Running for President of the Cambridge Union is a double-edged sword
“Its better to have run and lost than never run at all” – Tennyson, if he was a not-so-good Olympic sprinter.
There was a time when I thought I might like to enter politics. Spend a day at the Union and you will realise that you are not alone in holding such ambitions.
The Union still professes to be at the heart of student politics, and to be honest it is. And for that, you will still find a self-selecting group of Cambridge students at its helm. Moreover, as with all things student politic-ey, the Union has a much darker and uglier side – one that rears its head at election time.
At the end of every term, the Union holds and for its five most senior positions: President, Executive Officer, Speakers Officer, Treasurer and Social Events Officer. These elections are big news for some, and utterly irrelevant for most. But for the few who obsess over Tab BNOC competitions and the like, the penultimate week of term is a time of pomp, politics and pseudo-popularity.
So how did a fresh-faced boy come to care so much about something that so many consider trivial? A good place to pick up the story is Lent last year when I was the Union’s Speakers Officer. Thinking back to my time as Speakers Officer, there are standout memories which will always make me smile. Two that come to mind are Calvin Klein doodling on my underwear (a story for another time) and seeing the chamber come alive with laughter as Stephen Merchant recounted tales of his failed exploits with women.
To me, those experiences are what the Union is all about and made running for President so important to me. To have known that our hard work helped create these fantastic experiences for our members was an incredible feeling. It was like a drug, and I wanted more.
By this time, I had also spent a great deal of time in the building, but for all its greatness I saw areas of improvement that needed addressing. And so my motivations for running for President were born. I had a vision for the Union, a direction I wanted to take it. But I was also not ready for this chapter in my life to end. On reflection, this was the probably the hardest part of losing; I felt the book had been closed before I’d had chance to finish the story.
One of the greatest challenges of running for President is that you will most likely be running against people you know well. For me, this even made my decision to run a very difficult one. It goes without saying that in any race there’s a winner and a loser. But time and time again, in Union presidential elections, that ugly head has come between friendships.
A wander down Cambridge elections of yesteryear just shows how vitriolic they can be. Think cocaine scandal, vote manipulation, exchange of sexual favours etc. But many euphemistic coffee dates later, the idea of running against close friends had been reconciled by week 5 and the campaign trail began, albeit in earnest. Trying to balance a Presidential race and meet supervision deadlines was just another hurdle on what often seemed more of a long trudge and so thoughts of the election, while ever present, were put temporarily to the side.
The ban on campaigning until the Friday before the election helped to keep this ever-present yearning subdued – for a little while at least. But when that Friday came… nothing happened. It was all rather anti-climatic. Yet a peculiar tension existed: who would crack under the pressure and be the first to put up their Facebook event? It was a game of chicken and I ended up clucking first.
A tactical move I told myself. Immediately after an event at the Union with Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), I published a video I am still proud of to this day. Imagine Star Wars text scrolling, panning to a picture of my manifesto and me. Very Wow. Very Professional. And with that came my Facebook event.
That week was exciting. A girl in the queue for life shouted “OMG it’s Josh Ellis!” A big moment in my life. But describing the election day itself as stressful would be an understatement. I’m not the anxious sort, but for a whole day I didn’t think about food, or about work, or about anything else except the election, the Union and presidency. But disaster soon struck. By lunchtime I had been temporarily blocked from sending messages because Facebook thought they were spam, and by the early afternoon I couldn’t even log into my account.
I was distraught. I remember sitting in my room staring at my computer. I had no alternative plan. The unexpected had happened and it couldn’t have happened at a worse time. In hindsight it probably didn’t make all that much difference, but at the time I felt powerless. An election, which I had planned so meticulously, was slipping from grasp.
And after all those hours, it wasn’t meant to be. I wish Asia every success in her term as President. Running for President was an incredible experience. And losing was all part and parcel of that. Sir Vince Cable apparently lost five of his union elections before finally being elected (or so I’ve been told). Even the great Obama lost an Illinois Democratic primary in 2000. Fuck the cliché, but I saw who my true friends were and grew as a person as a result of the experience.
The support and help I received from friends: in the lead up to the election; during the campaign; on election day itself; and in losing will stay with me forever.
An election is a lonely business, but its loyalty and friendship in the truest sense that made running worth it.