Why CUSU needs to undergo democratic reform and shed its ideological bias

“I have been called a ‘Tory’ and accused of peddling ‘right-wing dogwhistles’” – The Tab speaks to Peter McLaughlin


You may remember the recent controversy over the elections for NUS delegate, which took place at the beginning of February. Peter McLaughlin stood to be a delegate for Cambridge at the NUS National Conference, but failed to get elected, despite winning the highest number of first-preference votes. Baffled by the breakdown of the results which just didn’t add up, he appealed – and was successful. He will be representing Cambridge at the upcoming conference.

I decided to speak to the man himself to unpick this issue a little more. I came to the conclusion that he is absolutely right; CUSU has structural failings and needs urgent reform. They should to be implicated for the lack of democracy in their institutionalised processes, which, by accepting Peter’s appeal, they implicitly admitted to. I believe the blatant absence of true and rigorous accountability in CUSU – which I would argue is due to a lack of political diversity – also highlights a broader problem at Cambridge with ideological bias.

Peter, Membership, Development & Alumni Officer for Cambridge University Liberal Association, had run on a campaign of “Let’s Change the NUS”. Despite having topped the polls in terms of number of first-preference votes (Peter received 124 to Howard Chae’s 102), the NUS’ gender quota rules meant only one man could be elected. Under the rules of STV, both McLaughlin and Chae should have been elected, both having passed the threshold, but the NUS hadn’t given CUSU any advice for what to do under these circumstances. Peter said:

“So the elections committee made a decision: a decision which they did not publicise, did not say had happened. I have no idea why they made the choice they did – the minutes of the meeting in which the decision was made are pathetically short on information!”

He passionately believes CUSU needs major reform, and I am inclined to agree. He said:

‘From having spoken to people – smart, intelligent, informed, motivated, value-driven, and politically engaged people – about CUSU and the NUS both during my campaign and now, it’s blindingly obvious that so many of them simply have no idea how students’ union politics works and no motivation to get involved. These people aren’t lazy or apathetic: they’re turned off by the deep structural failings of our students’ unions.’

CUSU structures are set up in favour of insiders, exemplified by how the decision to elect Howard over Peter was taken entirely behind closed doors. CUSU officers have become so used to the absence of accountability that when they are subject to scrutiny, they don’t know how to respond.

Moreover, I think CUSU is too dominated by a certain brand of left-wing politics, to the point that, in Peter’s words,even those who are even centre-left are strongly incentivised against participating – for running on a manifesto of change. I have been called a ‘Tory’ and accused of peddling ‘right-wing dogwhistles’ on social media!”

He went on to say:

‘When CUSU blatantly f***s up (as it did last term with Jess O’Brien’s statement on the DRC and UCS during the strikes, and this term with the firearms motion) the response can be quite nasty.’

He suggests that this anger and frustration is the only way in which people feel they can hold CUSU to account. He argues that fundamentally, ‘What needs to change is at the root – it’s about ensuring that CUSU are accountable. CUSU are entirely anti-transparent, with no way for the ordinary student to understand how it works.’

It is undeniable that CUSU needs radical, democratic change. As it stands, the structures of CUSU are weighted in favour of the interests of small groups of people. Before last week, there was no obvious way to find out who was even on the elections committee unless you personally knew insiders.

Peter appealed against the election result last month because he saw this lack of democracy and accountability in action. As he gradually managed to obtain information about the vote count and the election, ‘It became blatantly obvious that the whole process was entirely undemocratic and decided behind closed doors – I had to appeal.’

Last week, he had a meeting with the Junior Proctor and was told there simply isn’t a timescale for the election to be rerun, so the results will not be voided. He doesn’t see the result of the people as a victory because, ‘the decision is still fundamentally undemocratic. I did not appeal for self-interested reasons; I appealed because I care about the democratic processes of student politics. These are still broken, even after the decision.’

However, the Proctor was sympathetic regarding the concerns Peter has about the procedural failings in CUSU, and Peter hopes this will provide an impetus for reform. He said in a Facebook post on Sunday, ‘This is an unprecedented opportunity for reform to the students’ union: I would encourage you all to, in the upcoming elections, go out and vote for candidates who are committed to the reform we need.’

I believe Peter’s experience of the lack of accountability and democracy in CUSU’s structures reflects a broader problem with ideological bias at this university. We can’t know why Howard was initially chosen over Peter, but I think it seems likely it was linked to their ideological leanings, even if only subconsciously on the part of the elections committee. Howard is an ardent leftist, while Peter is passionately affiliated with the Liberal Democrats.

It is my impression that CUSU is to the left of the average Cambridge student, yet they claim to speak for the entire body. In March 2019, a centre-left candidate, Ali Hyde, was voted in to be Education Officer; but the fact that he was elected rather than his more left-wing opponent (who, incidentally, was Howard Chae) provoked backlash and anger on social media and within CUSU circles. Ali wasn’t seen as ‘radical’ enough. Last month, the CUSU Council voted to ban firearms at the Freshers’ Fair, on the grounds that it could have an impact on students’ mental health, sparking criticism for their perceived lack of respect for the military.

It seems to me that those of this political leaning feel empowered to speak, and those who don’t feel intimidated and uncomfortable expressing their opinions. I believe this lack of political diversity in CUSU and in student politics generally is a significant hindrance to accountability.

CUSU is an echo chamber, and this needs to change.

CUSU declined to comment.

All image credits: Peter McLaughlin