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Disclaimer: If you don’t agree with anything in this article and would like to respond - don’t take to Twitter, don’t complain in your WhatsApp chats. I don’t care for it. Write a proper response - either as a comment below, or as a separate post. 

Democracy at our students’ union hasn’t had the most laudable history, it’s probably reasonable to say. But this year’s elections for full-time sabbatical officers have been so fantastically corrupt, so unprecedented in their flagrant abuse of basic democratic and electoral standards that they deserve something resembling a measured response.

‘I would personally advise against using iPads in elections.’ - Steve Jobs

Let’s start with the infamous iPads. We knew something was afoot in January, when our first quorate members’ meeting in over three years returned a 70 percent majority in favour of banning mobile devices during the election season, just short of the 75 percent necessary for the rule to pass into the byelaws. Fair play - democracy you might argue, even. Until dozens of the motion’s opponents then left the room immediately after winning the vote, shortly before discussion of motions on mental health and sexual harassment - including soon-to-be election candidates who would brazely feature these topics on their manifestos.

The motion was returned to the following general assembly, one which was in the end was even better attended than the first. Had it been heard, it would almost certainly have passed. But instead of allowing this to take place, the Union Chair made the bizarre decision to rule the motion out of order on the basis that exact same motion had also been submitted by somebody else - someone who, strangely enough, decided to withdraw the motion on the same day, removing it from discussion entirely. So the Chair succeeded in bureaucratically shutting off a debate about the very electoral tactic that had him elected in the first place - bravo!

But alas, you move on. The room accepted what was to become yet another repetition of years of the same: candidates and their supporters running ablaze with iPads, chasing after queues of bleary-eyed and perplexed students in cafes and pressuring them into logging in to vote for themselves and their friends - and backing away when challenged to provide a policy, or indeed any reason at all as to why they might deserve the vote. Yet nevertheless - in the words of this year’s winning Education Officer - ‘capturing’ enough to outstrip any and all other candidates.

(At this point I’d like to congratulate myself for refusing to use an iPad in either of my campaigns, and just about narrowly winning. Mostly because postgrads are less easy to harass.)

But it wasn’t quite over! There was a chance - just - of winning fair elections, and we appeared to have negotiated something resembling a compromise by the opening of the campaign period.

At candidates’ briefing, attendees were advised that, for the first time, iPads and other tablets used for campaigning would be registered into electoral expenses. The logic was that, while we had not yet passed policy arguing against the basic democratic wrongness of iPad campaigning - which is that it rewards banal canvassing over political discussion - it was nevertheless true that not all candidates could afford a fleet of iPads to campaign with.

For that reason, the £100 of reimbursable election resources - normally used for posters, leaflets, social media - would on this occasion need to include mobile devices costed at the market rate of £19 per week. Do the maths - if the average candidate also wanted some normal propaganda material in addition to these expenses, they would probably only be able to use one or two iPads per campaign. And since candidates and supporters are prohibited by the byelaws from sharing resources - i.e. campaign for multiple individuals with a mobile device - we may finally have achieved a fair, levelling out of election opportunities for all. Right?

Of course not! A few days later, the Chair began to receive complaints that candidates were using mobile devices to campaign for multiple candidates. This included the slate with whom he was factionally aligned. So a day before voting closed, he ruled suddenly that iPads were no longer part of election expenses. And blimey, once again our elections yield not to politics and democratic campaign styles, but the anti-political iPad numbers game.

Interestingly, none of this stopped the Chair - and here’s the killer - from accepting and signing off candidate budgets the following day that included mobile devices in the expenses total. Ah, how so easily our memories fail us. He must have forgotten his own change of heart.

‘Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts… perhaps the fear of a loss of power.’ - John Steinbeck

It’s not just about ‘iPadding’, though. The practice lies at the core of our union’s ailing democracy, for sure; it discourages people from running, and incentivises those who do run to adopt many of those poor practices just to stand a chance at winning. It also runs explicitly counter to any campaign style that values politics and ideas.

This is because anyone who canvases with policies, who sells their own manifesto, will instinctively put a voter off wanting to vote on an iPad there and then; because if you have persuaded someone of the value of their vote, they will be much less willing simply to offer it to you upon request and enter it into a device while you watch.

But that’s just how it is nowadays. This year, suspicious rule-bending has gone so incredibly beyond this that there are a great many honourable mentions that it would simply be fatally remiss of me not to cite.

First there was the case of the incumbent Women’s Officer - unapologetic activist and thorn in the side of all bureaucrats - whom the Union Chair invented rules to prevent from rerunning. (She had to bring in a legal advisor to explain to the chair that he was not allowed to just make up rules as he saw fit.) And when she eventually did rerun, we saw a number of supporters of the other candidates actively calling on men to vote in these self-defining women’s elections.

Then there’s the case of the eight - yes, eight - candidates who were found to have overspent in their budgets. Last year, three candidates overspent by around £5 - and were all disqualified. This year, with a large number (if not all? I’m afraid I don’t know) of those overspending by comparable amounts, except now being factionally aligned with the Chair, none were disqualified - and were instead docked a measly 0.5 percent off their votes. Looking at the vote tallies, this figure appears to have enabled the winning Women’s Officer candidate to still just about eek into first place. Was it known this would the case?

It gets better! All but two of the winning sabbatical officer candidates had complaints made against them. No action appears to have been taken. In the case of the candidate for Postgraduate Students’ Officer, who (I’ve counted) had at least four different complaints made against him, including a case of bullying and abuse that entered the student media, the action taken was… ‘a written warning’.

Statement from Angus O’Brien, Arts and Humanities Faculty Representative (undergraduate), member of the Elections Committee disciplinary panel (08/03/18):
After unanimously ruling that the eight candidates had contravened Byelaw 8, sections D and E - they had all received materials, the value of which they had not declared in their election budget and, accordingly, had overspent the £100 maximum budget for election candidates. The disciplinary panel ruled 4-0 in favour of extending a written warning to the eight candidates and 3-1 in favour of docking each candidate 0.5% of their total votes. Last year, three candidates found to have overspent their election budget by approximately the same amount were disqualified from the election. A precedent has been set. Future election candidates: overspend your budget, plead ignorance and you will only be docked a tokenistic 0.5% of your vote.

‘You may appropriate my campaigns, but you may not appropriate my glitter’ - Mark, 2018

Union democracy has become such a farce that it almost no longer matters what our candidates campaign on. Most of the winning sabbatical candidates declared a very deep passion for mental health funding and Cut The Rent at hustings - despite having never attended a single meeting. Frankly, I might have suspected widespread allergies to decent political campaigns had these candidates not felt obliged to add them to their manifestos. This before we even get to the bizarre, poorly researched pledges to fight UCL’s ‘GPS tracking’ - not a thing, and a total misunderstanding of the attendance monitoring project - and to ‘achieve the living wage for postgrads’, which presumably means PGTAs, and which is less than they currently earn.

For calling out both this and mismanagement of our elections, I and many others have, thus far, faced all sorts of bizarre harassment and bullying, both in person and on social media. The most surreal was having my desk ‘glitter bombed’ a few hours after I refused to shake my successor’s hand (and being roundly booed for the pleasure); this is, as you might know, historically a well-known intimidation tactic arising from office homophobia, which as the only openly LGBT+ individual working in the room compels me to take this very seriously. The fact that no one has yet owned up makes me all the more convinced that this was very a deliberate tactic to shut me up.

Of course, if you think that’s going to work then you really don’t know me very well. What most disturbs me is that this right here - politically motivated homophobia - could be considered acceptable in our union’s democracy. Fortunately, I intend for there to be repercussions for those responsible.

Our SU is one of the few in the country where the returning officer is also a student (and in this case, also the Union Chair). In theory, it sounds like a good idea; students should be in control of their own elections! But in fact history has shown that, time and time again, it just doesn’t work. The returning officer should be on some level accountable to students, but should not be a student themselves.

In short, our students’ union elections have, once again, proved a total farce; and it can’t carry on. Our union’s staff members have been absolutely brilliant, working hard in far from the easiest of circumstances to deliver us our fair elections; but when it comes to those with the authority to make decisions over our democracy, we very clearly need an impartial observer and returning officer to prevent the seductive pull of corruption that has made a mockery of our elections.

Otherwise, our union’s political purpose will simply continue to wither and die.