Controversy over NUS election as first-preference vote winner is not elected delegate

Peter McLaughlin has criticised the process


The recent NUS (National Union of Students) delegate election, which took place from the 6th to the 9th February, has been denounced as "unacceptable" by Peter McLaughlin, who stood for election.

Downing student McLaughlin, who is Membership, Development & Alumni Officer for Cambridge University Liberal Association (affiliated with the Liberal Democrat Party), received the highest number of first-preference votes to be NUS National Conference delegate, gaining 124 in total.

However, he was not elected due to the system used by CUSU (Cambridge University Students' Union).

Cambridge is able to send up to five students to the conference, of which three spaces are reserved for candidates who identify as women.

This means that the two women who stood for election and gained more votes than RON (re-open nominations), Stella Swain and Sally Patterson, were elected delegates before the male candidates.

Siyang Wei and Jess O'Brien, who are eligible for the reserved spaces, both received less votes than RON and so could not be elected.

Shadab Ahmed, 2018-19 CUSU Access and Funding Sabbatical officer and Christ's Chemistry student, was previously elected NUS National Conference delegate in November 2019, meaning that only one male candidate could be successful in the February elections.

The controversy has arisen because of a run-off between Magdalene History MPhil student Howard Chae, the eventual winner, and McLaughlin.

On first preference votes, McLaughlin received 124 to Chae's 102. McLaughlin had run on a campaign of "Let's Change the NUS".

CUSU, in these elections, used STV (single transferable vote), a proportional voting system instead of a FPTP (First-Past-the-Post) system, meaning that further counts of votes can be held.

Chae won the election when second and third etc. choice votes were considered, receiving 177 to McLaughlin's 168.

However, through the voting software both men were elected due to receiving the highest numbers of votes; the decision to hold a run off between the candidates was made by the CUSU Elections Committee, as according to McLaughlin, CUSU has no institutionalised procedures to deal with such a situation.

McLaughlin believes that the choice made by the Elections Committee was "arbitrary", as under the STV system both himself and Chae would have been elected automatically due to passing the threshold of 98 votes. It is only when the gender-balance mandate is considered that a decision needs to be made, and the Elections Committee opted for a run-off instead of honouring the result based on first-preference votes.

Criticism of the Elections Committee has been mounting, as this decision was made in private and the minutes of the meeting are not public. This has resulted in McLaughlin labelling the decision "undemocratic".

Other notable figures in Cambridge also voiced their concern with the results, with President of the Cambridge Union Gabriel Barton-Singer commenting under McLaughlin's post that "this sounds like vote-rigging", whilst former CUCA (Cambridge University Conservative Association) Chairman Oliver Riley labelling the decision "shoddy practice". Barton-Singer had endorsed McLaughlin's campaign.

There has also been many CamFess posts regarding the result, which at time of writing were largely negative.

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Many Camfess posts have had considerable engagement, with one receiving 76 reacts. This is around 15 per cent of the total number of voters in the NUS election, 494. The election had a turn out of just over two per cent, based on 2019-2020 student enrolment data.

McLaughlin, in a Facebook post, points out that ideological bias could have potentially played a role in the decision making, stating: "It is *totally* unacceptable that they might have, even partially, known the outcome of their decision before making it: even if preventing my victory did not enter into their deliberation, the fact that it *could have* is itself just as bad."

It could be inferred that McLaughlin is referring to Chae's involvement in CUSU and student activism, having ran for CUSU Education Sabbatical Officer in 2019, as well as being championed by Cambridge Defend Education and Cambridge Zero Carbon Society.

McLaughlin has committed to querying the CUSU decision by requesting access to the Election Committee meeting minutes, as well as pushing for institutionalised procedure to prevent such an event happening again.

CUSU President, Edward Parker-Humphreys, has deflected questions regarding the outcome on Facebook to the Elections Committee, commenting: "I’m not in charge of the elections – if you have any questions about the results you should contact the Elections Committee"

With the Liberation Conference not taking place until the end of March, there is still potential for another election as there is still one space left in the Cambridge delegation for a female or non-binary member.

The nominations for NUS National Conference delegate happened alongside nominations for NUS Liberation conference, for which all three candidates who stood were elected; Abdullah Hared to represent BME students, Allessandro Ceccarelli to represent LGBT+ students and Ali Hyde to represent trans students.

All three candidates reached the threshold for election successfully.

Kate Litman and Jess O'Brien were already elected as delegates for the liberation conference in November.