What are student elections actually for?

THE SHARP-EYED reader may have noticed that campus has recently played host to the annual Guild Election beauty contest. Being asked to write an article on the elections for The Courier really whet my appetite; finally, a chance to get stuck into a left wing institution in general (the NUS) and to wax lyrical about all that’s wrong with our Guild specifically. In fact it didn’t turn out that way; what started out as a cognitive explosion of passionate ideas decrying the inherent left-wing bias of the Union movement soon turned to utter boredom, complete disillusionment and finally, an unrelenting, grinding paralysis of apathy.

With each candidate promising near identical manifestos focusing on issues lifted straight from the script of an edition of children’s TV programme Newsround, there was barely a recycled sheet of A4 paper to separate them. Indeed, if you had an hour of your life to waste during election week, then you may have watched some of the campaign videos or read some of the campaign posters. If you survived the mind numbing resultant coma, you’ll have noted how incredibly formulaic and ‘samey’ they all seemed. Most listed either housing or mental health as the primary plank of their manifesto, reinforced by several secondary Lizo Mzimba-inspired pledges concerning the environment, fair trade coffee and the world changing notion of talking to estate agents on your behalf. The battle of mindless mundane mediocrity was on. A sort of general malaise set in. Voters turned off.

Despite a non-story about the incumbent Guild president making the national press, none of the candidates really managed to grab any headlines. No amount of distinctly unsustainable A4 plastered all over campus will ever make up for the lack of genuine excitement or buzz that an engaging election should create among the student body. This is partly because none of the candidates actually got to grips with the fact that it is not the source of our coffee but the serious lack of quality Union facilities that students really care about. To admit this would be to admit the perpetual failure of the Guild to keep pace with the needs of the modern Aberystwyth student, a failing that those standing for re-election are at least partly culpable for. This of course is with the exception of Meakin’s excellent work attracting Starbucks to the Union. But one such initiative is not enough, and it’ll be even less satisfying with fees for English students set to rise to £9,000 per annum from September. Students who pay more will expect more. Indeed, far too many manifestos forwarded empty hyperbole which didn’t actually mean anything at all and served only to underline the broad feeling that there was no single candidate capable of thinking of (let alone delivering) the kind of ‘outside the box’ solutions required to drag the Guild kicking and screaming into the 21st Century. Most students care little about whether we are recycling our ethically sourced eco-friendly fair trade coffee cups or not when the facilities in which we spend our time fall so far short of even the most basic expectations. This dissonance between what the students really wanted, and what the candidates actually promised, was the true unspoken cause of such enormous voter apathy at the heart of this election.

The Guild is in fact distanced by a yawning chasm from the actual student body. Distanced that is, in geographical, ideational and relational terms. Most of us know there’re some offices at the back of the Underground somewhere, but the vast majority of students never venture past the pasties and toilets into the Kremlinesque maze of closed doors and peeling paint where the Guild’s elected officials are housed. Instead, for many students, the only part of the Guild that we’re aware of or visit are the commercial enterprises; the Union bars and the Union Shop when we’re up on campus for lectures or seminars. For the rest of the time, around two thirds of students live at the other end of a very long, very tiring and very steep hill; at the bottom of which is a bustling town offering shops with pricing and quality as their core values, not high minded (and high priced) principals of ethics and sustainability as might be found in the Union shop. The town pubs, bars and clubs offer drinks at half the price of the Union, and in an environment which is twice as appealing. The real problem with the Guild is that it’s been losing money for years. Consequently, there’s no money to change anything, and there’s no money because nobody goes, and nobody goes because nothing changes. However something has got to change before the whole system grinds to a halt. What we really need are experienced people who are not just willing but capable of working with University staff to draw up a student focused yet equitable financial plan to ensure the Guild’s long term survival.

Broad student apathy was a result of a lack of such candidates. No candidate appeared to suggest that the Guild buy a bar in town (why not Yoko’s?) and generate revenue from that. Nobody suggested turning the Penglais Union into a daytime Starbucks and noisy ‘group study’ area in order to restore the library to silent working only. Not one put forward a plan to recover the Hugh Owen library for the studious and generate much needed revenue for the Union for all of our benefit. No manifesto suggested any real understanding of finance or presented any economic model at all. None pointed out that only after generating real revenue could the Guild offer and deliver any real change or improvements for students. After studying all of the election manifestos (yawn), it’s obvious that none of the candidates had either the vision to imagine or the experience to implement real changes on such a vast but necessary scale.

So, having established that the manifesto pledges weren’t worth the paper that Lizo’s guiding hand wrote them on (think of all those poor trees), who were the Guild Elections actually for, or rather who do they benefit? Well, the answer is pretty obvious I’m afraid; despite the promises, it is not the student body en masse, definitely not me and definitely not you. The successful candidates have won some CV points in the form of an impressive sounding title and as an added bonus, the Sabbatical Officers get to stay in Aber for another year, paid for by you (despite your Union losing tens of thousands of pounds each year). And this is the final point. Welcome to local politics, rule number one; it’s not about your needs, it’s about the politicians’. Next time you cast a vote, pause and question who that vote really benefits; you or the candidate? I’ll leave you with Jeremy Paxman: “You cannot trust a word any politician says and if you shake hands with them, you ought to count your fingers afterwards. They are not the people you would want your son or daughter to marry”.