Engage, or be enraged

Cait Findlay 16 October 2018

The recent media storm following Monday’s CUSU Council has invited commentators from various national newspapers to react to the motion and its amendment which were, ultimately, both voted down. While many – including the Conservative Association – have suggested that the amendment and the final vote, reflect a lack of respect towards Remembrance Day, I argue that the true result of the contention was to expose disillusionment with and disrespect for the structures of democracy through which students are represented in the University. Simultaneously, however, figures consistently reflect a disparagingly low level of engagement in the most basic of student politics. Anger commingles with apathy. Those who disagree vehemently with decisions made by democratically elected student representatives need to question their own engagement with student politics, and begin making proactive movements to change, rather than provoking controversy, hatred, and spiralling abuse in the aftermath of decisions with which they disagree.

Engagement in student politics has historically been low. At the most basic level, which is the most easily quantifiable, the percentage of students voting in elections demonstrates this. In 2015, only 16.1% of students voted in the elections for CUSU and GU Sabbatical Officers; in 2016, it was 15.7%. 2018 saw 20.9%, but this is still shockingly low for a student body which ostensibly prides itself on its political attitude. From a more personal perspective, as the person responsible for running elections for the LGBT+ Campaign, I have seen this in fearful moments wondering whether elections will meet quorum; all too often, there are only a few students beyond the quorum mark. On a practical level, this saves us from reopening voting; ideologically, I’m concerned that so few students manage to find the effort or motivation to click and submit a few choices. More significantly, this problem is not unique to university politics: we see similarly unsatisfying levels of voting locally and nationally.

Many reactions to the downvoted motion in that most notorious of CUSU Councils have focused either on CUSU as a monolithic body, neglecting to mention the formation of Council itself, or on the individual student who proposed the amended motion. Both are entirely inadequate, laying blame or finding praise with the wrong people. Such responses demonstrate either ignorance or a lack of nuance in their understanding of the Council body. CUSU Council is made up of JCR and MCR Presidents and Vice-Presidents, as well as the heads of each of CUSU’s autonomous liberation campaigns. Further, every single student is welcomed to be present at Council, to bring motions, to speak, and to debate, although only elected representatives have voting rights. If you find fault with the decision made, you need to reconsider the people who have been elected to these roles. If their beliefs, and, ultimately, their votes, are not reflective of your own position, you need to find a way to engage with student politics in such a way that your own opinion is reflected.

This line of argumentation does not assume that the most vehement voices belong to those who abstain from politics. It was, of course, members of the Conservative Association who brought the motion to Council in the first place. However, it necessitates a questioning of priorities: if you engage with politics by affiliating yourself with a particular party, but would also like to see institutional change at a University level, then you should consider how your political viewpoints are or are not represented within the University in a meaningful, actionable way. It would be ridiculous to suggest that everyone should, on the basis of individualistic personal politics, run for JCR President. It’s not ridiculous to suggest that students who feel strongly about issues should take them to their relevant representative who can then advocate for those whom they represent at a higher level. Nor is it unreasonable to expect students to vote in their College elections (whether this means voting to reopen nominations if you’re dissatisfied with the selection), to vote for CUSU Sabbatical Officers, or to address decisions that they’re unhappy with at a practical, manageable level, rather than directing vitriol to a Council made up of a diverse body of students.

If this unfolding news story has come to your attention – although, parenthetically, we must question why the national press is always so fascinated by internal matters pertaining to the University of Cambridge – regardless of your opinion on the original motion and its amendment, let it be a motivation to you to engage in student politics. Whether that means running for a role, or simply voting in relevant elections, democracy is more than a question of reacting against decisions you do not like. If you do not engage regularly, prepare to be disappointed eventually.