Student democracy: how much should we care about voting?

Emily Loud – News Editor 8 March 2012

Emily Loud considers the Cambridge attitude to voting and student politics in the wake of the CUSU sabbatical officer elections.

Do we take our right to vote at all seriously? 17,351 students eligible to vote failed to do so in this year’s CUSU elections, which would indicate a resounding no.

But why are we content to let this opportunity pass us by? Conversations with fellow students confirm that it most certainly is not due to a lack of political interest. Even if they have little knowledge of the existence of sabbatical officers, opinions about “leftie conspirators” or questions about what on earth sabbatical officers do all day still abound. Rather, the problem is – as was demonstrated by incidents like the campaign to disaffiliate from CUSU at Robinson earlier this term – that students have real trouble putting their finger on what exactly CUSU does for them. It naturally follows that they should be unconcerned about exercising their democratic right, or even expressing their disdain for the process with a RON vote.

It is unsurprising that students may be sceptical when faced with a barrage of activities, from campaign slogans and songs clogging up our Facebook news feeds to being accosted on the Sidgwick Site. This is the attention students receive during the election season, when the interest of individuals is at stake. After the votes are counted all falls quiet.

This brief period of communication does little to reverse the damage done the rest of the year. The most the general student body heard of CUSU in 2011 was incidents such as the Council’s misinformed support of the Cambridge Defend Education protest, which spiralled into the occupation to which many students objected. Such a disproportionate picture causes student concerns such as those raised at the disaffiliation debate at Robinson College earlier this term; a principal objection was that the CUSU team was typically “dominated by a small group within the University that does not represent our needs”. Our recent experiences of student politics have done precious little to refute this.

Such a negative, or indeed non-existent, image of CUSU perpetuates the idea and reality of a “cliquey” sabbatical group, when only those who have already come into contact with the body consider standing for election. For those of you who did not peruse the ballot list, this year the roles of Education Officer and Welfare and Rights Officer were uncontested, while the only positions with three-way competition were those of Co-ordinator and President. This would not matter so much if their proposals were more distinctive, but they all seem to have been dominated by vague promises of improving “accessibility” and “transparency”, and reducing the “bureaucracy” of CUSU. These are not necessarily bad ideas, but such repetition reinforces the idea that sabbatical elections are dominated by several versions of the same person. The result is usually a feeling of a lack of choice, contributing further to the idea that student politics is a system where the conclusion is foregone.

Nor is the image of student politics helped when accusations of misconduct emerge. This year’s presidential campaign has been particularly guilty of this, with Ben Gliniecki breaking campaigning regulations as well as the recent news that Akilah Jeffers was docked 200 first preference votes for breaking the rules regarding campaigning on Facebook. At this point student politics risks looking not only irrelevant (an often expressed opinion) but also unreliable.

Other collegiate universities have fared slightly better in persuading students to vote. Oxford had their highest turnout since online voting was introduced in 2008, with 19% of the student body turning out, while Durham had a 24.8% turnout in its sabbatical elections this February. Other universities have had better luck; York and Sheffield gained a comparatively impressive 37% and 36% of students’ votes, edging closer to the 44% of 18-24 year-olds who voted in the 2010 general election.

Yet maybe we should pay even more attention to University politics than to their national equivalent, since statistically speaking a single student vote carries more weight than one in the general election. Now more than ever, in the wake of increased tuition fees and the debate about university privatisation, the higher education system will be subject to reform and we should pay attention.

I would not necessarily advise slogging your way through several hours of CUSU Council, but take advantage of small-scale political opportunities when they come – read manifestos of various candidates, grace a hustings session with your presence and maybe a question or two. After all, there is little sense voting without any attempt to understand what each candidate represents.

True enough, it would take a lot to make CUSU politics interesting all year round. It is hard enough to do while the ballots themselves are being counted, as cringingly illustrated by VarsiTV’s coverage in which showers, Angela Merkel, and the sounds that kittens make dominated in place of any pertinent- discussion of student politics.

Overall, the challenge for incoming sabbatical officers is communication. They may be fighting bloody battles with the University over funding of student services but if the students themselves are unaware of their actions or, worse still, unaware that these services even exist, then the efforts of CUSU will be fruitless.

Emily Loud – News Editor