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The Emperor's Old Clothes

So, elections are over, students can grab a coffee without being hassled by a candidate, and the incumbent officers are planning their last few days or months in power. But what, I want to ask, does all of this achieve? According to my NUS card, RUSU is "run for students by students", which is fair enough, but how does this work exactly?

RUSU regards itself as a democratic body, and most candidates mentioned their intention to make the Union more accountable, or to democratise it, or to involve students, or to represent them, etc. ad nauseum. The same slogans and promises surfaced last year, and no doubt in years previous as well. But I haven't seen any evidence of meaningful democracy in the Union at all; rather, it is an elected bureaucracy, governed by ex-students according to their interests.

Consider this: can you remember the election pledges of the current President? Do you know if he's achieved them? Do you know the name of the current VP Welfare, do you know what she does, and would you know how to find her? As a reader of Spark, you're already more involved in the Union than most students (given the number of students at the University is at least three times the circulation of Spark), and yet I doubt many Spark readers know the answers to these questions.

Once elected, RUSU officers slip away into their offices. Some do good work, and in fact I know from personal experience that many do fantastic work, and deserve enormous credit. But committed or not, they aren't accountable to students, their work isn't particularly transparent and RUSU as a whole does little to engage itself with the wider student population.

Perhaps this is a matter of apathy? There is some truth in the thought that not only do many students not care, they don't even need to care, so long as the shop stocks and beer prices stay stable. But those officers that make the extra effort and organise events that do engage students immediately see the rewards, and community-minded individuals and groups overcome this apathy, so why can't RUSU as a body?

Hot on the heels of a recent article on top-us fees, you might also ask whether the Union is really representing its members? All of the candidates ran with anti-fees slogans, but do we know what they think, and what they will say on our behalf to MPs? I know from personal experience that local MPs don't take RUSU to be in the least bit representative, not least from experience of their student days. The recent bitchy articles about Jane Griffiths MP in Spark bely a deep-seated arrogance and ignorance about their actual and rightful influence.

Next on the list is Student Council... have you any idea what this is? Twice a term, all the elected officers in the Union meet for a three hour slog through red tape and bad jokes, in what is billed as the cornerstone of democracy in the Union. Here students can hold officers to account, find out what they've been spending our money on, and supposedly have their input. But it's never advertised, it's in obscure locations when few students are on campus, it's (take my word for it) abhorrently dull, only elected officials (i.e. not the general student body) are allowed to speak and vote, and the only way to get the record of what happened is to read through long dense notes that would be meaningless to anyone who doesn't keep up with RUSU proceedings.

I recently attended the equivalent event in the LSE. The meeting was open to all, at a lunchtime in the centre of their main campus, and there were no special speaking or voting rights. Officers took it in turns to take to the stage and take questions from students. A couple of debates then took place, with jeering, booing and lots of input from a range of students, with a final vote numbering in the hundreds. Warwick University has seen votes on issues like Fairtrade and Nestle with around 800 students voting! In Reading we have less people voting in the annual elections for most positions, and up to 30, yes 30, students voting on important issues like whether or not we should stock Nestle goods, and whether or not homophobic employers should be allowed in RUSU.

So here's a suggestion to our newly elected officials: split student council in two, have the bureaucratic minute-checking if you must, but have questions to officers and votes in Mondial either in a lunchtime or on Thursday evenings, with free entry to the comedy for people who attend. Advertise it. Post your reports on the web site and advertise that. Set up a table in Mondial once a week and encourage students to talk to you. Invite students to table motions of their own. Go out and talk to students the whole year round, and make it your job to engage students, to be transparent and accountable, and to try allow all students to have their views represented, rather than assuming you yourself are representative of us.

Either RUSU must stop selling itself as a democratic body and admit that it is an elected bureaucracy, or it must reform itself. It isn't good enough to have democratic mechanisms if nobody knows about them and nobody uses them.