Last November I wrote an article for The Beaver, “LSE Students’ Union in Free Fall”, in which I raised concerns over the Students’ Union’s high cost to students, lack of transparency and the dire levels of accountability of the Union to its members. Since publishing that article I have been glad to discover that my voice was just one among many. Almost every edition of The Beaver during the Lent Term has raised similar concerns, and “LSE Students’ Union Still in Free Fall”, written by a group of society presidents, summed up the problems the Union causes for student societies particularly well.
The five-week process of having my original article published offered me an eye-opening insight into the operations of the Students’ Union. First the article was barred from publication on the grounds that it used privileged and confidential information. The Union later accepted this was not the case. Then unsubstantiated claims that it misrepresented the Union’s financial information were used to keep it from being printed. These too, the Union had to accept were incorrect. It was only after five weeks of delays, a meeting with the General Secretary and with other members of SU staff that the Union finally accepted my original claims to be justified and publication went ahead. This whole debacle, to me, vindicated my qualms with the Union – there were clear deficiencies in its transparency and the state of accountability was deeply worrying.
Life and term moved on following this article. However, each week in The Beaver I would read of yet more instances of these same problems; from the SU leaving students hundreds of pounds out of pocket for weeks, to the dismal turnout in the Lent Term elections, and just last week the scandal over the Unions’ unilateral decision to cancel the Ethical Finance Society’s event with the AfD’s Alice Weidel. When I met with the General Secretary in Michaelmas Term he told me to judge him and the Union by their actions in the coming year. When I do that now it seems clear that things have not improved; if anything the aforementioned examples indicate that the situation has worsened.
However, I do not blame the General Secretary for this at all. When I met Mahatir Pasha I could see he wanted to improve the Union. That is exactly the problem – our elected sabbatical officers do not have the power to bring about the change the Union requires. The SU is being driven into the ground by its unelected and unaccountable management staff. Our sabbatical officers are impotent to enforce change but are the only people we can blame when the Union fails. No surprise then that this year saw the fewest candidates stand for Sabbatical Officer positions since 2008, with one position (Community and Welfare Officer) uncontested. Who would want the job with no power but all the responsibility when things go wrong?
This is why I didn’t vote in Lent Term elections this year. I have no doubt that all the candidates had the best intentions to serve their student electorate, but I do not believe that even the most capable candidate would have any power to make the changes that the Students’ Union urgently needs. Normally I view voting as a critical part of democracy and an important duty; this is why in my first two years I did vote. However, the events of this year demonstrated to me that the only way for reform to be achieved in the Union is for its democratic mandate to be called into question. As turnout diminishes the School will be forced to take action to reform the Students’ Union – which it funds to the tune of £2.7 million a year – in order to revive its legitimacy and important purpose.
I will graduate this summer so this is no longer really my fight. However, when I wrote to Director Minouche Shafik last term raising these concerns I did not receive even an acknowledgement. I hope that LSE students, who face the consequences of the failing Union on their societies’, will continue to pressure the Union and the School for change. Eventually the Director will have to respond.
The single biggest problem though is the problem that this article hasn’t addressed. One person in the Students’ Union is truly responsible for its failings and needs to be held to account more than anyone else. That person however, by the by-laws of their own organisation, is prevented from being held to account either by name or position. Whilst that remains the case, there is little hope for an accountable and effective Students’ Union that can truly represent its members.