Ten thoughts on this year’s OUSU elections

OUSU Elections 2014 – On the Eve of Voting

Goodness, what on earth’s going to happen in the OUSU elections over the next couple of days? Many, many, many will not care. Many more will point out that I am hardly best qualified to opine or predict on the matter given that this time last year, when I was running, I didn’t exactly have my finger on the psephological pulse. Others yet will say “who?” and “what?” and “what are you still doing here?”

Things are different this year, though. The joke candidate’s dropped out before things even began, the Labour Club has remained in its kennel, nobody’s running any big nasty slates – in fact, there’s been quite a marked lack of nastiness so far, to such an extent that The Tab hasn’t run any articles at all about the elections. What’s going to happen between now and Thursday night, when the results are announced? Here, in a combination of listicle and wall-of-text, are my thoughts and non-predictions.

1.     These elections should show us whether the Age of the Mega-Slate is dead

So, Team ABC, why did you run with only three candidates (two from the same college)? Was it because you were worried about seeming too much like the mega-slates which were soundly beaten last year, or was it because you couldn’t find anybody to run with you (as an insider suggested to me)? Right to Education, why the strange mix of positions? Again, because (as claimed by one of your own) you have a legitimate interest in non-sabbatical positions, or because there’s a paucity of lefty finalists this year?

Whether opportunistic or deliberate, there’s been a change to the way slates look this year. They’re smaller and more oddly-shaped. Even For Oxford, the biggest to run for sabbatical positions, has only ten candidates. But that doesn’t mean we can’t get some important information about the way OUSU elections are likely to look in the future from 2014’s set. If the two teams with a sizeable number of candidates win unexpectedly big in key clashes – President and VP Access & Academic Affairs in particular, but not forgetting VP Grads or Common Room Support – we can expect to see a return to the blockbuster slates that came up so short against Louis Trup, Dan Tomlinson, and Ruth Meredith.

2.     These elections have been quiet, too quiet

As anybody with a perverse interest in student politics and a chip on their shoulder might do, I went to see all the Sabbatical candidates hust. I was struck there by how polite and warm the candidates were to and about each other, which is nice, and by how consensual and even similar what they said was, which can make everyone’s eyes glaze over. I noticed this also in media stories about the elections – the main antagonist so far seems to have been lack of access to husting venues (fair enough), and The Tab hasn’t breathed a word about any of the candidates, so it’s definitely been a nice one.

Now, I would be the last to call for a return to last year’s rhetoric and campaigning style, which I regret and for which I am partly to blame, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with pointing out rotten policies and I don’t think that’s been done enough. So I asked the candidates for President to criticise each other’s policies, and I felt a great deal of relief at hearing what sounded like a couple of weeks’ grievances condensed into thirty seconds of criticism from each one. Adam Roberts’s single (sort of) manifesto pledge got both barrels—deservedly so, I’m forced to admit (sorry Adam, I thought you were lovely!). Will Obeney’s Out of Hours Pledge, it was rightly pointed out, was unlikely to change anything at all; Becky Howe’s welfare-dominated manifesto would, it was suggested, have been better-suited to a candidate for VP Welfare and Equal Opportunities.

I think legitimate criticism of other candidates is a really important thing, as long as it doesn’t turn sour. Last time, the mug-painting workshops and petting zoos got dropped from mentions in husts very quickly. I don’t think there’s been enough of it this time round, and I think it will affect turnout negatively at a bad time. Then again, I was wrong about most stuff last year, so…

3.     Some positions are hugely over-subscribed; others are painfully under-subscribed

I felt a bit sad watching the husts for VP Access and Academic Affairs. There are four candidates, and all of them are really good – in different ways, even though they all seem to agree on almost everything. This brings out my soppy side, reader, and I confess to wishing they could all be elected and implement their realistic, well-informed, achievable, worthy ideas. They can’t.

In contrast, half of the Sabbatical positions are uncontested. A disclaimer: I don’t know Ali Lennon, I’m sure he’s a very nice person, and I wish I could give him the benefit of the doubt. But I have some very serious reservations about his decision to run for the Welfare and Equal Opportunities position following the allegations against him of electoral malpractice only a couple of weeks ago (which I admit to knowing little about beyond what I have read in the newspapers and word of mouth). I didn’t think he husted well, and his manifesto is seriously unbalanced between Welfare and the other half of his probable future role. I feel appalling writing this, but I think that it’s something of a shame that the position is uncontested.

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4.     The Oxford Left is quietly becoming huge (and closer to the centre)

Two years ago, and the far-left slate was so shambolic that it elected no candidates and lost its deposit. These days, Nathan Akehurst’s spiritual successors are running the tightest operation in town, with the best-designed manifestos of any slate, a host of candidates already elected, and… wait, are those a load of Labour Club members?

It’ll be interesting to see who wins out in the remaining contests Right to Education have in these elections – particularly in the four-way VP Access and Academic Affairs, but also further down the list in the Part-Time Exec roles. Whatever happens, they will have ensconced themselves in OUSU’s machinery very effectively.

With things as they are, it seems hard to avoid concluding that the equivalent slate’s Presidential candidate will sweep to victory next year. But who will it be, and how far left will they risk leaning? Already, the rabble-rousers have given way to the reformists. Elliott, Teriba, Raine, and co. like winning things, and unlike the previous lot, know how to do it.

5.     Manifesto designers needed

I hate to make this a big thing when it’s the content of manifestos that’s important. But couldn’t a little more effort have gone into designing the current year’s crop, especially when clearly the candidates’ time wasn’t all being spent buttering potential running-mates in coffee shops? Right to Education and Emily Silcock are excused: theirs look great.

6.     Some positions might be becoming too unassailable

Lucy Delaney is all but certain to become VP Women, and quite right too: she’s a superb candidate with an excellent track record. But she will be the third Wadham WomCam graduate in a row to do so, and her running-mate Aliya Yule has a similar profile.

WomCam is an extremely important Oxford institution and the most effective of the liberation campaigns, highlighting and improving one of the most significant issues with Oxford life. I should also note that my team last year put up a candidate for VP Women who was soundly defeated by Anna Bradshaw, the WomCam-backed candidate who has since been tremendous at OUSU. However, I worry that independent candidates with a great deal of good things to say might be put off. No matter how good the institution, it shouldn’t have a monopoly, and in this, WomCam could be the victim of its own (deserved) success.

Meanwhile, the Vice-President Charities and Communities role has gone to an independent candidate for the last few years, usually on the back of an extremely well-organised and well-supported campaign: Ruth Meredith’s stunt with the RadCam balloons last year, for example, made her the only non-Trup candidate to break 1000 first-preferences, and Dan Tomlinson pulled off an extraordinary coup in thrashing the Tom4OUSU candidate the year before that. This year, a slated candidate hasn’t even bothered to run, as Emily Silcock’s success in launching the On Your Doorstep homelessness campaign (and more generally in her OUSU Charities role) has scared off any rivals. Will C&C continue to be the slates’ bogey election?

7.     Novel manifesto ideas are good. Novelty ideas are bad.

Adam Roberts in person was engaging and friendly, though nervous, and his ideas were delivered with some charm. Adam Roberts on paper, however, I just cannot get to grips with. He’s attracted qualified praise for his ‘every year a referendum on what OUSU does’ single-idea manifesto from sources as radically opposite as Jack Matthews and Nathan Akehurst (who agree with each other rather more often than they should be comfortable with). Personally, I can’t see the attraction in the policy, and I can’t see even remotely how it would work.

First: the principle. If elected, Roberts would hold some kind of election where people put forward ideas which could then be voted upon by all members of OUSU. Sound familiar? It already happens, and it’s called the OUSU elections, where, in theory, candidates talk to people beforehand, find out their concerns, put them in their manifestos, and are then elected or rejected on that basis by the electorate. It seems to me that Roberts, in his admirable but misguided desire to be as boundary-busting as possible, has missed this point and missed the many obvious advantages to electing candidates based on manifestos that actively make pledges. (Ok, Trup was an exception.)

Nowhere that I’ve seen has Roberts satisfactorily explained very much about how he’d get around the many problems his idea would cause. (I wanted to ask him loads of questions, but thought it’d be a bit weird given that I don’t even go here.) In the interview video posted up by this paper, his response to the sensible question of ‘what would you do about Sabbatical Officers elected on their own manifestos?’ all he says is ‘I do think there is an issue with the way the system works at the moment’ before the editing kicks in, depriving us of any further explanation.

My questions are: why would this increase engagement with OUSU when even fewer people vote in referenda than in elections? Why, given that elections happen every year, won’t the ‘annual referendum’ just get scrapped in a year’s time? Have you asked the hard-working permanent staff at OUSU how their jobs might be affected by this idea, and what have they said? What will you do about other sabbatical officers elected on their own manifesto pledges? Will your pledge involve huge structural change of OUSU that goes unmentioned in your manifesto? Won’t the suggestions all be made, and to some extent voted upon, by the people you don’t need to engage in the first place? What makes liberation campaigns the exception in your ‘I’m a democrat, not a dreamer’ rhetoric, and what was your rationale in including that caveat? Why should members of oppressed groups without a link to one of the liberation campaigns not get a say in how policy that affects them directly is formed? Where do you draw the line in policies that would get decided by those groups, and do you agree that liberation can’t just be cordoned off to a corner of OUSU decision-marking?

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8.     OUSU needs to do more to get people running

Another year, another set of elections without many independent candidates. With one exception, graduate students are running on slates, as they have been in previous years. Saying that OUSU should do more to encourage people to run is comparably obvious and unhelpful to saying that OUSU needs to work to engage students more. But I think that more effort could be made in some areas. Jack Matthews notes the decreased advertising for the elections in The OxStu. I’ve probably noticed it less because I don’t even go here (so why am I writing this? You ask. Good point). But some important positions won’t even get filled by these elections, and many more are completely uncontested.

It’s usually in the interest of slated candidates to try to get as many people running on their team as possible. This year, that’s happened quite a bit less, and there hasn’t been a rush of indies to fill the gaps either. We keep hearing that Oxford students do care passionately about a whole range of topics; is it that OUSU is the wrong platform for students to do what they care about, or is it that the idea of running continues to seem daunting and nebulous to many (and never occurs to others)? It would be good to see a packed roster this time next year.

9.     Door-knocking: good, necessary evil, or unnecessary?

Last year, when I went round knocking on people’s doors asking them to vote for me, I actually quite enjoyed it. Although my many victims probably enjoyed it rather less, they were almost always polite, mildly interested in what I had to say, and tended to care about at least one thing around Oxford. Some of them even thanked me for coming to talk to them in person. Very few of them realised an election was happening, and very few of those that did knew much about it at all. I was surprised by how receptive they were, although clearly not an awful lot of them then logged onto their computers and bothered to vote for me.

Unless almost everyone was doing a very good impression of politeness while secretly hating me for subjecting them to a two-minute conversation and a flimsy leaflet telling them how to vote, I came out of the elections believing that door-to-door canvassing, or ‘door-knocking’, was both important for and beneficial to the democratic process. Apparently, some loathe it, and fair enough.

I don’t know how the candidates are planning on campaigning this year, but I’d be surprised if they don’t do some door-knocking – especially in the teams that don’t have good College spread. Nobody has been carried on the same wave of viral success as Louis Trup, and so it seems unlikely that a repeat of the no-door-knocking trick will work quite so well this time.

If it is the case that there’s a fair-sized door-knocking operation, I will be interested to see whether the bigger slates can reap the benefits. Certainly, St John’s students will be sick to death of the two short knocks by the time Thursday evening comes.

10.  Mopping up

I don’t seriously believe anybody’s got this far, but if you have, perhaps you ought to leave a comment with your own thoughts below, or get in touch with me via Facebook or Twitter. Generally, I think that the press coverage of these elections has not been terribly good – Cherwell has shown the most interest by far, but only really in the Presidential candidates. The Oxford Student has been rightly criticised for washing its hands of the whole thing; as I mention above, The Tab has not even bothered to mention the election, presumably not managing to find a way to infantilise it into not being ‘boring’. Here’s hoping that the good work by OUSU officers in recent years to promote the Student Union drives turnout, but I worry about another sub-15% election. In case you were wondering, no, I really don’t have anything better to be doing: the pursuit of the safe Labour seat that every OUSU candidate longs for is going more slowly than anticipated.