With an election turnout of 20% in last year’s SU elections, if the campaign trail is nothing more than a vacuous popularity contest, it isn’t a very popular one. The fact that turnout at Nottingham represents some of the more robust levels of student voting in the country shows how dysfunctional the world of student politics has become. And so we see in the self-perpetuating vortex of student apathy, a juncture where disillusionment intersects with antipathy, and where students can feel not only that the elections are irrelevant to them, but that they are open to manipulation by those with ambiguous pledges and winning smiles.
Is this fair? The posters, slogans, banners, leaflets and costumes that become part of the furniture on campus during election period are indispensable to candidates. Style and branding are understandably important in mounting a successful campaign. If candidates haven’t considered the punning potential of their names, they probably aren’t taking the race seriously.
A balance has to be struck. Candidates who have a limited understanding of the role to which they aspire but can mobilise an army of an election team, often through connections to larger and more popular societies, pose a number of problems, not only to their rivals, but to how democracy is perceived at the university. In an election where swathes of voters will fill out their ballot papers motivated by boredom, and allocate their vote for the most superficial reasons, the increasing importance of style over substance is evidenced in the circumstances surrounding Sam O’Flaherty’s pulling out from the presidential race, just as in previous years unthinking self-promotion has brought about the ejection of other candidates.
Beyond the integrity of democracy at the university, the success of over-stylised candidates can have a clear and immediate effect to the detriment of the Union, insofar as it deprives students of better representation. While in some cases, the impact of higher profile candidates can reinvigorate campaigns and force other candidates to up their game, there is danger that some nominees,for whom running marks the culminating point in years of service to the University, can see their efforts frustrated. Just as there are candidates whose campaigns might be built upon foundations of posters and spandex, there are also those who exhibit a wealth of experience, an intimate understanding of their position and a passion for the work – irrespective of your opinion on Students’ Union politicos. It is important to point out that no one is entitled to a position, but should campaigning not test the relative strengths and weaknesses of candidates, rather than providing a soap-box for the loudest nominee?
How the issue can even begin to be resolved is not clear, (democracy is in its crudest sense a popularity contest, and clearly not everyone can win), but the issue is not an important dilemma for whoever takes on the role of Democracy and Communications Officer, but for the Union as a whole. Condemning candidates to campaign in sack cloth, to shave their hair, and to present all election material in standardised grey pamphlets might briefly raise interest in the elections and offer an immediate solution, but is probably not all that satisfactory in the long term. Some election hopefuls may already feel like they are lurching through an adystopian experiment. So let’s all enjoy the free sweets while we can.