Joe Evans uncovers the institutions and procedures that govern our Students’ Union and finds democracy in name only
Two weeks ago saw the first meeting of the Students’ Union’s new democratic body. The newly formulated Senate is responsible for representing students, shaping Union policy, and holding elected representatives to account. It is—at its heart—a well-intentioned organisation. Its essential aim is to make the Union more democratic by giving the student body a voice.
Good intentions aside though it is, in places, fundamentally flawed to the point of being undemocratic. In its early stages, teething problems are inevitable, but it cannot claim to be representative of anybody while carrying with it such clear constitutional issues.
One of the more nuanced issues facing the Senate is a lack of education surrounding its workings. Opening the first Senate agenda was a series of bylaw amendments each to be voted on a Yes or No basis. The issue here is that a glance around the room made clear the lack of clarity regarding the content of the constitution. From a position of such misunderstanding, making a valid judgement on amendments is impossible.
This is relevant given that one amendment was to allow non-elected nominees to sit in for elected members of the Senate should the latter be unable to attend. On issues such as this, issues that pertain to the elected legitimacy from which the Senate claims its power, knowledge as to what you are condoning is vital. In an ideal world everybody involved would have an intimate knowledge of the constitution, which is available for us all to study in our downtime.
Unless you are a paid member of staff, whose job it is to know the constitution, this is impractical. What this results in is Student Exec members explaining amendments to their own constitution from a position that is nothing like that of an independent adjudicator.
In issues like this, more transparency and less insularity would not harm Union politics. Instead it would only generate more faith in the work the Union does and the democracy they claim to speak on behalf of. The issue of transparency is also highlighted in the ordering of policy proposals.
Last week, the Safe Space Policy, which made national news, was seventh to be voted on. Placed ahead of this was the introduction of Amazon Lockers in the Students’ Union, an issue that clearly carries less importance. Senate members are contacted via the Union’s Democracy Coordinator prior to sittings in order to vote on order. This is a good start, but it does promote the idea that this could be more visibly extended to the entire student body.
If we accept the premise that the Senate represents the student body—a premise itself built on shaky foundations—it would still be more fitting for votes on which proposals are most pressing to be clearly extended beyond this clique. Promotion of an extension outside the Council Chambers and into the university body would serve to further remove the murkiness shrouding the Senate’s actions. Rather than—in the case of the Safe Space debate—rumours of filibustering being cultivated, forthright politics should be the target, undermining any perceived lack of agency in order to effect the Union’s actions.
Even as a member of the Senate, attempting to sit in on the debate presents its own challenges. Voting via the raising of hands is an issue that needs to be addressed, especially given that some votes are conducted anonymously evidencing the possibility for all votes to be the same. Relating again to Senate procedures, public voting, when combined with various hand gestures and stipulations—about which some members of the Senate are unaware—serve to pull the shutters down further on the seemingly closed shop of Union politics. Alongside this, rather than engaging in the debate, elected members find themselves cast out to the fringes, left scratching their heads at what it turns out is called deaf clapping.
Despite this though the Senate’s most undemocratic flaw is its issue with just who is voting on Union policy. In the first meeting of the Senate, the issue of whether the Union should officially support a campaign for the protection of the NHS was voted on. This is essentially a political debate, posing the question of what right Senate members without a political mandate have to dictate the Union’s position.
If the Union truly serves as our voice then its politics are our politics. Sat on the Senate, voting on our Union’s political stance, was a collection of people without any elected political authority.
The deputy Editor-in-Chief of The Mancunion, for example, has the power to dictate policy. Likewise, representatives of non-political charitable organisations have a say. These are just some examples, and this is in no way meant as a slight on these individuals. I’m sure they campaigned for their positions driven by a passion for their areas of interest. What I am saying however is that their electorate gave them no political mandate from which to influence politics, and this is a fatal and fundamentally undemocratic flaw in the Senate.
The Senate cannot outline policies unless it is mandated and in order to do this there need to be elections based on people’s political ideology. In other words, a separate body needs to exist to deal with these issues. We would condemn a national electorate who were kept in the dark like this and would argue that lack of information forces people into uninformed voting. It is wholly undemocratic, and its influence in terms of putting politics in place is huge.
As I said at the beginning, I do truly think that the Senate was created with good intentions and, in its defence, it does extend a hand to try and include people that otherwise wouldn’t have a say in student politics.
Where this goodwill disintegrates though is in the fundamentally undemocratic elements of its makeup. Those without the support of an informed electorate must not dictate politics, and the lack of forthrightness surrounding the Senate’s practices needs to be challenged. That, sadly, is damaging any sense of its positive potential.
EDIT: This article previously stated: ‘The deputy Editor-in-Chief of The Mancunion, for example, has the power to dictate policy, and so too does the Captain of the Athletics Union.’ It has been brought to our attention that this is incorrect and that the Captain of the Athletics Union does not sit on the senate. The article has been amended accordingly.