classics, history and literature are full of lessons about power, while the influence of business, science and technology on society need to be understood. Politics itself is the applied science of the humanities. Any subject is incomplete if you ignore its political dimension.

There is an old saying that a few people make things happen, some people watch what happens, and most people don’t know what hit them. By learning practical politics, students can make things happen and help to solve problems facing humanity. And at very least, they can avoid being hit.


Titus Alexander is author of Practical Politics: Lessons in Power and Democracy and founder of Democracy Matters. 20 per cent off Practical Politics from the publisher’s website with the code Demoracy17. Download free extracts from

Books & resources

Practical Politics: Lessons in Power and Democracy (2016) describes politics from the office to global governance, with numerous case studies and details of how to build it into the curriculum of any subject. Download chapters on the Civic University and Making the Case for Teaching Practical Politics.

How Change Happens (2016) by Duncan Green is a wide-ranging guide for activists and change-makers: download for free and get resources for change.

Lobbying for Change: Find Your Voice to Create a Better Society (2017) by Alberto Alemanno shows how citizens can create change by lobbying (and learn more at The Good Lobby Advocacy School).

How to Win Campaigns: communications for change (2010) by Chris Rose is the classic handbook. Get the 12 basic guidelines and more resources on his Campaign Strategy website.

Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer (1971) by Saul Alinsky shows how to run a grassroots movement for change, as used by Citizens UK, Barack Obama and the Tea Party in the US: see video of Alinksy and his 13 Rules here.

Campaign Training

There are a growing number of opportunities to learn campaigning and practical politics, mostly independent of formal education:

Leading Change is an 18-month advanced apprenticeship in advocacy, campaigning and bringing about change for people in employment, leading to an ILM Leadership and management qualification.

Campaign Bootcamp offers skills, community and confidence to run the campaigns you want. It starts with a week-long residential, followed by a year of mentoring, training and support.

Bootcamp’s Everyday Activism programme in Yorkshire will train 400-600 people who can’t access existing campaign training, such as refugees and migrants, mental health service users and people with working-class parents.

The Sheila McKechnie Foundation provides training and support to people seeking to bring about positive social change, from one and five-day workshops to two-hour masterclasses and one-to-one coaching support

Citizens UK’s six-day training combines theory, practical tools, stories and action in eight modules: Power, Self-Interest, Negotiation, Building Relationships, Leadership, Developing Institutions, Culture, and Broad-Based Organising.   Contact Citizens UK

Reclaim is a grassroots leadership programme for working-class young people based in Greater Manchester, for teenagers age 12-15 to develop the skills, experience and networks enjoyed by their richer peers.

The Advocacy Academy offers young people in South London an eight month programme of residential weekends, placements, coaching and support to make a difference.

UpRising Leadership Programme is a FREE nine-month programme for 19-to-25-year-olds who want to transform their communities in seven UK cities:   LondonBedford & Luton; BirminghamManchester; Liverpool; Stoke-on-Trent and Cardiff. Participants work together to design and deliver a social action campaign on a local issue they are passionate about.  They learn from senior figures how political, business, public sector and community organisations work, and build strong networks with their peers. Each participant is matched with a coach and a mentor to support them. Click here to apply

Bond, the international development network, runs courses in advocacy in international development and other topics.

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