The Mancunion

Britain's biggest student newspaper

The Union Senate is fatally flawed

Joe Evans uncovers the institutions and procedures that govern our Students’ Union and finds democracy in name only

By

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.

  • Guest

    If the writer has any concerns over the Senate, he must address it to the Steering Committee that reviews complaints & manages the Senate generally.

    Also, it is the FIRST Senate meeting of all times man, ok you need to write an article, I see, but chill. The rest of the motions WILL be debated upon during the next Senate.

    Furthermore, before the introduction of the Senate and therefore the Senate Committees, the executive were not accountable to anyone at all. So this is good. Now you actually have people in the Scrutiny Committee that monitors how the exec team are behaving. So research before you pretend being a journalist.

    • Adam

      This poster clearly doesn’t understand what journalism entails or the job of journalists. The point of journalism is to investigate and expose flaws and then reveal them for the public interest. Which is what this article has done. It’s not a simple fact of keeping it anonymous and reporting it privately to the Steering Committee, and therefore nobody hearing about it or understanding the issue. The fundamental role of the student newspaper is to hold the Union and the Exec team to account, and investigate subjects that directly affect students. Which is what this article has done.

    • Adam

      Also I would like to add that there is no guarantee all the issues will be debated in the next Senate. Motions were not debated and voted on in the first Senate meeting, new motions will be put forward between the first and second meeting and therefore are unlikely to be discussed in the next Senate because of the amount of issues to discuss.
      As for the Steering Committee itself, isn’t it worth asking questions of who actually makes up that committee, and their personal relationships with the Union leadership hierarchy? There is very little information about this committee on the Student Union website, which raises questions of accountability.

  • Muffin

    HIya, really great that you turned up to senate and engaged with it, hope that you keep on coming and reporting on it, as a voting member of senate.

    Just had a few thoughts on your article that I would like to address.

    “From a position of such misunderstanding, making a valid judgement on amendments is impossible.” – people were able to ask questions until they understood and were able to make a judgement accordingly. I made it a priority to read the constitution beforehand to make sure I understood though.

    “Unless you are a paid member of staff, whose job it is to know the constitution, this is impractical.” – I’m unsure why you think that is. I’ve had a read of the constitution and I’m not a member of the exec.

    “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.”
    -The SU isnt just the exec’s union, it’s *our* union as students. As such the constitution isn’t “their own” it’s ours. They weren’t there to act as independent adjudicators, they were there presenting the changes that they wanted to make. With the election of steering committee (which hadnt been elected in that senate), hopefully we’ll soon have a group of people whose role it is to have a working knowledge of the constitution and be able to act as an adjudicator on it.

    “Placed ahead of this was the introduction of Amazon Lockers in the Students’ Union, an issue that clearly carries less importance” – For me I thought it was more important to have a discussion on Amazon lockers than to have a discussion on abolishing our Union’s Safe space policy and voted accordingly. If it was so important to discuss abolishing our Safe Space policy in our Unions’ decision making-body, then why hasnt someone tried to do so previous years?

    “this could be more visibly extended to the entire student body.” – agreed!

    “Voting via the raising of hands is an issue that needs to be addressed” – personally I dont think it does. I was elected to represent a group of people, and they are free to turn up to senate and see how I vote on issues. Also, I’m able to see how my reps vote – and I’m personally intrigued to see which way the Exec vote. If you think it needs to be adressed then take that idea to senate and we can discuss it and vote on it. The secret ballot was regarding voting people into committee positions.

    “various hand gestures and stipulations—about which some members of the Senate are unaware—serve to pull the shutters down further” – agree that hand signals can make the meeting inaccessible, let’s make sure people are aware of the hand-signals in future, because they are useful when known!

    “the question of what right Senate members without a political mandate have to dictate the Union’s position.” – The members of senate do have a political mandate. When they were voted in they were voted in to perform that job in senate, thats the mandate they have. Thats why when I was voting on manifestos for my representatives I made sure I made a note of any political beliefs expressed in them and voted accordingly. Perhaps this can be made more clear during future elections.

    Paragraph beginning “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.” … The AU currently have no vote on senate. Again, the people on senate do have a political mandate, voting politically in senate is one of the jobs that they were voted in for. If you do not think that roles such as the chief of Mancuion etc should be politicised then that’s another issue (and I would be interested in having that discussion, its a point that I made during the debate to move to this structure), but the fact is this roles have been politicised.

    • Lemon drizzle

      Hi there, I’m also a member of the senate, but haven’t yet been as I was unfortunately already working that evening, so sent a nominee in my place who’s updated me since.

      I generally agree with the issues that this article brings up. I did not get elected based on any political stance; I was elected to represent the society I am involved in, and to deal with issues that are purely based around my position, not anything else that the university is concerned about. I should not have the power to vote on whether Save the NHS should receive more funding for campaigns as that’s not what people voted me in for. In this instance, I see myself as being a student who has been placed in this privileged position to vote, which I think is wrong. If I can vote on these kind of things, what’s to say that any other student shouldn’t be able to vote and have their vote counted officially? This is where I believe the senate is fundamentally flawed.

      Also, as you’ve already agreed, people really need to be made aware of what it is, how they can vote on the order things are discussed, and how they can submit new ideas for the agenda. I think this is also what the writer means when he says it’s undemocratic – as far as I’m aware, students who are not on the senate weren’t made aware of it until the on the actual night it was happening via facebook/twitter, which is too late to contribute to the ordering/agenda. You’ve said this is our union, but it doesn’t feel that way from the elitist attitude that this first senate seems to have taken.

      As I say, I wasn’t there, and I’m yet to experience this all in person, but to say there were teething problems is a bit of an understatement in my opinion – things really need to be more thought out before December to make this into the amazing democratic system that the Union first intended it to be.

      • Muffin

        “I was elected to represent the society I am involved in, and to deal with issues that are purely based around my position, not anything else that the university is concerned about.” – I’m sorry, but you were (if you were voted in over the past 5 months, which I think nearly all roles were, apart from the Exec). People did vote you in for that. (If you werent voted in over the past 5 months, then like i said before, I agree that this is bad and its an issue I raised during the debate to move to senate) Like I said, whether you think you should have been voted in for that role is another discussion, perhaps one you;d like to bring to senate.

        Information about how to submit and how to order was made available on the website. How to submit had been tweeted about https://twitter.com/ManchesterSU/status/656122748436017153 .
        Whether Save Our NHS should have more funding for campaigns was not discussed at senate.

        Im not sure the SU ever intended the democratic system to be “amazing”, just better than the previous one. If you have ideas on how it can be made even better, and make it less “elitist” in your opinion, why not bring those ideas to senate.

        • Lemon drizzle

          I was voted in at the end of April, so no, not all roles were. There is absolutely nothing in my role description even that states I have to sit on the senate. Even so, if people aren’t aware the senate exists, is it fair to assume you’re voting them in for such a politically powerful position? I’m happy to bring my issues to the people organising the Senate, but the point of writing an article isn’t to vent, it’s to make people aware of what’s going on, so replying to comments like yours isn’t to say I’m not going to do something about it officially, it just means I’m agreeing with the writer.

          Fair enough if information was made available on twitter, but I really don’t think that’s good enough. People, as members of the SU, as we all are, should have been sent an email directing them to the website and explaining a bit about what it is. Despite all info being there, the website is content-heavy, and trawling through it all to find some relevant info for yourself (without knowing what it is you are looking for) is something people simply don’t have the time to do.

          If they never intended for the system to be amazing, then why bother in the first place? Strive for greatness and all. If you’re going to do something, surely it should be the best you can make it, no?
          Again, I will bring my ideas up, but that’s not the whole point of me replying to this article.

          • Muffin

            “I was voted in at the end of April, so no, not all roles were” – if true thats really bad, I agree; it’s a concern I raised at the Union Assembly that brought in this structure.
            In addition to twitter, people were emailed a bit of info and a link to the relevant section on the 6th of October.

            Why bother improving something?! Democracy is messy and difficult (and a lot of faff). Which SU in our country would you point to that has a great and amazing democratic structure?

            • Lemon drizzle

              Yeah, it’s a point that I’m not really happy with – in a way I feel as though my voters have been deceived in what my role is. I’m sure this will be completely different next year, but as it stands, I really don’t feel I should have the power to vote on anything not related to my post. I’ll absolutely be bringing it up!

              Ah right, see I only got an email explaining a bit about the senate and the committee they wanted to elect on 27th (2 days before the senate), so I just think this is something that needs to be improved. People need to be told plainly what the senate is, why it exists, who’s on it and what we aim to achieve. They also need to be made very aware that they can add things to the agenda and vote on the order that things are discussed as this is SO important if the senate’s whole aim is to improve democracy within our uni.

              Of course I’m not saying not to bother improving things. I’m saying if you’re not going to strive for the very best you can do, then why bother with a half-hearted attempt? Our SU, out of the ones I’ve come across, is one of the best in terms of democracy, I’ll be the first to admit that, but it’s in no way fantastic, and we should be striving to achieve so much better. If there are points to improve on, I commend Joe Evans for bringing these up in such a public forum; that’s essentially why I completely agree with the Mancunion publishing articles that make people aware of what is going on within our union, and also to make the Exec/organisers aware of problems that may need addressing in the future.

            • Muffin

              You sure you didnt get an email from Joel Smith on the 6th of October?

            • Lemon drizzle

              I’ve just double-checked, and I’ve actually never received an email from Joel haha. I don’t delete things either, so perhaps he only emailed one group of people. I will get a friend to check this too, just in case, but either way, I just think info on it does need to be more widely spread amongst students. Maybe posters, or putting it on the union screens could help.

    • Joe Evans

      Hi, I’m glad to hear that you support coverage of the Senate, the main argument I’m putting forward is that more transparency regarding its workings would only help in the furthering of it as a democratic institution. Since you were so thorough in your replies I thought it was only fair to reply to you back.

      With regards to the Union constitution, it is great that you sit on the Senate and are informed about the constitution that informs its actions and workings. All I am arguing in the piece is that in the research for this article I came across a large number of people who didn’t have a familiar knowledge of it, both on the Senate and also in the general student body. I am not by any means attacking you for knowing it well, I was merely pointing out that you are in the minority and that needs to be addressed in order for the Senate, and Union politics in general, to function better.

      That is especially pertinent with regards to amending the constitution – as I mentioned in the article. If people in the room don’t fully understand it, making amendments to it becomes a process of it being explained from one perspective (ie the perspective of the person suggesting the amendment) and asking that individual questions. While they can try and answer in a non-leading way, that didn’t happen in the first meeting, where amendments were explained in quite a blase way. Again that isn’t an attack on individuals, just an observation about the lack of understanding in the room. This doesn’t open up a dialogue and doesn’t promote a healthy democratic environment.

      I’m glad you agree regarding the entire student body being made more aware of voting on proposal order – that in some ways also addresses our disagreement re. the Safe Space policy which could be solved by more people being knowledgeable about how to vote on order. Also, re. hand gestures, I think they can be useful as you rightly point out, but again it’s an issue of transparency and making sure that everybody is aware of what is going on in order to promote a dialogue.

      Voting via the raising of hands is, unfortunately, something about which I can’t see eye to eye with you. It does promote an atmosphere of pressure, especially if you are voting against the tide, which I did re. Megan Dunn when half the room abstained. We removed public voting in 1872 for that reason and I think it is an issue which effects individuals voting. If you want to publish your voting records for those who voted you into the Senate that is your choice, but that doesn’t mean an atmosphere of hostility should be allowed to exist, especially when the Senate goes to great lengths – for example through deaf clapping – to avoid that happening.

      Finally, and I think most contentiously, the issue of political mandates. The issue here, as I said in the piece, is that the electorate (and for some members of the Senate) there is not enough transparency regarding this amount of power for those they elect. For example, if you are elected to be a leader of a non-politically affiliated charitable organisation or the head of one of the universities media outlets your electorate need to be made aware that you will have a political voice on the Senate. This wasn’t made clear to the voting student body which has led to this issue meaning that the legitimacy of their mandate is incredibly flawed. They have been given a mandate for their position but this is not transferable to politics. Whether it was in their job description of not, it wasn’t made clear, that is the issue I am attempting to raise. Similarly, as the person below has pointed out, some members of the Senate were not informed of this responsibility in their applications for roles which is also a huge issue. Again, it is not an attack on anybody as individuals, it is merely the perspective of the huge proportion outside the small group who know the workings of the Senate, who want more transparency and more dissipation of information regarding its workings.

      I hope this goes someway to answering your issues.
      All the best.

      • Muffine

        “more transparency regarding its workings would only help in the furthering of it as a democratic institution” – completely agree :)

        “If people in the room don’t fully understand it, making amendments to it becomes a process of it being explained from one perspective (ie the perspective of the person suggesting the amendment) and asking that individual questions. While they can try and answer in a non-leading way, that didn’t happen in the first meeting, where amendments were explained in quite a blase way.”
        – I dont feel like this is fair. The text of the amendments were shown on the screen, so anyone was free then to read the relevant sections and get to know what changes was being suggested as a change. (Apart from any members who have visual impairments, thats obviously an issue). The changes asked for were not explained in a blase way. It may feel that way because the changes were not factually difficult to understand or explain (as far as I recall there was one change asking for a particular committee size to be changed from 5 to 7, and other changes asking for groups to send a proxy voter in the place of their delegate if their delegate was busy). I do not feel that someone needed to have knowledge of the whole of the SU’s constitution in order to understand what was being asked of senate to vote on. As I mentioned earlier, when steering committee is running, they will be able to offer (what should be) impartial factual information on the constitution.

        “We removed public voting in 1872 for that reason” – we removed public voting for individuals voting for their MPs, but how MPs vote on issues in the House of Commons is a matter of public record. I agree that transparency is very important, but for me its not just about how the process works, but how our elected representatives conduct themselves in that process.

        The vast majority of people on the senate were voted in in October, and the SU emailed out the following to its members during the election. “This week, we’ve got loads happening at the Students’ Union, including the Student Officer elections. We have a record number of people standing to represent you in various areas of work in the Students’ Union. The people elected will work with the Exec Team on different projects, as well as sitting on the Union Senate to decide what the Union does, thinks and believes.” -but yes I agree that theres a major issue with people voted in during April before it was decided we’d have this senate structure.

  • Tom

    Lots of this article is factually incorrect, and it seems you have assumed a number of things without proper research. And lemon drizzle, if you dont feel comfortable attending, then don’t!

    • Elliott

      This poster clearly 1) can’t actually point out which bit is factually incorrect (without replying to this and stealing below posters arguments) and 2) didn’t understand the point about voters being there without a political mandate – it shouldn’t be a matter of uncomfort, it simply shouldn’t be allowed.

      • Lemon drizzle

        Totally agree!

    • Lemon drizzle

      Why should I not attend if I’m uncomfortable? Surely people should just, y’know, not be made to feel uncomfortable. If there are things that can be done to make it better, then the organisers should listen to suggestions rather than just jumping on anyone who speaks out against it, which seems to have happened since this article has been released. I know for a fact I’m not the only person who was uncomfortable about what was going on, so I don’t think your argument stands up, or a large percentage of the room would be absent, making it less democratic.

      Also, which parts of this article are factually incorrect? I can’t see anything, other than the point that Muffin brought up about the AU rep.