A response to a response to The Emperor's Old ClothesI got a letter from Colin Leverett, RUSU VP Communications, responding to my article "The Emperor's Old Clothes". What follows is my response to him.
Mr Leverett suggests that for an organisation to be democratic, its ruling officials must be elected by those they affect, and they must come from a representative sample of those they affect. According to this definition, the Union is perfectly democratic. But this is simply an absurd suggestion. If we were to apply it to, for example, the UK, we would have a Parliament that had strict proportions of every demographic group; would we determine these groups by race, religion, age, sexuality, their favourite flavour of ice cream perhaps? Simply being a student, or a past student, doesn't mean you're representative of all students in this sense. It is conceivable that a majority of the Union officials might dislike electronic music for example, a taste that no student would have elected them on.
Democracy has nothing to do with being represenatitive in that sense. Rather, it means that elected officials must represent the views, needs and desires of their constituents.
The opinions of MPs, which I alluded to in my previous article, make this point most starkly. They simply don't accept the idea the Union is representative, and take everything the Union says with a big handful of salt. On the issue of top-up fees, in particular, they have good reason to take this approach. Aside from a few "I'm against top-up fees!" slogans at elections, the Union has never really made a serious and ongoing effort to canvas students on this issue, both to find out exactly what they think on the details of the issue, and to stimulate intelligent debate. It is in this sense that the Union is unrepresentative.
In the Union, with a constituency (going by voting figures) of at most 1,000 students, it's not inconceivable that elected Union officials might canvas students more often, both through accessible student meetings (which I'll come to in a moment) and through going out around campus and making a real effort to talk to a diverse range of students. Whilst any student can find an officer upstairs in the Union, very few students know those offices exist. The only signs are placed at the entrance to the offices upstairs, which isn't very helpful. And whilst any student can talk to an officer if they see them around the Union, that requires both that they recognise the officer, and feel confident enough to talk to them about their concerns.
It is in meetings like student council that this complacent attitude towards democracy is most evident. Whilst it is true that anyone can attend most Union meetings, and submit motions to Council, it is not a matter of whether students can do these things, but whether or not they actually do these things. I contrasted the lack of student attendance in our Union in my previous article with the LSE and Warwick, who see anywhere up to 1,000 students turning up for some meetings and votes, not including elections. It's obviously not impossible for a Union meeting to be well attended.
So why aren't students turning up? My two answers, which I consider to be so obvious to anyone on council as to be barely worth repeating, are that (a) it is boring and (b) the Union makes next to no effort to get students to attend.
It needn't be boring. There can be two kinds of meeting: one boring but necessarily meeting for officials; and one open, interesting meeting with voting and debate. Nor is there any reason why the Union shouldn't make an effort to get students to attend, by advertising it widely and prominently, and by talking to students' groups to show them that it is relevant to them (if indeed it is!)
Mr Leverett concluded his letter by asking why, in my year on council, I did nothing to change this. I did in fact make several suggestions to various Union officials, one of which was half- adopted (working out inaccuracies in meeting minutes by e-mail before council). But the main reason is that I've never felt it worthwhile. There is no scope for debate within council, only short exchanges with little change for debate or analysis of the issue. Ill-fated attempts by the External Affairs officer to raise questions about democratic principles (which were, admittedly, not done in the most constructive manner) provide good examples of how seriously the Union takes debate of these issues.
Moreover, when I sat on council, I was there to represent the needs and opinions of the Campaigns Forum, not my own. Now that I am no longer their representative, I can safely debate according to my own opinion, without reflecting on, and possibly damaging, the interests of the Campaigns Forum.
In writing both my initial article and this response, I don't want to suggest that the Union should be less democratic, or take its democratic credentials less seriously. Rather, I hope that this might make new officers consider a little more how student politics can be made vibrant and interesting, and how the Union can engage with students as well as push paper on their behalf.