Union accused of misrepresentation

Alex Coke-Woods 10 November 2007

Cambridge Union officials have drafted a radical new constitution for their society, but according to 20 ex-presidents and vice-presidents of the Union, the way in which this document came to be produced has been ‘misrepresented’ to Union members.

According to a statement issued by the Union on Sunday, the society’s three senior officials – the steward, senior librarian and senior treasurer – all “stepped aside” from the Union “to allow changes to be driven by the membership with open and free discussion.” But not everyone believes that these resignations were made so willingly.

A letter, signed by 20 former senior officers of the Union and sent to The Cambridge Student (TCS), claimed: “Their resignation was misrepresented in the email sent to Union members last weekend.”

When contacted by TCS, the senior librarian, Pat Aske, said that she was not prepared either to confirm or to deny the reasons for her resignation. Similarly, Tim Milner, the Union steward, also declined to comment.

But Steven Parkinson, Union president in Lent 2004, said that he “and a number of other ex-presidents were concerned that… weren’t going to put their case forward,” and so had drafted the letter in order to represent what he claimed were their views.

Sarah Przybylska, Union secretary and vice-president from 2002-2004, put the case particularly strongly. No-one ever resigned… because a new constitution was going through,” she commented. It’s not the case that the senior officers have bravely stepped aside to allow the junior officers to get on with what they want to do.

” have put up with an awful lot of shit over the years and have finally felt the need to stand aside,” she concluded.

Jacky Grainger, who has managed accounts at the Union for ten years, agreed that the Union had misrepresented the reason for the senior officer’s departure to its members.

“In my opinion, they didn’t ‘step aside’ – they resigned. They certainly didn’t leave to allow changes to the constitution,” she said. Instead, Grainger pointed to friction between junior and senior officials within the Union, saying that the senior officers were “always completely over-ruled at the standing committee.”

“There was definitely friction there,” she said, adding: “They just didn’t seem to work together anymore – they were like two opposing sides.”

But James Robinson, current vice-president and secretary of the Union, was keen to downplay accusations of friction between the various layers of Union officialdom, stressing that “there was no animosity in the room,” when the senior officers resigned.

What is clear from the new draft constitution is that, even if there had been friction between senior and junior officers in the past, the new constitution could alter the balance of power at the heart of the Union, reducing the role traditionally played by senior officers.

Under the new proposals, the presidency and vice-presidency would become paid, annual offices. No provision is made for a steward or senior librarian in the new document, effectively downgrading two out of three senior posts and almost certainly shifting power onto what are now technically junior roles within the Union.

Currently, senior officers have to be of an ‘MA standard’ – a condition set in place to ensure that they bring a certain level of experience and expertise to the Union. With this experience, senior officials have traditionally been seen as a way to guarantee that essential legal and financial matters do not get overlooked by officials elected for just a single term.

The new constitution does envisage a role for a treasurer who “would not be an undergraduate,” and who would serve as a “check and balance” on the power of the president, according to James Robinson.

But undergraduates, or recent graduates, who would be able to take up the presidency or vice-presidency, would hold two out of the three most powerful positions within the Union.

“All that’s needed is to get 12 people in a room and nine of them to vote on it, and it’s done. Boom,” explained James Robinson.

But rather than pushing through such far-reaching changes unilaterally, Union officials have said they are keen for members to offer up their own amendments to the proposals. The Union Standing Committee wants ordinary members to form their own constitution before voting on it in a referendum on November 24th.

“The document is a starting point,” he continued, adding: “Any item of it can be removed by a simple majority of the members voting.”

Members can see the proposed new constitution and offer their own amendments to it at the Union at 5pm, on Friday .

Alex Coke-Woods