A few weeks ago, my university’s students’ union held its annual elections for the executive body. Positions such as Vice President of Welfare and Diversity, and Vice President for Union Affairs were contested by two or three barely distinguishable candidates, and subsequently divvied out based on who had won the most student votes, as one would expect. This has happened each year for as long as I’ve been an undergraduate, and for the many decades preceding my arrival.
What separates this year from other iterations of these elections are some unfortunate oversights that epitomise and harshly reveal a growing problem in the sphere of British student politics.
The problem is a self-perpetuating feedback loop of apathy, ignorance, and disenfranchisement; it has fundamentally undermined the efficacy of student politics to the point where it now fails to amount to anything more than a farcical popularity contest wielding nominal power at best.
In order to understand what has brought the situation here to a head, I must draw your attention to one particular man, a fellow undergraduate student at my university, who drunkenly assaulted a girl in our students’ union some months ago. His punishment came in the form of a ban from the union, but his victim suffered no lasting injuries, and the police were never involved.
This should have been the last we heard of this incident, but over the course of these elections, it has been dug up and publically displayed like a monster on a morgue slab, and couched in terms not dissimilar to those of a Nixonian smear campaign.
The reason for this is that the man, who assaulted a fellow student and was consequently banned from the students’ union, has just won the executive presidential candidacy, and is now the president elect of our students’ union.
Since this announcement, the mood among the student body here has been one of chaos-tempered confusion. The discourse witnessed on social media and around campus is mind-boggling, because no one really knows how this has happened, and no one can decide what should be done next, if indeed anything can or should be done.
Part of this discourse has manifested itself in the continual assertions from a vocal minority that he was democratically elected, and that we as students had the right to vote for another candidate, and the chance to contest his nomination, but that we chose not to take it.
Some did, but to ascribe his victory to some functioning model of democracy is to assume too much, and gives a wildly undue amount of respect to the feeble mechanism of student politics.
While some may choose to believe that these elections are indeed the noble efforts of people wanting only to serve their fellow students, the reality is that this is simply not true, at least not in any ascertainable way.
I don’t mean to imply malice or corruption, as this isn’t the case. What I mean is that the students’ union has an increasingly negligible impact on the lives of undergraduates and, from my perspective, has been little more than a gaudy background event happening in another room, in another sector of society, and one that does not affect me.
I do not recall the names of the incumbent officers of our students’ union. I do not remember a time at which anyone I know has had reason to contact them, nor they contact us for reasons other than promoting upcoming discounts on alcohol at the union on a Friday night. It seems to be an ineffectual body; it does not serve any apparent purpose other than nominal leadership of an institution that appears to have no real need of it.
This is demonstrated no more effectively than by the ‘union exec’ election campaign. The weeks preceding the polls are a meaningless and omnipresent Vaudeville of high-publicity events and personas; the ludicrous performances put on by candidates, in an attempt to win votes by merit of their entertainment, and not their policies, which receive only passing mention, if any at all.
In order to entice more students to support their candidacy, petty bribery in the form of sweets is commonplace, as is an organic undercurrent of casual nepotism – friends voting for friends, and friends of friends and so on. What few policies and politics exist are made conspicuous only by their absence.
It is this culture of performance and social manipulation – coupled of course with self-perpetuating apathy – that prevents many students from considering running for a position in the Union Executive.
If one is not attractive enough, or doesn’t have enough friends and connections in their halls of residence, or doesn’t ‘play the game’ and engage in the ritual degradation of the campaign and hustings, or isn’t a member of the BNOC – Big Name On Campus – circle, then one is virtually barred from the realm of contemporary student politics.
This is the root of the problem. All but the most socially popular, the most extroverted, and the most attractive students are ostracised from representation.
I consider myself a politically active person. I am a long-time supporter of a national political party, and I have no compunction in advocating policies I support when appropriate, and rationally debating with those who do not share my views.
I would be lying if I said that the thought of running for a position in the Union Executive had not occurred to me during the naïve early days of my first year, before I joined the ranks of the indifferent.
However, despite my political activity, I am innately and totally disenfranchised from student politics, because I am not a Big Name On Campus. I do not have a persona that precedes me in the university, either through my reputation in my halls of residence or my prominent presence on a sports team.
I do not have an army of sycophantic gilet-clad friends to charm and sweet talk people into voting for me. I do not have the desire to encase myself in a neoprene broccoli suit and parade myself around town as one candidate did a few years ago.
This, to me, is grotesque, infantile, and a stark indication of how truly divorced student politics has become from genuine, respectable political discourse and activity.
To return to the subject of our new president – who fulfils many of the above criteria, – there have been some developments since the announcement. In the last couple of days, a friend of mine started a petition on Change.org campaigning for the president elect’s immediate resignation. The support for this campaign was enormous, and was matched only by the simultaneous vitriolic backlash it received from his friends and those who support him, despite this violent incident and his ban.
Many students are appalled that a man attacked a woman, ‘got away with it’, and is being rewarded with a presidency. Many more are appalled that a student attacked another student, and now supposedly represents all students, even if only symbolically.
Myself, while I agree with both of these complaints, I think the real issue is that his candidacy was ever allowed to continue this far, by either the union’s policies or the students at this university themselves. The fact that it did is simply indicative of the failures of the union, the BNOC culture pervasive in student society, and the apathy and indifference towards representation that follows in its wake.
It is true that he won the election, but this does not mean that he won it democratically, and it certainly does not mean that we, as a student body, should not subject ourselves to hindsight. The fact is that his electoral victory is an unfortunate accident, an all too familiar fluke of the system, something that comes to light no more clearly than when one accurately and succinctly describes him as both the leader of the union, and banned from the union simultaneously.
Ultimately, whether or not our president is forced to resign is immaterial. His actions in office will have virtually no impact on my life as an undergraduate on the peripheral radar of the BNOC scene, and I would be surprised if I heard his name more than a few times before next year’s elections, had it not been for this incident.
The chair, for all intents and purposes, could be vacant, and student life would continue on. It is entirely meaningless. Sadly, this apathy is not unique to me, but pervasive among the student body, save for the precious few who aspire to these offices for reasons of egotism, desire for attention, naïve interpretations of the union taken at face value, or whatever else spurs people to seek power in a short-term institution such as this.
Having said that, the fact remains that the president of a body purportedly representing me and my peers to our university is someone who was banned from that very institution of which he is now president, for violently assaulting a fellow student. From a symbolic perspective, this is highly disturbing.
His continuation as union president would be a death rattle of student politics at this university; the tacit admission that it simply does not matter who represents the students, because no one cares, and more worrying still, no one is concerned that this is the case.
His resignation or removal, on the other hand, could show that students do care about their union, and their representation to the university. It could, if one were inclined to a certain level of optimism, lead us to more effective, interesting, and cogent elections in the future, in which less well known students do not shy away from nominating themselves and their beliefs, and the student electorate would vote for candidates based on their politics and policies, not their puerile performances.
While I advise retrospection on the part of all students, regardless of your university or college, I would also advocate a degree of introspection as well. If we as students want to form truly effective representative bodies, even if it is just within the inconsequential microcosm of the campus, then we should not bow down and be absorbed by this culture of transient social popularity, the debased and degrading campaigning that accompanies it, and the meaningless soap opera of campus life in which we can either participate, or ignore and be ignored in return.
Student politics should not be the unattainable echelon occupied by a pitiable and transient social elite, one that only the loudest and most socially popular can achieve. Instead, it should be a purely democratic process, in which students vote for the people who represent them and the policies that would help them, and are not afraid of putting themselves forward as candidates. It would lead to a much greater positive involvement by the union in their university careers.
Sadly, it is not, and no one seems to care.