Power in the Union? Against Student Union Elections

I believe that, by running election campaigns in student unions, the left is damaging itself. There are five reasons I’m going to give for this below – that elections take up too much of our time, that elections are unfair, that no union officer can really represent students, that student unions have no power worth taking, and finally that running in elections “disempowers” people.

Reason #1: Time

 To an outsider, elections don’t look that complicated – you just write a manifesto, stand on a street corner chatting to people for a few lunch hours, then let people vote for you, right? Actually the reality is that not just you, but a whole campaign team, must devote hours and hours to creating publicity, canvassing for votes, flyering, debating, etc. Ever noticed how political campaigns and groups get a lot quieter around election time? This is why. Running for election has a huge cost – both in time and stress. If there is time left over for study, then there is definitely none left for grassroots organising or action. This even affects people who aren’t directly involved in the election – when someone leaves a campaign group to try and get elected, everyone who’s left has to pick up the slack.

 Despite all of this, many well run and well resourced election campaigns achieve nothing – because sometimes the other side wins. The way that elections are set up – as one side against another – means that the issues which a campaign raises tend to end up getting lost if the opposing side gets voted in. So while other forms of action at least give people experience of resistance and acting for themselves, or leave behind some kind of legacy, running for election achieves almost nothing if the opposition gets elected.

Reason #2: Elections aren’t fair

 Just like the national election system – student union elections are stacked in favour of the privileged (for example, the white men who have been socialised to lead and who everyone else has been socialised to obey, the public school educated, the people with money and connections, the socially popular, etc). So, unless left slates abandon their principles and run a group of people who are not really representative, winning an election is already going to be an uphill battle. In this game, surely the best move is not to play?

 As well as being stacked in favour of privileged individuals – election campaigns are also unfair because they aren’t really won by having the best policy. In my experience, results are determined more by who has the most active and ‘on-it’ campaign team than by real debate about the direction the union should go. Online voting means that campaign teams will often go around student halls carrying laptops and ipads, pushing first-year students to log in and vote for their candidate right then and there. If you lose the race and don’t get there first – then good luck getting people to vote for you! Of course this also favours people who have laptops and transport in the first place. Someone I know lost a lot of votes because she had to travel to distant student accommodation by bike, whereas the rival team had a car. Some students, after speaking to her, actually said that they would have voted for her instead, but now couldn’t change their vote as they had already cast it.

 The most important consequence of elections being won by the most active, is that this biases elections in favour of the status quo. Candidates that just repeat the views of the mainstream press, of management, and of current sabbatical officers, already have a very large “campaign team” working for them – one that operates 365 days of the year. This means that student apathy becomes a “self-perpetuating system” – with “a-political” sabbatical officers creating conditions ripe for another set of a-political candidates to get elected after them. Is it any wonder that these candidates are so successful, when students are being told every day by their own representatives and by the press that the pattern of “drink, work, drink, sleep, don’t give a fuck” is what it means to be a real student?

Reason #3: Paid ‘representatives’ don’t have the same interests as the people they ‘represent’

 When someone becomes a full-time ‘representative’, they stop being students – they no-longer have a direct experience of student life and the problems that come with it. Full-time representatives also develop their own concerns – which sometimes actually conflict with student interests. These include getting paid (wages come from the university, iirc), maintaining order among the people the SU employs, and making sure that their career in student politics looks good on their CV. So, it should not be surprising that even the ‘good’ representatives often ‘sell-out’. The lure of power and the lack of self-interest in student struggles should be more than enough to explain why people like Liam Burns and Aaron Porter are so useless. Rank-and-file trade unionists have always faced this problem from union bureaucrats, and student unions are the same, if not worse. If you’re thinking of running as a candidate – how do you know this won’t happen to you? Even if you still care about student issues – how will you know what students actually want, and how best to achieve it, when you are no longer a student yourself?

 It is worth noting that this problem does NOT apply to liberation officers. For example, a women’s representative does not stop being a woman after election night – they will still face workplace harassment, and have to deal with lad culture and discrimination. This may explain why people often say that liberation campaigns are the strongest and most useful part of student unions and the NUS – because the people managing these campaigns still have a direct, personal interest in succeeding.

Reason #4: The union has little real power

 In universities the student union has, at best, a token voice in the committees and councils where the real decisions about the university get made. Despite this, a lot of students seem to think that if they can get the student union to have a policy on something then the university will have to do it. This just isn’t true – all that the students union can do is ask the university nicely. It is also very difficult for them to organise any militant action – partly for legal reasons (charity status, people in high positions being liable as organisers, etc), but also because they are financially dependent upon the university. What they can do though, is act as a mediator between management and active students. When there is a real threat of students acting of their own accord to challenge management, the students union will achieve concessions through negotiation. But this power is only illusory – management makes minor concessions in order to avert the threat of direct action, not because the union has any real power. These concessions not only pacify resistance directly by making it seem like management cares, but also do so indirectly by making the union appear effective, de-legitimising “autonomous” action. The worst part of all of this is that the imaginary successes of student ‘representatives’ are passed off as a victory that ‘proves’ the union is useful. This means that well-meaning people end up putting a lot of energy into the student unions – all for action that is ultimately ineffective.

 I have seen the argument made that although Student Unions do not have political power within the university, they do have resources, which we should try to take control of by getting elected. While this is partly true, I think people exaggerate what resources the SUs have that we can actually use. They have a lot of money, but there are also a lot of things that SUs do, and there are restrictions on how most of the money can be spent. Even the money that does end up getting spent on useful campaigns can go less far: because when you are spending money on behalf of a fully public and accountable organisation which asks for receipts, you can’t use cost-saving methods that would be, um…. more controversial ;-). The same goes for the time that elected SU officers have to spend. Having a number of paid full-time activists in our movement is a nice idea in theory. The reality is that much of this time must be spent on the tedious and bureaucratic things that SUs do (not to mention the social events they have to organise!), and that very little of it is left over for real organising/activism.

 So we need to ask ourselves: for the very limited resources that we might gain through getting elected to students unions, is it really worth the time and effort? An alternative might be to get these resources anyway – by mandating and lobbying SU officers from the outside. This is easier than it sounds – most “a-political” sabs are not very strong-willed, and would rather give in and have a peaceful life than put up much of a fight. In fact, friendly SU officers have admitted to me that they can’t do things, which they were specifically mandated to do, without us lobbying them! Since we will probably have to build pressure from outside of the students union in any case, wouldn’t it save a lot of effort if we just skipped out the trying to get elected part?

Reason #5: Disempowerment

 After the wave of student action in 2010, a number of left-leaning people got into ‘power’ at my university. They were better than the people who came before them – for example they did negotiate some reforms with management which benefitted poorer students. But they failed to create any grassroots movement – people did not feel ownership of their projects, and so didn’t get involved. People were less inclined to organise themselves because the students union were taking responsibility for everything, and reporting successes. Why would the rest of us get involved in any of their campaigns, if everything was going so well?

 What I think happened was that although the movement of 2010 propelled them into office, they ended up dis-empowering the very people that made their election possible. This wasn’t because of any particular decisions on their part – rather it was the inevitable result of running a left-wing election campaign that has any chance of winning. When people set themselves up as leaders, students cease to take decisions for themselves and become passive followers. Without a sense of ownership over their movement, students are less motivated to take part or take action, so ultimately the movement ends up collapsing and losing all its force. The strength of a movement comes, not just from its policies and tactics, but from its spontaneity and its creative energy – and these can only thrive when students feel that their movement belongs to them, and that if they do not act then no-one will.

 However much you agree that grassroots politics is important in principle, I don’t see how you can run for election without undermining it. It is not possible to get elected unless you motivate people to vote for you – plenty of students don’t vote in student union elections at all, so campaigning will always involve trying to convince people that their votes make a difference. You have to spread the myth that votes mean something, and that by simply ticking a box and getting “the left” into power, students can make change happen. In practise, this tends to mean radical candidates reduce the student struggle to an elections campaign, and draw attention and credit away from the grassroots movement. Every time someone says “voting for me will change things”, they also say, implicitly “you don’t need to change things for yourself” and “you do need me”. Giving the voting process any kind of significance or legitimacy promotes a kind of ‘armchair’ activism in which all we are responsible for is ticking the right box and following the right leader. As well as this, by running for positions, we indirectly affirm the idea that some ‘professional activists’ know better than everyone else, and can act usefully on their behalf. In short, even running on a political slate actively creates apathy.

 Once they are in power, it is very rare that student union officers will be able to avoid claiming authority over the students movement. After all, they have the time, the capacity, and the training to work in the movement’s name, and to negotiate on its behalf. Even if they themselves don’t claim authority in this way, then everyone else will – management, the press, even many students will treat them as the leaders, and cultivate the belief in everyone else that they are, which will be almost impossible to counteract. As has been said already – this tends to end with them taking control of pre-existing movements and ultimately undermining them. By styling themselves as leaders, they take away the students legitimacy, and their real power – their confidence that they themselves can decide what they want, and that they themselves can take it, using any means necessary.

Conclusion:

 Taken together, I think these five problems with election campaigns are a pretty good reason for not taking part in them. There are exceptions though – for example, reasons 1 and 2 don’t really apply if the position you’re running for is uncontested, and reason 3 does not apply to part time positions or “liberation officers”. I have also not considered the idea of running an “anti-campaign”, where the election is used as a platform to point out all of the problems outlined above (for example, the “inanimate carbon rod for president” campaign in the 2013 NUS elections). To be honest, the reason for this is that I’m not sure what to think about these campaigns. On the one hand,  elections do give people a platform to speak. On the other, some of the problems from reason 5 still apply – these campaigns may serve to legitimise the election system, and make it appear more inclusive than it really is by allowing “alternative” or “quirky” views to exist within it. Dissent then becomes a matter of voting for the “protest” candidate, rather than the “realistic” one, instead of actually getting up and doing stuff. “Anti-campaigns” also still only allow one person to speak for everyone else – reinforcing the idea that there are some professional activists that are more important and more able than the rest of us. A better alternative might be to run a direct-action campaign alongside elections, or even to break the system in protest by nominating as many people for positions as possible.

 While it hasn’t been working, running in union elections is at least understandable – the people who have done it haven’t achieved nothing, and many of them did it with good intentions. The effort put into this will only be a waste if we do not acknowledge that it was a mistake, and if we go on repeating it – stubbornly refusing to step back and learn from our mistakes. The next step needs to be practical, not theoretical. We need to start experimenting with forms of action  that do not involve bureaucracy or leaders. Many students around the world have already taken steps towards this – for example, ASSE in Quebec, or the new student unions popping up in the US. Following in their footsteps, we can win…

Final note: Please feel free to copy/re-print/plagiarize this article however you like.

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