In Oxford, no two phrases seem more entangled than “scandal” and “the Oxford Union”. The controversies are seemingly endless. From the words and actions of individual Committee members, to the speakers, to electoral schemes and plots, a barrage of disgrace regularly features on student (and sometimes national) journalism. I was on the Union’s committee, something I’ve been embarrassed and ashamed of at times; but with a year of reflections (and recovery), it’s clear that being problematic doesn’t need to be endemic to the Oxford Union (just look at its Cambridge counterpart).
Rather, problems exist because of 1) clear structural issues, 2) a lack of sustained willingness by enough people on the Union’s many Committees to make real change, and 3) limited but ever-present opposition from members AND paid adult members of staff, who fight efforts to instigate change through manipulations of the Society’s 259 page-long rules document. With the first-ever second-round election for President, this might be a real opportunity for long term differences to be made and for those with the power to make changes to sit up and listen.
It would be easy to rattle off endless criticisms; instead, I want to suggest actionable changes which upcoming Officers and Committee Members could make to begin scourging the Union of its deep-rooted toxicity.
A note on how elections work: the most traditional path through the Union is Secretary’s Committee, to Standing Committee (TSC), to Officership (Librarian, Treasurer, Secretary), to Presidency. People tend to run on slates with the same people every term, with surprisingly little “swapping” of sides. Officers-elect (Lib-elect and Treas-elect) manage the slates of the candidates running for president the following term, to allow them to “inherit” candidates. This reinforces a two-camp system. Librarians and Treasurers often fall out immediately after election, unless one of them isn’t running. People occasionally switch from the “elected” side of committee “appointed” side (chosen by the President for jobs such as press, sponsorship etc) or vice versa, but that’s rare.
Secretary’s Committee – where it all starts
When you run for the Union, a mindset of good and bad starts from the first day you are “coffee-d” to run for Secretary’s Committee. The role of this committee is essentially doing the unpleasant groundwork: during election, you are made to hack just about every person you know in Oxford (and any alumnae if you’re lucky), and during term-time you move chairs for events. Not only are “seccies” used as electoral cannon-fodder, they are often very uninformed of their slate’s plans and movements, and become quickly tarnished with the “dirty” image the Union often has.
Having run for, been, and worked with seccies, I can promise this Committee is useless. Replacing it with 11 extra “Logistics and Invitations” officers would allow those keen to get involved an election free view of the Union, and converting these to Appointed Positions (I’ll come on to how appointments should be made later) would massively curtail the reach of hacking. It would also mean those getting involved actually want to; they aren’t involved as a favour to a friend, or because they promised too early and now feel unable to back down. Further, those on committee can make friends without being split into a mindset of them vs us (formed by the slate you ran on) from day 1.
Elections – a self-perpetuating culture of toxicity, rooted in electoral structure
Elections also need extensive reformation. Officer and TSC elections need to be on different weeks, electoral alliances (slates) should be banned, and private “hack” messages should be banned. By holding elections for “lower” positions earlier, TSC candidates wouldn’t have to pledge themselves so blindly to Officers, and rather than elections being determined by who found the best candidates for their slate, or met the most people at Bridge and P&P, they would favour genuine suitability and experience. With manifestos more important than endless hacking, committee members would be encouraged to work harder and thus produce a more exciting termcard, with diversity of ideas, speakers, and events.
In general, elections being held slightly earlier in term would allow the new Committee to begin working on invites much earlier. It would also limit the number of “vac days” members have to do. These are a number of days you must work over the holidays. Rather than being performance-based, they are time-based, and it is very hard to achieve a “remote” vac day from home. They are awarded at the discretion of the President, though sometimes other Officers have input. They are inherently an access issue too; it is expensive to remain in Oxford beyond term time, and though some small subsidies exist, these are extremely limited.
Elections were also held online for the first time this term, and this is clearly a better system. It doesn’t randomly advantage colleges near the Union, and members of far-flung Colleges or those who may have a contact heavy day can still have a say. This also was the first term without nomination fees; previously, a candidate on a full membership who had run for seccies, then TSC, then Officership, then President, would have paid £120 in nomination fees alone.
By producing PDFs rather than glossy paper manifestos, a huge amount of money can be saved on everyone’s part (and the environment suffers less!). An online count also prevents the ridiculous night-long slog to count all the votes, which are easily prone to cheating via vote destruction.
Introspection – without stopping to think, how can you know what to change?
The Union never really stops to reflect on itself and how to improve. A marked effort beyond solving the problems of electioneering is also needed, which could involve exhibitions and events on the Union’s fraught history, or more engaging member consultations. Currently, the Presidency requires rustication to fulfill all the work needed; this is unfair and quite ridiculous, and a rethink by Officers past and present as to how this could be solved would be a major fix. Further, long-term strategy committees with guidance on making the Union actively anti-racist and anti-discrimination would be immensely positive
A complete rethink of the rules would also be apt: “discrimation” appears only four times, to mandate an event, and to be listed as unacceptable; but the mechanism for reporting or addressing this isn’t easy to find, if it is at at all present. In contrast, the word “election” appears 617 times.
Long-term goals – if you have no long term intention to be better, how can you improve?
The Union has a lack of long-term vision. If you aren’t at the top of the Committee, making changes is difficult as you lack both influence and the knowledge of how to introduce change. If you are at the top of the Committee and not running, you have one term left so cannot engage long-term plans; if you are running, you’re more concerned with meeting people to hack and planning elections than long-term vision. Simple steps like creating advisory panels of ex-TSC and Officers would allow improvement, with members sitting for a year or more. Of course this would need to be carefully designed to prevent electoral muddling; perhaps ineligibility to run for the year ahead would ensure this panel had no nefarious intentions.
Whilst the above suggestions would certainly bring immensely positive change to the Union, they are neither exhaustive nor conclusive. Individual Committee members are often receptive to ideas, but the Union as a body is not. The Officers of the upcoming terms should not brush off these suggestions as futile; instead, they must listen, learn, and implement tangible changes. If they do, they will afford the Society they claim to care about so deeply to catch a new breath of life, free of the poisons of recent years.