Mixed fortunes for popular Union

Rebecca Sage – News Reporter 29 October 2009

An increase in membership of the Cambridge Union Society this year has led to many members being turned away from popular events. An unprecedented 1800 new members have already signed up, gaining access to a number of speakers who have thus far included Jo Brand and Dara O’Briain.

The Union offered membership discounts to home students receiving a full government bursary for the first time this year, alongside its usual ‘early bird’ offers. Before 15th October, those receiving the full bursary could join the Union for £60, or pay £115 after this point; other students would expect to pay £140 for life membership or £70 before the October deadline. Julian Domercq, the Union President, told The Cambridge Student (TCS) that the purpose of such reforms was “to make our Society as accessible as possible”.

He said that the surge in membership is “a reflection of the hard work that we have put in, in securing a fantastic speaker line-up and creating a welcoming atmosphere for our members.” The Union has a history of celebrated speakers, with past guests including President Ronald Reagan, the Dali Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

However, the Union has recently attracted criticism for cancelling its controversial invitation for right-wing radio host Michael Savage to speak at a debate on political correctness. Savage, who is banned from entering the UK, was due to address the Chamber via video-link on October 15th. The Union committee assured members that the cancellation was regrettably necessary due to “a variety of technical, legal and financial issues”.

The Chamber was opened at 7pm last Monday for members wishing to see Jo Brand, and had filled up by 7.15pm. Robert Woodward, from Trinity Hall, told TCS that “there seemed to be a lot of confusion. Even when the top balcony was full, members were herded in and later told they had to move on health and safety grounds”. As one of the members who had arrived sufficiently early to procure a seat, he also emphasised that “Jo Brand did start on time and a fantastic evening was had by all those fortunate enough to get a seat”.

Dara O’Briain’s 7.30pm appearance at the Union on Monday resulted in the Chamber filling up from 5.30pm, with members being sent to the bar and dining room, in which video links had been set up, from 6.30pm. Expecting similar opening times to the previous week, unsatisfied members were leaving the Union even before 7pm, having arrived over half an hour before the event was scheduled to begin.

Rosie Buckland from St John’s was one of the many members who had arrived to see the comic, only to be told that the Chamber had reached capacity. Sitting in the bar, she told TCS that “we might as well go back and watch it on YouTube”. The overwhelming popularity of the event meant that members were queuing outside to be allowed entry to the bar in order to watch the video link. Laura Wilson from Clare commented that “it’s really frustrating not to be allowed in when you’ve paid £140 for membership”.

When asked to comment further on the way in which the Dara O’Briain event was handled, a spokesperson reiterated that “the Union is pleased to put on such successful events and our members are given entry on a strictly first come first serve basis, which is the fairest and most sensible way.”

In particular, the selling of tickets to the public for such events has reduced the capacity of the Chamber for members to watch speakers.

The President commented that such action was “at the specific request of the publishers involved”, assuring TCS that “this is something we avoid doing whenever possible.”

He pointed out that “there are logistical challenges involved in running such popular events and we are refining existing systems in place to deal with the vastly increased numbers”. He added that “Our Society is run by and for our members and we are proud to be able such popular events”.

Rebecca Sage – News Reporter