Matthew Styles, a member of Elections Committee, gives Impact the inside story of one of the lesser-known aspects to the referenda – the General Meeting – and reveals some concerns about the The Big Ask.
Up until about a month ago, I hadn’t heard of a General Meeting (GM). I had heard of an Annual General Meeting (AGM), which for committees and groups is simply the formality of reporting what’s happened throughout the year, electing a few committee members, and having a few drinks to celebrate the handover.
But on the 14th February, our Students’ Union will be holding a GM, which will have the power to make changes to the SU’s Articles of Association that set out the broad high-level working of the Union. The specifics of how we’re run are set out in our other governing documents – the Big Red Book and our Policy File, which can be changed by SU Council.
Between now and the 14th, The Big Ask will be asking students to vote on four hugely important issues which could affect the democratic processes of the Union. Changing the Exec structure and allowing sabbatical officers to run for a second term (questions 1 and 4 of the Big Ask) will only change our regulations in the Big Red Book. If anything specific needs ironing out, SU Council will do it, and life is good. If questions 2 and 3 are approved – which would change the decision-making structure and enable students to become members of the board of trustees – we will need to update the Articles, which requires a General Meeting.
A General Meeting is essentially a forum in which every member of our Union has the right to raise and vote on any resolutions they see fit. The Meeting can be called by the Board of Trustees, Council, or 10% of the Union’s members. This is in contrast to SU Council where only elected representatives may vote on issues.
At this General Meeting, we need 500 students to either turn up or vote by proxy. Putting this into perspective, for a referendum to be quorate (i.e. the number of people needed to vote for the results to be valid) roughly 3,500 students need to vote. In comparison to that, 500 students doesn’t sound like a great deal, but what needs to be considered is the number of students aware of the meeting, aware that they’re able to attend, aware of what it’s for, what’s on the agenda, why they should attend and why they should vote. This is a lot to ask. SU Council has 107 voting member positions and 50% are required to turn up – but even this number wasn’t reached at the last Council session. To add to this, the General Meeting is being held on the evening of Valentines Day, making a strong turnout even less likely.
Because it’s hard to expect 500 members to turn up to such a meeting, students are being approached to vote by proxy, where they state on a form how they wish to vote in the meeting but do not need to attend in-person. If quorum is the issue, then the obvious choice is to abstain from all resolutions and leave it up to the people in the meeting to decide, but a lot of students are being encouraged to circle “as the proxy sees fit”, which essentially gives extra weight to an individual’s vote at the meeting – a concerning situation. Perhaps what’s more concerning is that the only students I know who are aware of this meeting have either been asked to vote by proxy or are involved in one of the yes/no campaigns.
Putting the likelihood of quorum aside, there are some serious issues with this meeting. The first four agenda items are entitled, “Confirm the result of referendum [1, 2, 3, or 4]”. Voting for confirmation of the result will say that regardless of how many students have voted in the referendum, the motion will either pass or fall as students have voted. For example, if 800 students voted and 51% voted yes, then the motion would pass, effectively bypassing quorum.
There’s also the power to over-rule the result by voting in the 5th agenda item at the meeting, “Update the Articles of Association”. Let’s say 3,500 students vote in the referenda and decide that we should put through some changes. If 500 students turn up and 400 vote against updating the Articles, then students will have their decision over-turned. Does this sound democratic?
There is an extremely concerning possibility that students may vote yes in a quorate referendum to one of the questions which needs ratifying, and the general meeting isn’t quorate. Students will have said yes, but there won’t be any time to make the necessary changes in time for the SU Elections, nominations for which open on the 15th February – the morning after the general meeting. The Communications department is working tirelessly to produce multiple sets of publicity for Elections to cover the possible referenda outcomes, a very time-consuming process.
General Meetings are essential to update our Articles of Association, but with the ability to ignore the highest internal decision-making body of the Union, and to overturn decisions made by students, is it really fair? Perhaps it’s this system which really needs changing.