Dashing up my staircase last autumn term, mid-essay crisis, a boy and girl cornered me half way to my room. I knew her casually from college; though her friend and I weren't acquainted, the coloured pamphlets spilling from their hands all bore his face. Elections, I realised, were on the way again at Oxford's student union, and this was a candidate for President.
Despite his twinkish smile and lime green jumper, I excused myself after a brief, polite exchange. Deadline-bound, of course, I needed to press on with in The Taming of the Shrew - but truthfully, a part of me experienced in doorstep combat with evangelists and salespeople had been cringing inwardly. The flyer I was given, I'm afraid to say, went largely undissected once I'd scanned it fleetingly, noting all the campaign cycle's perennial issues (funding, library times, rent etc.) to be redeployed there. That I never properly digested it was nothing personal, yet I couldn't bring myself just to dispose of it, and weeks after polling day, it festered unexamined on the staircase pinboard - while I'd long since been uninterested in union elections, on some level, I clearly still felt bad about this. Back in my days of Blairite liberalism, I tried to tell myself I cared, but the truth is that suspicion of elected bodies ranks atop the things I've learned in four years as a student.
Through its JCR, my college remains subscribed to Socialist Worker for good or ill, reputation for radical protest intact and alumni list crowned proudly by Michael Foot, whose portrait hangs in a seminar room. Here, in the company of anarchists, queer theorists and rabble-rousers, is where my politics grew up - never more quickly than in 2010, when fees were hiked and schoolchildren kettled by police froze at the start of my second year. Those marches, and events around them, meant different things to different people, but in part they symptomised a crisis of representation. Students cast votes to stall marketisation, but the MPs who received them were no help; when some, frustrated, occupied their lecture theatres, NUS leaders wafted only hesitant support toward them. Increasingly, the notion those politically above us were put in place by vote to solve our problems seemed hard to maintain - and student politics, of course, aspires to mirror Westminster.
In national politics and on campus, we're encouraged to care about important issues for a week or two, now and again, so as to elect people who'll care about them on our behalf the rest of the time. Come campaign season, students patrolling in small groups to canvas for their favoured candidates are as reminiscent of Jehovah's Witnesses as of MPs - enticing, friendly and well-mannered till you've promised them your soul. Small wonder OUSU, Oxford's union, launched a campaign to combat apathy via poster: once the election has been won each year, the victor's name is little more for many of us than a by-line in semi-regular and seldom-read e-mails. We move on from the hustle of the voting process, if it registered with us at all, returning for the next three terms to books and lab coats, until another round of hustings shows our issues haven't been resolved by 52 CV-enhancing weeks of the officials we opted for. If we're honest, how much worse off would we be without this circus?
I don't begrudge student unions their existence - it's annual, ooze-filled electioneering that perturbs me. Many do important work: some run living wage campaigns, to furnish college cleaners with decent pay; others sponsor LGBTQ or feminist initiatives; Oxford's, as is only to be expected, runs an extensive access scheme. We need these projects, so why not free them from the doldrums of campaign season? Plenty are self-organising or autonomous anyway, and often the same figureheads exchange positions from year to year; many run unopposed for their positions, making votes redundant, and why in any case should social justice be subject to ballot? Kirk Sneade, who recently ran as UCL's Women's Officer pretending to be female-identified, promised to abolish the role and published images of violence against women, is the latest beneficiary of union elections as spectacular popularity contest, along with his (mostly straight, white, cismale) supporters.
Look at our student unions today, and you'll see them morphing into propaganda tools for careerists and figures like Sneade, riddled with internal manoeuvring and corruption, British far left colluding with Islamist far right to censor and suppress. If they want our trust, it should take more than vaudevillian speechmaking and e-voting codes - could anything, after all, feel more disenfranchising than propping this charade of democracy up? Elections are the only time of year when unionistas need students' help rather than vice versa. That shouldn't be the time we care or hear about most.
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