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5th March 2014

UMSU elections are in a crisis of apathy

Alice Rigby argues that Manchester needs a re-invigoration of the student electoral system to make us believe in our executive and union representatives

The student elections are in crisis. As The Mancunion reported last week, few students stood for executive positions this year, with many roles remaining uncontested until the closing moments of the nominations period.

While a concerted effort by the current executive to encourage nominations did eventually rectify the problem, the techniques used by the Students’ Union to promote the elections were, at times, ethically questionable. University of Manchester students’ disinterest in elections is no new thing though – and the apathy is only growing.

Some of the blame must lie with the current executive, and those that preceded them over recent years. Many students would barely recognise them walking around the union, never mind down the street. This is partially because we only ever see them flyering us in a beguiling array of costumes, or plastered across a wall in a dim corner of the union.

Furthermore, few of us know what the members of the executive actually do. It’s easy to put this down to inaction. However, if it’s not, as the executive have often countered, then their PR is absolutely abysmal. Many of the issues they raise seem unrelated to the real concerns of the student body. Their decision to attend protests about issues such as ATOS could, arguably, be examples of this. Even if there were compelling reason to attend a protest like this, the importance of the protest and these compelling reasons weren’t communicated to students with any degree of success.

This is crushingly disappointing when you consider how easy it would be for the exec to communicate with the student body. Next week, they’re hosting a BBQ where they’ll provide that ultimate kryptonite for students, free food, while meeting the very people who supposedly elected them. Yet, while events such as these are easy for the exec to instigate and could provide a viable channel for conversation, the exec has been reluctant to engage in them. As a group elected to represent students, they seem little inclined to mix with their electorate, an attitude that doesn’t go unnoticed by the general student body.

This is reflective of one of the major problems confronting our student elections. The exec can’t really claim a mandate from students. So few of us vote – last year the turnout was around 7.5 per cent for most roles and much lower for some – that the elected candidates can’t legitimately represent most of the students they come across.
This year, some of the nominees for the executive roles were nominated as a joke, revealing the contempt that the elections are held in. True, this is the ultimate chicken and egg situation. But while voting rates remain so low, the executive should be trying to engage with students even more than if it were higher, both to encourage voting and to renew a mandate that barely existed in the first place.

In promoting the elections, this year’s exec may be facing the steepest uphill battle yet. The financial difficulties of the union are no secret. Even some of the decisions that were popularly mandated by the student body, such as a paid editor for this newspaper, have been revoked, further discrediting both the importance and viability of the executive. I was personally recommended as general secretary and was horrified by the prospect of filling a role with so much negativity and political infighting facing it.

All of this is tragic because student politics has been one of the defining features of university life for decades. For many of us, student politics is our first direct brush with democracy and offers us an insight into the possibilities, particularly for change, that politics can provide. The current state of student elections at UMSU casts a dim light on this, with change an apparent enigma. The opportunity to affect the lives of students is overshadowed by a system that is elusive and apparently inactive.

At Manchester, we need a re-invigoration of the student electoral system, to make us really believe in our executive and union. We need candidates elected not along political lines but because of their desire to make change. While the student elections may not currently be occupied by the kind of radical thinking and galvanised action that many of us seek in them, it is only the students voting for and running in these elections that can make these changes.

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