After last week’s dramatic front page, Emma Bean discusses the importance of holding elected officials to account
The news section of last week’s paper was dominated by the shocking story of a Students’ Union executive member taking over a month of extra paid holiday and massively under spending their budget. What is even more distressing about this story is the fact that there seems to be so very little recourse for accountability in the Union Executive structure.
Student politics and student politicians often get laughed at for the way in which they behave as a microcosm of national politics, with the party lines drawn firmly in the sand, the mildly dodgy election pacts and deals, and the way in which people take it oh so seriously. Whilst criticising somebody for taking union politics seriously seems unbelievably peculiar, given that it does affect people’s lives, if student politicians wish to have politics in the same way as our national leaders do, they should be aware that with this comes responsibility. Members of the Union Executive should no more skip work than an MP would skip parliament, a member of cabinet would not be allowed to massively under spend their budget (only 30% spent) and spend but £30 on education, one of the most important areas of campaign for a student politician. Not to mention that fighting education cuts was something that Amanda Walters used to be re-elected, as she had been so involved in the student protests against tuition fees and cuts in her first term as campaigns officer.
When an MP or member of the cabinet behaves in a manner unbefitting of their role, or is judged to have done things that represent an “abuse of the position” as Ms Walters’ exploits were judged to be, there would be an absolute field day in the national press, quite rightly. For politicians to say one thing before they are elected and then do an entirely different thing afterwards is a great problem in our democracy and indeed in any representative democracy. It is a problem that Ms Walters herself identified when being interviewed on Sky news during the student protests, stating “there’s a democratic deficit in this country when someone can be elected on a certain pledge and then turn around and say they’re no longer going to keep that.”
But there is a problem here far greater than that of this one individual person behaving in an incorrect manner. The problem is that of accountability, and how student politicians are held to account.
One of the main checks for student politicians is actually the thing that they’re most frequently criticised for: that they are only in it to further their career. This is quite possibly true, that a lot of people get involved to further their own political career, but this can lead to positive outcomes for students. People who are interested in furthering their own career are probably going to work quite hard and aren’t going to want to leave any spots on their record, as politics is a competitive industry and any dirt or bad mark to their name would probably mean that they would not have any future success; their rivals would certainly make them pay for it.
The second check should be student media, as it is on the national stage also. If national politics is scrutinised by the national press, and student politicians wish to treat university politics as a microcosm of national politics, then it seems reasonable that student journalists should do much the same. A particular problem with student politics is that most students aren’t really aware of what is going on in the same way that most people are aware of what is happening – at least vaguely – on a national stage. Here too can the media can be beneficial, as holding people to account in a public forum such as student media can mean that more people come to be aware of the actions of their representatives, and also be enraged when things go wrong just as they would be when this happens on the national stage.
This goes both ways, the media can show when politicians do bad things, but it also ultimately is a positive tool for them to share their successes with their electorate; it is a working partnership that is beneficial for all.