Referendum: VP Women Here to Stay

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Female students rejected proposals to abolish the position of OUSU Vice-President (Women) and replace it with a student advisor by a three to one majority last Thursday.

Over 2,000 students also voted in referendums to approve OUSU becoming a registered charity and to replace the Vice-President (Finance) with a professional finance manager.

A number of criticisms have been levelled at campaign groups for failing to obey electoral rules that may have undermined the fairness of polling.

The campaign against abolishing the Vice-President (Women), led by Labour Club members Olivia Bailey, Rachel Cummings and Joel Mullan, was penalised for allowing activists to send messages to a National Union of Students (NUS) mailing list.

NUS Women’s officer Kat Stark and NUS Committee member Sofie Buckland sent emails to the ‘Education Not for Sale’ mailing list, encouraging unregistered activists from around the country to come to Oxford on polling day.

OUSU President Alan Strickland wrote in his complaint, "The arrival in Oxford of unregistered activists, from other universities, secured through illegal electoral publicity on a national scale, clearly significantly undermines the chances of a free and fair election."

After the vote, Strickland said that activists from outside Oxford were detrimental to the entire process. "Many of the outside campaigners were canvassing men, as they had no idea men couldn’t vote, they were unaware of the financial issues, unaware of the real arguments on either side. It was a waste of everyone’s time and not contributing to the informed debate the referendum was designed to encourage," he said.

Stark apologised after the campaign’s publicity limit was reduced as a penalty, calling it a "mistake", but saying that Strickland’s version of events was "highly inaccurate." She added, "There were five campaigners from outside the University, only one of whom was male. All activists were fully briefed on the situation and were also briefed in detail on the rules of the referenda."

Olivia Bailey, JCR President of St Hilda’s and also one of the campaign’s agents, said that the five activists from outside the University were irrelevant to the overall result. "The women of Oxford spoke in their hundreds on Thursday and I think those who are claiming that the five external, concerned activists who came to Oxford on the day in some way changed people’s minds are being disrespectful to every woman who voted for their own representation, and for thoughtful, considered reform."

The ‘yes’ campaign for abolishing the Vice-President (Women) was repeatedly attacked for breaching electoral rules.

In his report, OUSU Returning Officer Peter Wright described the campaign as "disorganised and shambolic," and detailed five separate complaints regarding the content of the campaign’s posters. "The number of false and misleading statements on the campaign’s posters was staggering and suggests a lack of careful thought or preparation by the campaign’s agents. Although they at no point acted maliciously, they did act without due organisation or forethought and came close to forfeiting their deposit," he said.

Current VP (Women), Jenny Hoogewerf-McComb, complained that the campaign’s posters were false and misleading for stating that "This year we have no Safety Bus because two successive years’ VP (Women) failed to find a single penny of funding for it." An investigation by the Returning Officer revealed that it was the responsibility of the OUSU Business Manager to find funding and that consequently all posters were to be removed.

Other complaints about posters criticised statements made by Ben Harris, the Imperial College SU Welfare Officer and Katie Chevis, the Warwick SU Welfare Officer, neither of whom were registered activists. Another poster featuring a statement made by Maria Burgess, OUSU’s General Manager, was ruled as illegal for using a member of the permanent staff to support a campaign.

Bailey said that the campaign’s actions were trying to change the referendum’s result unfairly. "The yes campaign broke the rules on a number of occasions, having posters that were defamatory, breaking the rules on endorsements and failing to apply election barcodes. I think it’s sad that yes activists are trying to distort the result of this referendum with unfounded claims," she said.

Ed Mayne, the Vice-President (Finance) who led the campaign to abolish his own position, said that the result of that referendum was a success for OUSU. "It will lead to better service provision and financial management," he said. "OUSU currently has too many politicians and not enough civil servants, and judging by the result of this referendum the majority of those who voted agree with this statement."
New College JCR President Lewis Iwu added his support for Mayne, saying, "I welcome the reforms, it will bring professionalism and continuity to an organisation that in the past has been riddled by financial naïvety."

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