Candidates clash over personal credentials at CUSU hustings

Image credit: Will Tilbrook

With the electoral race heating up for contested positions, tonight's CUSU election hustings saw candidates locking horns with each other over differing politics and scrutiny of credentials.

Candidates for all the contestable positions attended the event at the University Centre, which culminated in the three presidential candidates Evie Aspinall, Connor McDonald, and Siyang Wei taking to the floor to put forward their manifestos and answer students' questions. Decolonisation, inequality between colleges, and ways in which the student union might better connect with students topped the presidential agenda. A question from current CUSU President Daisy Eyre suggesting a level of similarity between the candidates’ manifestos led to swift attempts at differentiation by the three. Here is TCS’ breakdown of the promises and beliefs of the three presidential candidates.

The presidential candidates: Breakdown of promises and beliefs

Evie Aspinall

Vice-President of Cambridge For Consent and Pembroke Women’s Officer, Evie Aspinall began her speech at hustings with a clear statement: “I am a political person”, rebuking, apparent claims in the student press that she held a vague middle-ground between the other two candidates. Aspinall’s central pledge is to push for “more students to have their voices heard” and she argues that she would achieve this by running a CUSU that facilitates change at a JCR and department level. She states that she would push for faculty representatives to support the decolonise the curriculum campaign and that she would encourage JCR involvement with CUSU Council by trying to “make it more interesting” and “liven it up a bit”.

On the issue of the University’s Prevent duty, Aspinall echoed the remarks of Wei, explicitly condemning the government strategy as “obviously racist and obviously targeted”, and saying that was “very keen to minimise the effect it has on students”. According to Aspinall, the role of the CUSU presidency is “designed to represent students.” She went on: “what students want is what students should get” and specifically she referred to economic inequality in terms of bursary availability and funding across colleges as an important student demand. This was also championed by McDonald and Wei at the hustings.

Connor McDonald

Connor McDonald, former JCR President of Emmanuel and outgoing Chair of CUCA, argued that his “expertise and real belief that CUSU needs to change” is the reason why he is the candidate for the executive role. His platform of “community, accountability, and sustainability”, he argues, drives to increase the collection and sharing of information across the university so as to allow for better and more widespread engagement on issues such as rent inequality and student grants. He emphasised the importance of organising consultation with students, especially in terms of the way in which money is spent on their behalf, but also in terms of supporting CUSU’s autonomous campaigns. He characterised a CUSU with him as president as one that tackled the “culture of unaccountability” that is perpetuated by the collegiate system – where students may turn to the college for support, only to be told that their department was expected to fund it, and vice versa.

At the hustings, McDonald differentiated himself from his rivals by stating that he would be “willing to defend the principle of Prevent”, whilst acknowledging what he considered to be “profound misapplications of the Prevent duty” within the University. He, however, remained in line with the other candidates’ politics when asked about his support of decolonising the curriculum, which he said that he was in favour of, and indicated that he held a view contrary to that expressed by CUSU recently in relation to the national UCU strikes, as did Aspinall. CUSU voted to give “full and public support” of the industrial account at a CUSU Council meeting last month. McDonald later clarified that he disagreed with CUSU’s “failing to act effectively on the concerns of a vast majority of students.”

Siyang Wei

CUSU BME Campaign Committee member and former Labour Club Co-Chair, Siyang Wei argued that their presidential platform rests upon the belief that students “can make a real difference when [they] organise for a common cause”. They championed the need for CUSU to coordinate between grassroot movement and CUSU’s autonomous campaigns to achieve “radical change”, and that CUSU’s role in this was to be asking: “how can we help you to fulfil your aims”. Wei made clear that they did not advocate CUSU “barging into every college” and imposing structure, but also insisted on the importance of leadership to the CUSU presidency. When asked about finding a balance between representing students’ views and adhering to their own convictions, Wei answered: “The CUSU presidency is about representation, but also about leadership. You set the tone of the conversation at the university. If 80% of students disagreed with something I believed in, I would take that into consideration.”

Wei contextualised their overt support of Cambridge’s decolonisation movement by referring to their committee work decolonising the sociology and politics departments. The other two candidates self-confessed to being able to boast little (according to Aspinall) to no (McDonald) experience in this area. Also conversely to McDonald, Wei condemned the Prevent duty as being “dangerous to the freedom of speech and freedom of expression campus”, but noted the University’s legal duty of compliance. They argued that a concern with student welfare should be at the heart of CUSU’s engagement with the issue.

 

Hustings was also held for the positions of University Councillor, Access and Funding Officer, Welfare and Rights Officer, GU President, which are all contested by more than one candidate, as well as Women's Officer, Education Officer, and Disabled Students' Officer, which only have one candidate standing per role. The former group of contested positions saw some heated debate during the husting events, with arguments in some cases overflowing on to social media afterwards. Just minutes after leaving tonight's hustings, CUSU Access and Funding Officer candidate Shadab Ahmed uploaded a post to his campaign Facebook page expressing his "disgust" at some of the things said by his rival Rhiannon Melliar-Smith.

Ahmed's post on his campaign page alleges that Melliar-Smith "focused her attention on herself as a someone from a state school background" in order to cast him in opposition to this. He condemned some of her comments as not just "inappropriate" but also incorrect regarding his state-school background. Melliar-Smith had ended the debate with a summary claiming she was “the only candidate with experience of applying from a state school". Ahmed said he felt that, by doing this, she was "invalidating my experience as a marginalised, working class BME candidate". He has requested that the Elections Committee immediately investigate her conduct.

In a statement to The Cambridge Student, Rhiannon Melliar-Smith dismissed Ahmed's claims of defamation and attributed them to “the fact that he underperformed during the hustings.” She goes on: “My statement that I am the only candidate with ‘personal experience of applying from a state school’ is absolutely true and not defamatory in any way.

"A statement of fact is not a derogatory statement. My interjections were facilitated by the Chair of the Elections Committee himself, and he was consistently given opportunity to respond. I made no reference to his personal background or personal experience. My campaign is a very personal one, deriving from my own experiences as a low-income woman from the North West, who applied from a state school she had attended for 7 years. This in absolutely no way places myself in opposition to him, but is a citation of my personal experience for this role.

"I would absolutely welcome the Elections Committee look into this, and I look forward to seeing what they have to say."

Voting opens on Tuesday 6th March and closes on Friday 9th March 2018.

To follow the full story of the Hustings event, please look at our Twitter liveblog

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