The Oxford Union building at Frewin Court has a dark feeling about it. The tall and unsightly buildings are a useful symbol for wider truth about the Union: it is all show and no delivery. The debates that take place within its chambers do not cause any change, nor do they do not open up any new avenues. The old and the has-beens shout at each other performing intellectualism while moving no discussion forward in any way.
The worst feature of the Union is its election cycle. This year they may be contested for the first time in five terms, but neither candidate promises any real change. At a recent hustings debate, this was exemplified. The two presidential candidates spent the whole half-hour debate throwing meaningless jargon at each other, and leaving the sparse audience underwhelmed by their supposed choice in the election. At one point, one of the candidates went as far as saying that they wouldn’t invite war criminals to Union debates – what an admirable stand to take!
The two ‘slates’ – a synonym for a well-connected bunch of people who all gang up together – have called themselves have similarly inspiring names. ‘Ignite’, the establishment group – if that is a possibility within this election – sounds like an off-brand Innocent smoothie. The other ‘outsider’ group – which is about as much of an underdog as Jacob Rees Mogg is – have tried to go with a Clintonesque branding. They may have just the same amount of success as their inspiration. They have also tried to acronymise their title with little success. Yet more meaningless phrases are represented in the terms: renew, engage, fairness, opportunity, represent, membership. They would not be out of place in a business pitch from The Office. They have also made a valiant effort to include that underrepresented minority of Oxford students, the illiterate, by phonetically spelling out their key terms in their profile pictures.
The problems with the Union go deeper than a bad choice of campaign titles. Whilst there are two slates this year, there is little competing policy. Those involved are those who inhabit the closed and secretive corridors of Oxford. One of Greenwood’s slate is the president-elect of the University’s Conservative Association, which has received some deservedly negative coverage of late. And, as our front page shows today, the slate make up is decidedly white, rich, and male.
Despite being a society that claims to uphold the values of free speech, the Union makes a deliberate effort to restrict the freedom of the press. A quick look at its excessively long rulebook brings you to Rule 33, Section 3 (oh yes, the rules have subsections). The rule states that, as a student journalist, I cannot endorse a candidate for any position in the Union in this article, without risking my Union membership. To take that to its logical end – the outgoing Cherwell editor who is a Union member could not have printed an endorsement on her front page without risking access to a society she paid a large sum of money to join. That’s the Union try to impose editorial control on an independent newspaper.
Let’s get something clear: neither she nor I care nearly enough to endorse anyone for any position in the society. But the idea that this society will not allow the paper to print what we want is scary. These people will, for good reason or bad, go on to be some of our leaders in the future. That they don’t understand such a fundamental principle as free speech is a worrying vision of what that future may look like. Put simply, we cannot respect the institution as long as the same people continue to run it, generation after generation, without fresh perspective.
So, members of the Union, it is time to make a stand. I am going to blow caution to the wind, break the Union rules, and back a candidate. For this election, turn up to those archaic buildings and vote for a new exciting candidate. A candidate with a real vision for the future of the institution. In this election, Union members, vote RON. Let’s cause electoral confusion on a scale never experienced. Vote RON at all levels – it is the only slate that will represent the views of the vast majority of the membership.
Let’s, together, shake up this institution and make a real change: for this is the only hope we have to ignite reform within the Oxford Union.