The Blog

Universities Are Gearing Up For Student Elections - So What Should You Expect?

Democracy, as made famous by the Scottish Referendum, is seen as a spell that sparks vast swathes of a population into taking meaningful political action. On university campuses, however, democracy is a little more virulent in nature.

Democracy, as made famous by the Scottish Referendum, is seen as a spell that sparks vast swathes of a population into taking meaningful political action. On university campuses, however, democracy is a little more virulent in nature.

Over the next few weeks, universities will be littered with tacky flyers, unnecessarily vibrant banners, and morons draped in oversized T-shirts handing out sweets. While democracy do-gooders whinge about apathy, elections fever will spread like an all-consuming madness.

Friends will stop replying to each other's Snapchats. Facebook will be flooded with hard-to-read manifestos; Twitter with pathetic slogans. Normal students - now running for office - will morph into media-savvy PR rent-a-gobs overnight.

This time last year I coordinated media coverage for the student elections at Queen Mary, independent of conventional student media outlets (a fancy way for saying I used my blog). As such I became involved - perhaps a little too intimately - with the more gritty aspects of this process.

It may be fashionable to fob off student elections as a series of glorified popularity contests with no real-world implications - as I so readily did - but running for one of the sabbatical positions is rather serious business.

The highly desired prize is a glorified desk job, and, crucially, a chance to delay the need to make a single important life decision by a whole 12 months. There's also the pay.

Sabbatical officers at QMSU earn £24,500 for a year's work. This is roughly £3,000 higher than the UK median salary, and two-thirds less than the salary of an actual Member of Parliament - whose job it is to represent on average nearly 100,000 constituents; not to mention run campaigns, attend debates, and change the law.

Taking that into account it makes poorly-hacked together promotional videos like this excruciating Uptown Funk parody (parody? is parody the right word?) embedded below seem even more absurd.

Incidentally "don't believe me just vote" is the sort of off-the-cuff remark tyrannical despots like Vladimir Putin use to dupe his loyal subjects into keeping him in office.

Just as in the real world, student politicians hail from a very narrow background; usually an assortment of bored political society committee members, failed student journalists, and so-called union hacks. You could, if you're lucky, get a joke candidate.

These students, entirely interchangeable with one another in their policies, are then shuffled and dumped onto political slates. These are a bit like political parties that break apart as soon as things get a little rough; a bit like the SDP.

These slates, though they may seem tightly-knit, are highly unstable. Don't let the sheer number of smiley mugshots and Instagrammed group hugs fool you; they're only friends so long as the campaign hasn't gone tits up.

Some of the comments I made last year may have been construed as harsh, or unkind. But it surprised me to learn how many of those who put themselves in the public eye were unable to handle the level of scrutiny that naturally came with it.

One candidate - who shall remain nameless - even demanded that I take down my blog and issue a full public apology for writing, in great detail, how his MS Paint-designed poster - which doubled as his actual manifesto - was rubbish. As it happens he's running again this year, but for a completely different position.

These students expect to glide through the campaign spouting tripe about 'the cost of sandwiches crisis' or 'standing up for ordinary hardworking students' without at all being questioned. This is thanks in part to strict NUS regulations on media coverage.

In the interests of balance, student media outlets are generally prohibited from dishing any level of hard, objective criticism in the run-up to polling day. Candidates, as such, can get away with telling open lies in debates and on social media.

If this sense of complacency isn't bad enough, the lack of attention allows for a 'win at all costs' mentality to spread through the campaign. There's a point at which candidates suddenly do away with their senses, and their morals. They begin to use any crude weapon their dirty hands can fashion to bludgeon their opponents and scrape a victory.

Smear campaigns, for instance, often covert and anonymous, are the sort of underhand tactics some may use to sway a largely docile electorate. This could be as simple as sharing a rumour that you made up on the spot with the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. Due to restrictions the newspaper can't report it. But that doesn't stop a journalist from talking. The rumour spreads.

Even the essence of campaigning - the manifestos, the posters, the electoral bribes - is by and large a total sham. Elections aren't won by printing out leaflets or getting hits on YouTube, but by making secret deals in behind-closed-doors meetings with society bigwigs.

The statement issued by the Queen Mary Islamic Society during the 2014 students' union elections

This backstage campaigning - completely hidden from sight - is contemptible. Candidates organise talks with committee members from niche groups to assure them their slate best represents their narrow, selfish interests. In exchange, student politicians get indirect access to mailing lists, and a greater scope for promotion across social media.

With a voting turnout of around 20% this sort of lobbying is crucial, and every university has its own kingmakers. At Queen Mary, for example, it's the Islamic Society.

This group is influential not only in its size, but by the degree to which its members are politically engaged. For years 'ISOC' has lobbied the university on issues to do with prayer space. The society has hosted union talks, and it has organised charity initiatives. Come elections season, when the society leaders announce support for their favoured candidates, its members follow like sheep.

On university campuses, democracy can be won and bought in equal measure. There's nothing glorious, engaging, or spellbinding when it rears its head in such an ugly manner. But, that having been said, it would be naïve to lump everyone in the same category.

They may be hard to find, but there are some genuine students in the race who aren't motivated by the salary. These candidates can't be bought by societies. They stand up to the university when it overreaches. They make best use of union funds to support student welfare, strengthen sports clubs, or stage employment seminars.

The students' union, no matter how irrelevant it may seem at any one time, exists for good reasons. And somebody has to run it. Wouldn't it be better to have a say as to who that person is?