The stagnant state of student politics

Used in countries such as India, Venezuela and Brazil, online voting has long been cited as a potential cure for our ailing voter participation in the UK. Yet if the recent University of Edinburgh Students’ Association elections are anything to go by, the opposite appears to be true. In a university of roughly 41,000 eligible student voters, only approximately 5,400 voted. More shockingly, in the Presidential race, just over 3,000 students cast their ballots. With low participation levels combined with the fact that many positions were uncontested or two horse races, we have to reconsider the way we conduct student elections.

The electronification of voting has transformed the electoral process into a passive one. Having just reached the age of electoral maturity, and with these elections being some of the first that new students have encountered, it is no surprise that the student population seems apathetic. Used to the mundanity of school elections, the current electoral process in Edinburgh is not too far removed from this. The candidates and their teams go into a frenzy for two weeks; frozen hands shove leaflets at you whilst you walk out of earshot and the campaigners hurriedly trying to convince you that X is the best person for the role. At the end of the day, the most popular, charismatic person wins, regardless of their policies. That, or they have the backing of Edinburgh Labour Students, the Sports Union, the trade unions or ‘big business’ of Edinburgh.

The absence of a physical ballot box is conceivably at fault. Casting a vote is not only arguably an important civic duty but a process. The trek to the town hall or local primary school with dog and toddler in tow is a sight that is the same throughout the country. It is democratic, it is social and, importantly, it is tangible. Drawing an X or spoiling a ballot paper is an exciting experience.

Yet arguments in favour of the physical ballot present their own problems. Online voting allows for far greater accessibility. On top of this, regulation of ballot boxes as well as ‘the count’ are issues that the Students’ Association would be unable to deal with without a large quantity of volunteers. Finally, there is no real evidence that would suggest that this would actually increase electoral turnout.

The over-cited statistic that as a demographic students aged 18-25 are the least likely vote remains true throughout student unions nationally, with voter turnout at King’s College London being similar to that of our own university. Nationally, this is often blamed on the nature of Westminster politics, with politicians appealing to the issues that resonate with older generation’s views due to their electoral reliability.

But this is not the problem with student politics. The elections, by their very nature, are aimed at the supposedly cursed age bracket, with policies created by students and for students. These elections should encourage future electoral participation, not fizzle out with barely 12 per cent of students voting.

Current President, Eleri Connick, stated in her interview with The Student last year that she wanted to increase engagement with the Students’ Association as well as providing a second wrap bar at King’s Buildings. With neither of these manifesto points being achieved, as shown by the recent elections, it is unsurprising that many students question the relevance of the Students’ Association to their own lives. But this is not necessarily the fault of the Sabbatical Officers. With the Students’ Association barely breaking even annually, they do not have the budget to finance grand election winning schemes.

Yet without these pledges, people will not be motivated to vote. Faced with the failure of candidates to deliver on their promises, it is no surprise that the student electorate has been disenfranchised. Though the Students’ Association derives most of its funding from its commercial enterprises, (bars, wrap stations, et cetera) it received £3.1m in grants for the 2017/18 academic year, mostly from the university. In order to allow the elected Sabbatical Officers scope to fulfil their campaign pledges, the university, therefore, has a responsibility to increase funding.

However, inadequate funding is not the only issue. Candidates need to reign in their campaign pledges. We are simply being promised too much. Andrew Wilson, the recently elected President of the Students’ Association, had a total of nineteen manifesto points. One may speculate that the length of time this would take him combined with the amount of money that this would cost would completely drain the Students’ Association’s budget. The elections have become about outrageous but vote-winning unachievable policies, such as shown by Jamie Mercurio’s promises of free haggis and whiskey, and an open bar at an end of year party at Edinburgh Castle.

Yet, without adequate insight into the running of the Students’ Association, it is this calibre and volume of policies that will win, as without them students will not engage. Students need to be more aware of what the Students’ Association actually does, what its role is, and how it functions. When this happens, students will have the knowledge needed to be able to adequately critique a candidates’ manifesto, separating the dreamers from the realists and electing in a President who will be able to achieve their manifesto, thereby not disenfranchising students with unfulfilled promises.

We need to be able to hold candidates to their campaign promises. As elected officials, they should be answerable to us, yet as a body, we are completely disengaged with their workings. Contact with our Sabbatical Officers is at its height during election season but after the results, there is limited insight into their progress. As a body (and a paper) we need to re-engage with our elected officials, ensuring their promises are being met thereby allowing for a more engaged electorate and greater democracy.

Greater engagement with the significance of the Sabbatical roles would also have the added benefit of an increase in candidates running for positions. With some positions going uncontested and many having only two candidates, this leads to low voter turnout due to a perceived lack of agency in the decision-making process. This prevents competition between candidates and adequate choice in ideas.

Arguably, this competition has no place in student politics. Indeed, the years of candidates spending every evening campaigning in Pollock have made way for evenings of recuperation before campaigning again the next day. This makes elections more accessible and encourages people who previously wouldn’t have to get involved.

The Students’ Association still has work to do if it is to see improved participation in student politics. Firstly, We need to ensure the elections are accessible. We need to encourage more campaigns to be zero-waste and offer avenues to pursue this. We need to be aware that door knocking in halls is a campaigning technique that not all are able or comfortable doing. The question time should have sign language interpreters and fit around school schedules for candidates who have children. There should be audio versions of manifestos, and the voting system needs to be more efficient.

Furthermore, as both Meyra Çoban and Martha Reilly pointed out in their interviews with The Student (available online), the University of Edinburgh is not an apolitical place. BME, women and LGBTQ+ students, in particular, are very politically active, but this just does not translate into student electoral politics. Similarly, organisations such People and Planet and Sexpression are active across campus, yet while People and Planet endorsed Helena Carver for President, they were otherwise absent from the elections. The Students’ Association, therefore, needs to translate this existing enthusiasm for change into electoral participation, demonstrating that elected officials have serious potential to change university life.

Or do we? As individuals, I don’t think we do. However, if these different political groups across campus, that are otherwise disinterested in student politics, put forward candidates for positions this would allow the continuation of policies. The issue with this is that it would contravene the Students’ Association’s rule on slates (societies putting forward a list of candidates that people are encouraged to vote for in unison) although it is arguably already taking place. In the past it has been the North American society that was the kingmaker, then Edinburgh Labour Students, the Sports Union and now Edinburgh Labour Students again.

These societies or unions council their members via team captains or through meetings to vote for the candidate that would be most beneficial to their aims. With a disinterested electorate who are unable to adequately critique manifestos, orders from groups such as these do sway elections.

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The Student Newspaper 2016