ULU and the rot of student politics
The sneaky tactics of ULU officials who are fighting to save the union from closure shows how little student politicos care about democracy.
The University of London Union (ULU) is currently in the process of conducting a referendum considered integral to sustaining its continued existence. But when the union’s president decided to change the closing date for votes, some students smelled a rat. Was this really about increasing the opportunity to take part – or a desperate attempt to get the ‘right’ result?
On 3 May 2013, the University of London announced the dissolution of ULU – which provides a range of services to all University of London students, from entertainment to advice and representation – from 1 August 2014. While the organisational arrangements of a London student union may be of little wider interest, the undemocratic way in which the elected officers of ULU have reacted to this announcement is symptomatic of much that is wrong with student politics today.
The plans involve changing the administration of the student union to a management-run services centre with a recommended ‘pan-London body to represent students on a wide range of issues’. Most of the current facilities will continue to exist, but the plans do involve removing the elected positions of student representatives. The university has made this decision on the grounds of ‘the long-standing problem of low turnout in elections’, with less than two per cent of the 120,000 student membership actually voting.
Among these student representatives is Michael Chessum, the current president of ULU, who was arrested on 14 November 2013 under Section 11 of the Public Order Act following a protest against the planned closure. Chessum has staged a number of ‘Save ULU’ protests over the past four months, campaigning for the continuation of ULU in its current state. So strong is his belief in the cause that he has previously declared ‘It’s not that we won’t go down without a fight – we simply won’t go down’. However, participation in the campaign has been low, with barely 100 students involved.
The news of ULU’s closure has divided opinion, but most students seem to approve: ‘I welcome the decision to close ULU. It wasn’t representative, most didn’t care and the services and activities will remain anyway’, declared Matthew Corner, president of the University College London (UCL) Conservative Society.
The trouble is that most students see ULU simply as a provider of services and have little interest in the machinations of the small number of politicos who debate union policy. This has allowed ULU – like many student unions across the country – to become a fiefdom for political parties and campaigners who claim the legitimacy of being elected officers, but who, in reality, have views that are far from representative of the student body.
In a final attempt to sustain ULU’s future, a motion passed through the ULU senate on 24 October 2013 to establish a yes-no referendum regarding the question: ‘Should ULU’s buildings, activities and campaigns continue to be run democratically by students?’
The unstated implication of the referendum is that with a majority ‘yes’ vote, the current ULU officers will be able to make a stronger case – with a ‘democratic mandate’ – to the University of London to keep ULU. The wording of the question has been criticised as biased towards finding a ‘yes’ vote. The ambiguous procedure of the referendum, its purpose, and who benefits from it have also been cited as causes for concern.
The backroom shenanigans didn’t stop at the ambiguous referendum question. Voting opened on 5 November 2013 and was originally planned to end on 12 December. However three days prior to the closing date, Chessum emailed the student-union representatives of the individual University of London colleges requesting that the voting period be extended to 7 February 2014, citing that some campuses ‘have yet to run their ballots, and others have been hampered by everything else that has been going on (ie, police, etc)’.
Objections have been raised by many students and representatives, including Mohamed Amer and Sebastian Debrouwere, student union presidents of St George’s and King’s College London respectively. Emails provided to me by a ULU source show that they suggest this move ‘undermines the foundations of a democratic vote’ making ULU appear ‘as if we would like to extend the referendum to achieve the results or numbers we desire’. Mohamed Amer specifically noted that it ‘lends toward the notion that ULU will do whatever it takes to push this referendum in the interests of self-preservation’.
An extended voting period is thought to do this because it will open up opportunities for Chessum and his colleagues to pressure students into voting, after already having suspected they may lose the vote. Furthermore, ULU has not advertised the new closing date for voting. Some suspect that this is because ULU’s supporters do not want to give those who would vote ‘no’ an opportunity to schedule their own rally before the closing date.
Chessum responded to these objections by admitting that ‘moving the dates of the referendum back could be made out – by a hostile interpretation – to be some kind of manoeuvre’. Indeed, hostile or not, many seem to have interpreted it as just that. A ULU source high up in the student political office said, ‘It is this kind of manoeuvring that makes students believe conspiracy theories about ULU’.
Chessum’s protestations aside, it’s difficult to read his actions as anything other than disingenuous tactics aimed at sustaining a student union that has fallen into significant disrepute. Yet again, it seems, ULU is empowering the cause for its own dissolution, and illustrating all too well how student politicos have become cut off from those they are supposed to represent.
Jacob Diamond is an undergraduate student of international politics at King’s College London and a spiked intern.