The problem with student democracy

Photo: Ian Meeks

It’s not often I swear out loud, particularly when I’m by myself and gazing into a computer monitor, but LA1:TV’s live stream of the Full-Time Officer (FTO) election results on Friday night was enough to break my habits. The stream itself was fine (after a few quick adjustments); the problem was the numbers coming through. I’m surprised nobody demanded a recount. Three of the winners were fine choices, two were quite suspicious, and one was by far the worst of every conceivable outcome that day.

We’re now in the strange position where everybody is afraid to comment openly on the results – myself included, having just resorted to a sequence of numbers instead of naming names. To be sure, the echoes of social media belching its displeasure in Barker House on results night could be heard for miles around. But most of the brave souls behind those remarks were either leaving the University in June, long before the new FTOs would take up their positions on Union Council, or were just a bit tipsy. The rest of us have to develop working relationships with these people.

However, we can say with a measure of confidence that the FTO elections, as a whole, have reminded us of the uselessness of student democracy. Democracy remains the least worst form of government and the world clings to that consolation for dear life, but somehow the students of Lancaster manage to remind us that we have no way of making respectable decisions, and on Friday night that upset me. That and the idea of developing “working relationships”.

The first principle of democracy to be abused over the last fortnight was that anyone can run for election. In general that’s a lovely thought, and it’s no doubt the cornerstone of LUSU’s intense focus on increasing nominations this year. It’s a shame, then, that LUSU went about this with such desperation that they infinitely lowered the bar for FTO candidacy. A few years ago, the Union’s election posters asked of the students: “Do you have what it takes to run for FTO?” Nowadays the posters read: “You do have what it takes to run for FTO. Please, for the love of God, somebody run.” I’m paraphrasing but, inevitably, a few incompetents decided to join the nominations board on the backs of these implicit lies.

It’s an even greater shame that some members of the LUSU elite have interpreted this democratic principle as a right to selectively push their friends into the competition. Now, I won’t claim to know the precise details as to how these incompetents decided to run, but I gather that at least one of them was convinced to run by some of the incumbent FTOs. If you are an elected representative at LUSU and someone asks you if they should run for FTO, it is your job to give honest and considered advice. It is not your job to make them sign up that instant for the sake of more nominations. It is not politically or morally safe to tell incompetents that they will win.

As a direct result, the FTO hustings stank to high heaven of favouritism. While student media, for fear of being ‘biased’, had to tiptoe around the FTO elections due to its faint links with LUSU, the VP (Welfare & Community) could spend the entire evening planting audience questions for one candidate and slandering another about “targeting women”, live on air. That was an abuse of authority over which any self-respecting VP would resign.

At this point I should clear up what I mean by “incompetents”. I don’t simply mean candidates with retrograde policies and the historical reliability of El Niño. I mean people who know nothing about student politics here. Broadly speaking this species of candidate was quickly uncovered by rapid-fire, knowledge-based questions from the audience at hustings. A lot of people complain that these questions are a waste of time but, you have to admit, they’re great fun.

What is a student trustee? “Uh, let me check my notes.” What does University Senate debate? “The library. I could be completely wrong there, though.” Who is editor of SCAN? “Daniel Snape.” I mean, what were they thinking?

But the real value of these questions is this. Candidates with such limited knowledge of the structure of the University are going to spend most of their time (let’s be honest, the entire year) figuring out how everything works. They’re also liable to a lot of dejection, and are incredibly easy to manipulate. With that many incompetents in the running, LUSU ran a serious risk of screwing up 2015-16, five months ahead of schedule.

Of course, none of this would be a problem if the voters were capable of eliminating these preposterous candidates, but for at least one FTO position, they failed to do that in the most spectacular way. In fact, voter behaviour at Lancaster perfectly reflects many of the greatest threats to democracy worldwide. One such threat is voter apathy. You know us: we can’t let a LUSU election go by without checking voter turnout, and the other day I perhaps naively predicted higher numbers for this year’s FTO results. I wasn’t wrong, but nobody can pretend that 20% voter turnout is tolerable. On top of this, in each category, some 100 or so of the students who did vote, put RON as their first choice.

I no longer think of voter apathy as a bad thing per se. Granted, it’s a disaster for the FTOs because it robs them of their legitimacy – a fact of which I’m sure to remind our leaders over the coming year. In the case of President, the final calculation came down to a margin of just 18 votes, and more than 90% of students here can say they didn’t vote for the victor. But this apathy has sprouted from the huge proportion of students who haven’t a clue what’s going on, and therefore should not vote. (Don’t say they should spoil their ballots; we don’t have ballots.) By constantly evangelising about the life-threatening dangers of not voting, the Union is only coercing these students into picking names out of a hat. LUSU could spend its time and money much more wisely on informing members about student politics and leaving them with a realistic choice.

Perhaps worse, after so many years of pitiful student engagement, LUSU has become an oligarchy. Contrary to popular belief, the largest voting bloc in the FTO elections is not LUDanS or Fem Soc, but Union Council itself, and this is making student politics at Lancaster ever more exclusive. Most obviously, as the reeking body of LUSU continues to feed upon itself, representation for minority groups is diminishing. The Union readily criticises central government for racial discrimination, but even the rowdy House of Commons – where only 4.2% of MPs are from ethnic minority backgrounds – is consistently more representative of the UK’s non-white population than Union Council is of the population on campus. Every single one of the FTOs we elected is white.

The basic problem is that democracy, in the hands of students, is not democracy. If at any time the more sensible FTOs for 2015-16 can’t tame the idiocies of the more tragic ones, then the blame must rest quite evenly with everyone: I’d blame LUSU for condoning favouritism and forcing nominations; I’d blame several of the candidates for being daringly incompetent; I’d blame the voters for electing at least one of their daringly incompetent friends; and, believe me, I’d blame the tyranny of the majority if only we had one.