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by Hari Prabu,
As I walked out of the old Beaver office in my first year, I asked another campaigner who was among the twenty or so people who had gathered secretively to Back Barnett and had even insisted on a code word to get entry into the room. He replied succinctly but rather ominously, “They’re hacks.” From that point onwards, I gradually became a cynic with regards to Students’ Union politics and in the years since have often hypocritically cursed the combination of voting blocs and personality politics in deciding elections. I never thought though that I would see the day when this more hidden side of elections came to the forefront in such a candid and perverse way.
Many will disagree with me, but I believe group solidarity has the capacity to lead to bad outcomes. When a group thinks of itself as having its own distinct interests that are detached from the interests of the individuals that comprise it, then this is a recipe for both the alienation of those who think differently within the group and the establishment of an elite who are able to dictate what is in the best interests of the group. The endorsement mechanism of our elections exacerbates this problem. The SU should not be allowing society and club committees to put out a singular opinion in the name of all of their members as to which candidate or set of policies is best for them. This approach leads to a disintegration of the electoral debate to simply focus on the concerns of the individuals within committees, who can often be detached from the mainstream opinion within their clubs and societies. After all, just by being on a committee means that you are different by putting far more priority on extra-curricular activities than the majority of students. I of course commend those who put their efforts into broadening our social and intellectual life, but we must acknowledge that we are not representative of the average student who cares more about issues like: the cost of food, exam feedback and the timely release of timetables than they do about difficult to define concepts like liberation and contentious issues like boycotts, strikes, and protests. To truly represent LSE opinion, we must either abolish club and society endorsements or, equally effective, have endorsement meetings in which every member of that club or society has an equal vote.
I believe the failure to properly support the voices of individuals within our Union is partly what led to the crisis that accompanied the last days of this year’s General Secretary election. A lot of attention has focused on the use of anti-semitic language, and while this should be strongly condemned, I believe we should also focus on the way in which certain members of LSESU Islamic Society decided on which candidate to back. The screenshots of the Facebook messages that were leaked clearly revealed that a meeting had taken place many months before campaigning had opened to decide who the society would support and these messages showed that the reasoning behind such a meeting was to ensure that the so-called disaster to Muslims and pro-Palestinians of a student as General Secretary could be avoided.
I think it is incredibly problematic to describe another candidate’s views as having such absolutist consequences and I think creating such a climate of fear prevents people from expressing their honest views and putting forward their own candidacy. If people are being told hyperbolically that their individual identity is under threat by another candidate, then of course they will feel pushed into not doing anything that might split the vote and let that candidate in. It seems that people really overestimate the influence of our Union executive, and the need for themselves to have a position of power on it, and I think it is truly deplorable when this leads to great potential candidates such as James Wurr and Samiha Begum feeling unable to run.
So now that I have made completely sure with that paragraph that I will never again win an LSESU election, let me move on to the factor which compounds the problem of voting blocs (something that I am very guilty of) that of calling on personal connections within the Students’ Union’s clubs and societies. There is nothing wrong with knowing people from all over the Students’ Union but when we have an electoral culture where popularity is everything, the well-connected have far too much privilege and influence. Let me give you an example. Is it fair that the night before the LGBT+ endorsement meeting I was able to Facebook message three committee members who are friends asking them to put my case forward at the meeting and then Facebook message my friends who are the last two LGBT+ Officers and ask them to put a good word in for me to the society’s online endorsement questionnaire?
While of course there were many more committee members who I didn’t have a personal connection with, and I am of course very grateful for the assistance given to me by these friends and their belief in me, it is surely this kind of practice that puts people off from running by thinking from the outset that they don’t have a chance to win. I am not the only one with these kinds of connections and I daresay that mine are far less extensive than others but we must change what it takes to win election to the major LSESU positions if we are to create a truly inclusive culture. We need to focus our elections on policies and not personality and so the Union should work with the School during election time to give wide coverage of candidates’ policies to all students in the same way as we do with teacher feedback forms. We need to get more than a third of LSE voting and we need to have thirteen students running for General Secretary before we eliminate the big names and are forced to hold a by-election. For now though, all I can say is I am sorry for my part in this culture that creates an inner core of student politicians and has excluded many of you.