Union leaves members out in the cold awaiting EU debate

Many Oxford Union members queued outside the venue’s debating chamber for hours in advance of this evening’s debate ‘This House believes Britain and the EU are better together’ which began at 8:30pm and boasts floor speakers Nigel Farage MEP, Nick Clegg MP, former European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, and William Cash MP.

Cherwell understands that at its longest, the queue extended along St Michael’s and exceeded 450 people, the stated capacity of the main Debating Chamber, meaning those who joined the queue later risked waiting for hours only to be turned away at the gates.

The temperature has also dropped close to zero in recent days.

At about 7pm, Union officials shut off the queue, preventing any more students from joining at the back.

However, Anna Corderoy, a third-year Catz English Literature student, posted on the event’s Facebook page at around 4:30pm, “Yeah it’s quite disappointing to hear that the queue is already large 4 hours in advance,” her post read. “We pay so much for Union membership these events shouldn’t be restricted to those who have the time to cut their working day short.”

Shakeel Hashim, a PPEist, went further, commenting, “At the very least, they could have the decency to tell people that it’s full. But instead their usual lack of communication and frankly elitist sneering at members has struck once more. Yet another demonstration that Union committee are in it for their own self interest (I hope they’re enjoying their lovely dinner with Farage and Clegg that they can put on their cover letters now) rather than even bothering to pretend that they want to work for their members.”

Those with positions in the Union do not have to queue for events and many will, as Hashim suggested, be dining with the speakers ahead of the debate. 

One such student was OUCA President Jan Nedvídek, who spoke at the debate (though he does not hold a Union position).

The Oxford Union posted on the event page at 5:53pm, addressing the posts of members from earlier in the afternoon, stating, “We are delighted that there is such interest in this debate!

“We’re very conscious of how cold it is outside, and are just waiting for various television crews to arrive – we will let members into the Chamber as soon as they are installed. Security will be arriving shortly to prevent queue jumping, and we hope that everyone has an enjoyable evening!”

During the debate, which ended with the chamber voting in favour of the proposition, ‘This House Believes Britain and the EU are Better Together”, 45 tweets were sent from the Oxford Union Twitter account. However, none of them addressed the concerns of members who had queued.

A petition on Change.org has already garnered 131 signatures, calling on Union President Charlie Vaughan “to review the way in which admittance to the Union for popular events is provided”.

There have also been questions as to why this event has not had half of the tickets balloted for in advance, as regularly occurred last year for the most popular events. Indeed, various different suggestions for alternative ticketing systems have been put forward on the event page.

There have been fresh calls for the Union to enable live streaming for members to watch. After repeated requests for information, the news filtered out through friends of Union committee members that highlights would be shown tonight on BBC News.

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Meanwhile, students on Twitter noted that the entire front of the chamber was reserved before the debate, further reducing the number of seats available.

Dan Walker, a third-year Catz PPEist, commented on his own critical post to the event page, tagging a member of the Union’s Secretary’s Committee and writing, “Can you or anyone else at the Oxford Union answer me? Or are you all too busy enjoying your hot chocolate indoors whilst you watch the peasants queue up outside.”

Liam Saddington, a Union member and Geography undergraduate at St Catherine’s, told Cherwell, “I’ve been queueing since 3.15pm. Others have been here since 2pm. At 3.15pm there were already around 20 in the queue. [The temperature] has been near zero all day, with no communication at all from the Union until 6.10pm.

“The queue has been beyond a joke. People have been pushing in constantly. Very disappointed at the poor level of organisation from the Union.”
 

The Oxford Union gave the following statement to Cherwell regarding the queues. 

“The Oxford Union would like to apologise for the way the entry for the EU debate was handled. It was not acceptable, it was not efficient, and it was not a fair way to treat our members.
 
“One of the major issues that has been raised was the lack of a ballot system for entry. Though we have kept this as an option for this term, we have been hesitant to implement it due to a number of complaints from members at past events when such a system was used; many believe that the fairest way to allocate the spaces is entirely through queuing given that it enables members to express how strong their preferences are for attending a certain event. However, due to the obvious demand from our members, we commit to trialing this system again, and improving upon it until it is both fair and effective. To that end, in the future, when there is clearly far more interest in an event than capacity within the venue, we will implement a system in which half the available seats in the chamber are balloted to members at random and the other half are allocated through our traditional first-come-first-served queue basis.
 
“There were, additionally, significant issues with security and the monitoring of the queue at the event, and for that we also apologise. Security was not present at the event early enough, and therefore could not ensure the queue was orderly or that those queueing beyond the venue’s capacity were informed early enough that they would not be able to get in. This is unacceptable, and will be far better handled in future.”
 
“We also understand that there were concerns over the quantity of reserved seating for this event. This particular event was organised in association with the Europaeum, without which the lineup for the event simply would not have been possible. In return for their help organising this event, they asked for a number of reserved seats. We are committed to making sure as many members find a place in the venue for our events as possible, and we will continue to make efforts towards achieving this goal by minimising reserved seating requested by associated organisations who bring high profile speakers to the Oxford Union wherever possible.
 
“While we understand that there is significant demand for a livestream, this is unfortunately not something that we can commit to at this time, but we will certainly investigate the feasibility of a livestream and other options to increase access to our events in the future.
 
“The logistical issues today on our end are not acceptable, but we are committed to working hard for our members to make changes that will make access to our events fairer in future.We would like to thank all our members for being patient as we explore new ways to make the Oxford Union better than ever.”

Tom Carter has written a response to these events.