Big Questions: CUSU Presidential Candidates
Veteran student politico FRANCESCA HILL grills the presidential candidates ahead of the upcoming elections.
This is the fourth CUSU election I’ve had the (dis?)pleasure of watching unfold. Tired of hearing candidates make the same pledges year after year, this very cynical reporter went along to interview this year’s three hopefuls about some of the more controversial elements of their manifestos and records. Here’s what they said.
You’ve certainly angered a lot of people who traditionally make up the core of CUSU in your attempt to connect with the average Cambridge student. How do you think that will affect your ability to affect change, should you gain office?
The important thing to note is that I’m only suggesting adding new roles. CUSU must continue its strong campaigning side, because ultimately that’s how the university and other organisations are pushed into change. CUSU’s endorsement of the anti-fascist demonstration against the EDL for example – it’s critical that the student body is represented and that CUSU takes a stand symbolically. I worry that some people misunderstood some phrasing in my manifesto, but I’m confident that I’ve had some very good feedback from all types of Cambridge students. I am absolutely in favour of the minority campaigns and have spoken with members from all of them. I’m not trying to take away anybody’s voice, merely add a more moderate student voice as well.
You’re the only candidate who hasn’t been JCR president, probably the most directly relevant experience for CUSU leadership. How much of what you’ve learnt at The Wilberforce Society is relevant, given that’s a small enthusiastic society, and we’re a large and mostly disenchanted student body?
In January I ran our annual conference, which had around 250 students attending and 50 contributing to research – I do have experience managing large groups. It’s important for CUSU to have the perspective of someone from a slightly different background, and it would be very helpful for the perception of CUSU by students to have a breath of fresh air. I have gone along to CUSU Council and presented a paper to much of the CUSU Exec, so I’ve done my research, but it’s helpful for any bureaucracy to occasionally have an outsider come in with a different viewpoint. One of my biggest strengths, given my experience with national and international student debate, is understanding the place of student politics in general. It is important to note that student politics doesn’t just work within the city of Cambridge; we also need to be able to come together and really represent ourselves to the government.
Some people believe that your bid for CUSU presidency comes across as a stepping stone in a longer-term plan to become a Labour politician. How would you respond to that?
Party politics isn’t about ticking boxes and accumulating student politics positions. And I’m not sure that’s even what I want to do. I just want to do a job that’s fun really… I’ve done a history degree so I don’t particularly have any transferable skills or prospects. If Labour want to offer me a safe seat, then sure, I’ll probably jump at it, but I’m not really sure that’s how these thing work. They don’t have a stance on whether CUSU has a Freshers Week and it’s not about toeing a party line, it’s about my beliefs and my principles. I stand very strongly for what’s in the best interests, I hope, of students. That’s what I’m offering.
You’ve really emphasised your leading role in the Living Wage campaign in your manifesto. How much of Homerton JCR’s success in that area can be attributed to you specifically, and how much to wider support for the campaign?
An active criticism I would make of CUSU this year is that it hasn’t done enough about the Living Wage campaign. What I do think is good about what Homerton has done is that it has brought it to wider attention. It is something I strongly believe in, it was on my manifesto when I ran for JCR President. I don’t want to be in my room knowing that it’s cleaned by someone who’s not paid the living wage, I don’t want to be served food in the buttery by someone who’s not paid the living wage. As a sabbatical officer I’ve had the time to go after it. It’s not a case of giving workers a little bit extra, it’s about giving them enough to live on. It’s brilliant that both the other candidates have included it in their manifesto – I just hope they mean it. I know how much work it is, but now the ball is rolling and we need to make the most of it.
You talk in your manifesto about pushing for a block grant from the university. It’s been tried countless times before with no success, so what hope do you have of getting one now?
I think we have a better chance this year than ever before. The university has recently given us an additional ￡40k for extra staffing for the shadowing scheme, so we have some extra funding to work with this year anyway. This is a long-term goal – I think it’s a tall order to expect it to happen in a year. This is one of the reasons why it’s important to have someone who has been in CUSU before and understands the structure of CUSU and the university as a whole. I’m not going to make any promises I can’t keep, but I am willing to invest time, effort and energy in laying down the foundations for a campaign that will be successful. One of the major problems is that the President does not sit on the Domestic Bursars committee, and one of my first steps would be tackling that. Just because it hasn’t worked before, doesn’t mean we should stop trying.
To what extent do you think coming from an affluent college such as John’s gives you as unrepresentative view of the challenges facing Cambridge JCRs?
Having been JCR President for a year and External Officer for a year, I can categorically tell you that’s not the case. Whilst we’re great in a few areas, like buttery and laundry prices, in terms of JCR funding we’re no different. Two years ago we had to massively cut costs due to a ￡14k overspend the year before which wiped all our savings, and we’re still working under those constraints. I’ve liaised with other JCR presidents, I’ve discussed their problems, and one of the most important parts of my manifesto is providing JCRs and MCRs with comparative data so they’re better equipped to negotiate with their colleges.