This writer is not the sort of person who often engages in marching for democracy or participating in mass protests. This is not because I don’t value my freedom or regularly disagree with actions taken in Westminster, but because I choose – for reasons which are entirely my own business – not to demonstrate on the streets. I respect the choice of those who do. And I’m sure we would agree that in a democracy it would be fundamentally not in the spirit of things to disrespect or penalise me for my choice. I am not somehow an inferior citizen simply because I have not felt the compulsion to take to the streets.
It is with this in mind that I voice my grave concern about the University of Manchester Students’ Union’s offer to ‘fast-track’ student societies to Silver and Gold STAR Awards if they send five or ten of their members to Demo 2012. The STAR system determines ‘levels of funding and resources’ available to societies – Gold or Silver status permits discounts and services unavailable to Bronze societies, and more importantly, Bronze societies get less money. This status is upgraded partly through society members taking part in ‘Student Action’, including fundraising and volunteer work which is itself an estimable attempt by the Union to make a difference in the community. Even this, however, can worry smaller societies – or large societies that do not engage with political or social affairs – with the thought that their resources are being undercut by more politically active groups. The penalisation of societies that are – in the eyes of the Union – not as politically useful is a disturbing notion. But the attempt to coerce students into taking part in a political protest for financial recompense is nothing short of bribery.
Asking societies that usually concern themselves with interesting board games, Red Dwarf marathons or comic operettas to either turf out their members as warm bodies to boost the numbers at a political demonstration or suffer from low levels of funding – whatever the cause of the demonstration and however just – is alarming and offensive on several levels. The Exec Team shock me alone by the fact that they would willingly drag a cause which they clearly feel so passionate about into the muck of Muamar Gaddafi level politics. The democratic integrity of their cause is clearly less important to them than increasing its apparent popularity, using tactics that were last seen in Manchester in the duplicitous electioneering of the 18th century. The Union executives are using their power over people – a power routed in the control of the funds without which many societies would be unable to operate – to commandeer the freedom of action and expression which is unique to each of those people, and utilise it to further their own political agenda. This is a violation of our right to think for ourselves.
What’s more, the sheer ignorance of the gravity of their actions is readily apparent in Tweets made by my union representatives, entirely missing the point of the uproarious reaction to their announcement by saying pro-cut marches would be ‘against Union policy’. This shows a sad inability for the Union to see politics in anything more than black and white – simply because I find their ultrapartisanship so disgusting, I am not necessarily an ardent member of the Tory party wishing to go on a pro-cut march. Manchester University encompasses students with a broad spectrum of political ideologies and an even broader spectrum of hobbies. The Students’ Union should be mature enough to realise this, and more importantly to realise that its constituents are too intelligent to be duped into shouting chants that they don’t necessarily agree with purely so that they have the money and support to pursue their extracurricular entertainment.
In short, I’m not going on their damn march just to foot the fee for my society’s next batch of member-specific novelty hats, nor would I be doing so if I had intended on going to Demo 2012 in the first place.
Students who are not left-wing in their politics, or merely can’t muster the enthusiasm to go all the way down to London and mill around with a placard for a day, already found it difficult to identify with the University of Manchester Students’ Union, or foster a sense that it is an organisation which caters to their needs or represents their opinions. This recent policy, grounded on an abhorrent miscalculation by the Union themselves about the political makeup of Manchester’s students, will hardly help matters.
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