As yet another election campaign comes to a close, I’ve found myself once again questioning the manner in which our parties pay for votes. Before I continue, let me be clear that this article is not intended to deter students from voting, in fact, quite the opposite. Nor is it designed to specifically attack any candidates. Good student representatives are important, but so are good voters. That being said, as much as I value the elections, I also think that students should be able to sit in the student central building without being asked if they have voted twenty times and then asked who they voted for – which I’m fairly certain isn’t allowed. My intention is to inspire informed interest from students, which I’m hoping will lead to a more genuine consensus for future elections.
The first bone I’ll pick will be the freebies we march around campus. I can just imagine the campaign strategy meetings:
‘What do people like?’
‘People like sweets?’
‘People do like sweets!’
‘What about people who like savoury?’ A silence falls as the room thinks…
‘Samosas! People like samosas!’
‘Yes! What a way to curry favour!’ (couldn’t resist the samosas/curry joke)
‘Wait… What’s the one thing people love more than anything?
‘Dogs!’ The room erupts into a series of pre-victorious chants and flipped tables, looking like something from an 80’s football match.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a monster. I love dogs. And I’m partial to a samosa. But my opinion can’t be bought with either. I get it though, if a few snacks are going to get you the votes you need then of course you’re going to give them out, it’s a lot easier than campaigning solely on your manifesto and personality.
Mid-rant, I have to remind myself that this is simply a necessity for campaigning in a student election which, when we undress it, is a popularity contest. In my opinion, this process (which repeats itself each year) comes from the voters. If people took a genuine interest and took half an hour to read the full manifestos and consider the candidates objectively then the parties would have to change the way they campaign. Although they say they want to change and improve the university, above all – they want to win. Politics, after all, is a war and you can’t change anything unless you win.
I have often wondered whether it would be feasible to offer incentives for voting that are universal and geared towards study. This is not to say that freebies should be banned, but what if when a student voted they received £5 printer credit? Or something along those lines. It’s not the best example, but I bet it would drag out a lot of votes.
So, point one: I know the dog’s cute, but you’re not voting for the dog.
Next, we’ve got to talk student central. It’s bad enough having to dodge those people in the town centre who are constantly asking ‘if you have a minute to chat’ knowing full well that, firstly, it will take more than a minute and secondly, it will cost you something. Now we have to deal with that on campus as well. Representatives from parties as well as the SU fill the area surrounding the iPoint waving flyers and iPads around like pompoms. I remember starting high school and almost every day the year 11’s would line-up either side of a corridor and you knew when you walked through you’d be pinballed from person to person. That’s kind of how student central feels during elections but instead of shoves, it’s smiles and soundbites. Maybe it’s just me? My ex’s Dad speaks to anyone and everyone and I could never understand it. I’d spend the minutes of his conversation trying to catch my ex’s eye as if to say ‘why is this happening?’ But then, everyone I speak to about elections seems to share my view that the relentless attention we get borderlines on harassment. A couple of days ago, I was sat in student central enjoying a SU shop meal deal when I was approached by two girls. So far so good, right? I was offered a samosa, but only if I voted for their candidate. Their plan was almost good enough to have been thought up by Johnnie Cochran; ‘If you wanna samosa, you gotta be our voter’ – second bad samosa joke, but if the glove fits?
Again, my pragmatic side rationalises the behaviour. Getting as many people to vote is the right idea but the execution needs work. There’s a part of me that thinks voting in the elections should be mandatory for students who opt-in to the students union (which almost all do, even if it’s just for NUS perks). However, the same freedom that allows students to vote for whoever they want also allows them to vote for nobody at all – so it’s tricky.
Point two: Student Central is a building, not a gauntlet.
The last nail in the coffin for me comes from the roles societies take during elections. I was president of the Thai Boxing society for three years and as a result, I have seen the changes that various regimes have implemented and it’s almost always minimal. We always felt like we were begging for fractional funding (when compared to others), despite being a surprisingly large society.
I digress, but this time of year society social media pages are spammed with various blue-sky candidates from parties whose names sound like something from The Apprentice. This is where nepotism creeps in as presidents and other committee members encourage members to vote for specific candidates. I’m sure in some cases, this is because their policies will help the society grow but generally this happens because they know each other – sound familiar? I know university is supposed to prepare you or the real world, but really?
I do think that presidents should feel a responsibility, and possibly be required to attend debates, simply so that they can pass on an informed opinion, if that’s what they want to do. Once again though, the burden is on the voter not to click on a link and vote for someone just because someone else says to. Don’t be afraid to ask how a candidate will benefit you and see if the person has an answer.
Point three: It isn’t just who, it’s why.
We should all know by now, given that we’re living through Brexit and Trump, that we shouldn’t just vote without thinking. My blame for the flippancy in which we throw votes around is reserved for the culture of campaigning as well as the voters themselves. The responsibility falls to voters to inform themselves properly about each candidate and vote accordingly. Campaigners are simply looking for the best way in which to gain support, which is understandable. So, if the best way to get support is to have a wide-web of friends and give away freebies then fair play to them. But what if what we collectively looked for was substance, principality and practicality? Would the parties be forced to give us that? Would the right candidates be our representatives? Who knows? It’s a utopian notion – true, but it doesn’t hurt to hope.
Written by Michael Hargreaves.
Michael Hargreaves is an English Lit and Creative Writing Graduate from the University of Huddersfield. His short fiction published includes: The Fear of Reflection – Grist Anthology: I, You, She, He, It: Experiments in Viewpoint. He is currently undertaking a Masters Degree in Creative Writing whilst working as a freelance Editor at Bluemoose Books, Hebden Bridge and working on his debut novel.