On Thursday 12th February members of the Oxford Union passed an extensive set of electoral rules changes.
The debate on the proposed changes was originally scheduled for Thursday 5th February, but the protests outside the Union last week before Marine Le Pen’s speech resulted in the discussion being postponed.
The changes to the electoral rules include the introduction of slates, electronic campaigning, and the addition of a Re-Open Nominations (RON) option to each ballot for future elections.
The rules changes were proposed last term by then Union President Mayank Banerjee, and were initially passed in a poll on Thursday 13th November 2014 with an 89.6 per cent majority. However, this stimulated controversy, as there were claims that the method by which the rules changes were implemented was against the rules. Last term’s procedure also did not allow any amendments to be proposed.
At the time, former Returning Officer Ronald Collinson argued that Banerjee had not given enough time to advertise sufficiently the poll to Union Members, which would be a breach of Union Rule 67 (iv), which states, “The Standing Committee may decide that a particular proposed rule-change is of such importance that it should be brought to the special attention of Members.”
Collinson consequently invoked Rule 67 (v). Under this rule, he requested members to sign a requisition to delay the poll, which reached 80 signatories before the day of the vote. However, as the poll had proceeded regardless, the allegations of rule-breaking resulted in the reversal of the electoral rules changes.
During Thursday’s debate, in which the proposed rules changes were finally passed, six amendments put forward by Collinson were discussed, but only one was passed. 13 amendments were initially suggested, but over half of these were accepted as friendly by current Returning Officer Michael Flagg, and so passed without negotiation.
Amendment Six, the only debated amendment to pass, banned the formation of pacts between Union members and members of other societies, which the proposed rules changes would have legitimised.
The second amendment, to retain the ban on slates, divided Union members, being narrowly defeated, with 62 votes for and 71 against. In Collinson’s words, it was “painfully close” to passing.
Explaining his reasoning behind Amendment Two, Collinson told Cherwell, “In a nutshell, I think that the institutional logic of slates incentivises members of slates to lie to each other. People believe other members of their own slate to be wholly good, and members of the opposition to be evil and incompetent. The system encourages people to be dishonest to friends.”
However, Collinson admitted, “The majority opinion in the Chamber clearly differed from my own on a number of points, but I remain very glad that Union members have had a chance to have their say and debate these rules changes.
“While I think that some details of the changes remain problematic and may need to be revisited, I am very pleased that it passed and that candidates will now be able to campaign without hypocrisy and deceit.”
The Returning Officer, Michael Flagg, explained the effect the changes could have on members. “With the rules changes in effect, the average member shouldn’t notice too much, save for the fact that there will be more campaigning.
“Candidates are limited to communicating only a set number of facts, however, in any public statement. These facts will be scrutinised by myself and my deputies in order to affirm that they are true. Untrue statements will remain a form of electoral malpractice.
“Those running for any position will find new skills tested, with the ability to form a cohesive team becoming an incredibly useful skill, as it already is once elected. We may even see an improvement in the efficiency in the governance of the Union, it could be argued.”
Commenting on this term’s elections, Flagg continued, “I will be very interested to see how the rules changes affect the election. Hopefully, they should increase turnout. RON, specifically, was a good idea, ensuring that no candidate is elected unopposed. The will of the members, whether it was for or against the motion, is the measure of whether the rules should be implemented.”
Prior to the passing of the rules changes last night, Collinson praised the proposed changes, saying, “Enacting rules changes to liberalise campaigning is an excellent idea; the current situation [before the rules changes had passed], in which candidates are not allowed to campaign for themselves, is absurd. Indeed, it actually renders the rest of the rules unenforceable.
“However, the rules changes as currently drafted go too far in legitimating a noxious status quo. This opportunity should be used to create genuinely enforceable rules which will be able to give the members a real defence against bad an corrupt practices.” Flagg concluded, “We have now pursued democracy to its fullest extent and the will of the members has been legitimately heard.”
The rules changes become binding 48 hours after the passing of the motion, so will take effect from approximately 9.10pm on Saturday 14th February.
Union President Lisa Wehden did not respond to Cherwell’s several requests for comment.