Elections and Unions- A Level Playing Field?

Is it a fair fight for those on the right?

With banners strung from every staircase, posters coating every wall, flyers being shoved in your hand and passionate young politicos aggravating your hangover as they shout into megaphones, it’s hard not to notice the election fever that has taken over university campuses across the country.

But has it? Does the average student really give a flying fudge stick? Your surroundings may be saturated with electoral spin, slogans and promises, and if you have friends running for positions, there’s no doubt your Facebook is pretty clogged too, but do any but the “exceptional” few have the fever? Psh, hardly.

Participation is dreadful – 3,558  people voted in the UCLU Spring 2012 elections, equating to 15.4% turnout. But this isn’t just a UCL problem. Look at KCL (18%) or ULU, which received a shocking 1234 votes from >120,000 students in the presidential election of 2012 (1%). Incredibly, Imperial recorded the highest election turnout of any UK university in 2012, with just 32% turning out.

But the overwhelming apathy of the student body doesn’t stop there. Where are the candidates?! ULU recently created 8 new positions. Four of those have only one candidate, while 2 more, the Activities Officer and Black Students Officer, have both gone to Re-Open Nominations (RON). AT UCLU the story is the same, 7 positions have just one candidate. Is this really democracy? Is it really a choice if you can have policy A or nothing at all?

Where does this apathy, this distancing of the student body from their student unions really originate? I have a theory. Henry Kissinger once remarked: “University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small”. I think student politics has become too aggressive, too personal and largely too damn intimidating. Why on earth would you want to place yourself in the firing line when the expression of an opinion can leave you feel so emotionally battered? Why run if every aspect of your life becomes fair game for a bit of militant mud slinging?

Maybe you’re not quite sure what I’m referring to? How about a few examples…

Let’s start with Helen Chandler-Wilde, a first year student entirely new to SU politics and running for Women’s Officer. You would think it entirely commendable that she would want to get involved. Yet the old hands from UCLU feel it appropriate to intimidate and publically belittle her at her first ever husting:

“As someone used to public speaking I was not expecting to feel at all scared by the hustings, however, speaking at a union event is always like stepping in front of a firing squad. Many candidates know each other personally and make anyone who thinks differently to them feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. My opponent mocked both me and my policies (despite sharing several!) and questions were phrased with jargon which neither I, nor the average student at UCL- the very person the union is MEANT to represent, would understand.”

Surely a major tenant of the women’s liberation movement is to get more women involved in politics and out there representing us? We should welcome women of diverse backgrounds and perspectives to vie for this role. In fact – the more candidates the better! Surely we are all adults who can debate an issue on its academic merits and flaws, without belittling newcomers and making them feel unfit for purpose?

Largely, politics is the big catalyst to such storms. In a country where The Conservatives polled 36% of the vote in the 2010 general election, and even at the height of the tuition fee protests 26% of students defined themselves as Tory, you would think that there would be a degree of tolerance for such a mainstream political belief. Or at least some respect for a person right to believe that free from intimidation, especially when someone is elected to represent those opinion, say on Union Council. But no.

Harry Ives, an elected member of UCLU Student Council said “In Union Council Conservative opinion is treated as something to be dismissed without question. If you are known to be conservative-leaning, or are openly conservative politically, your views are irrelevant and meetings immediately become confrontational, rather than co-operational – regardless of your democratic mandate to be there”

Why should an individual, elected in the same way as others in that room, be made to feel unwelcome and have to stand up to sneering  and laughing at his perfectly legitimate, mainstream views? How will experiences like this encourage others outside the cliques that dominate council to run and represent those with similar views?

You may contradict me here. Maybe the majority of students do want a serious, militant campaign because they’re looking for serious militant campaigners on things like NCAFC. But then again, there are 27,000 students at UCL – remind me, how many turned up to Demo2012? Well, if we use the reliable source so often used in these matter, just 200-300… And how did a PIRATE with no policies get elected to York SU? Draw your own conclusions.