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.

Matthew Styles

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15 Comments

  1. anon
    February 10, 2012 at 19:34 — Reply

    I <3 Matt Styles! Go Matt Styles! Every SU needs a Matt Styles to guide us through!

  2. StylesFan
    February 10, 2012 at 20:02 — Reply

    Styles for Exec! – assuming a position he wants isn’t going to be cut!

  3. SU Observer
    February 10, 2012 at 20:06 — Reply

    I’ve seen yes campaigners getting people to fill in proxy voting forms, saying “fill this in, and say yes to the questions”. This mean that if the referenda isn’t quorate, that they could force through the changes, even if only 51% of the students that voted think it’s a good idea?

    If quoracy is o easily bypassed, what’s the point in having it? Might as well just say “whoever can be bothered to vote has a say, dont care how many people that is!”

  4. Danny Barry
    February 12, 2012 at 12:21 — Reply

    @su observer. That is simply not the case. The exec fully respect the authority of referenda, and have made a conscious decision to put the four questions to the entire student body rather than have a decision made in a Union Council meeting which, if anything is just as behind closed doors as a general meeting. This was not created to bypass quoracy, nor is the intention to use the GM to do that.
    Also, there is no yes option on the proxy form, which to me is indicative of how misinformed you are on the issue. Voting for the resolution confirms that you approve the majority decision, regardless of whether it is yes or no, quorate or not, hence why many students have been told to vote as the proxy thinks fit or abstain.
    Contrary to Matt’s assertions, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to make people aware of this meeting, encouraging students to attend the meeting, explaining what the meeting is, what each voting option means and many have still voted for. Even when I’ve encouraged people to abstain, people have chosen to vote for. Students here are intelligent enough to make their own decisions, many aren’t happy to simply abstain, feeling that their vote would then essentially be wasted. Furthermore most ask several probing questions about what they are signing before filling in the form. This article and SU observers’ comment both imply that the yes campaigners have masterminded a plan to overrule referenda and introduce the plans regardless of what happens in the Big Ask, this is just not the case.
    The fact is that we’d all prefer not to hold a general meeting at all, but it is a legal requirement and is something we have to deal with this time around. Hopefully in the future we can make changes so that referenda alone can amend our articles of association, but until then, I think it would be in everyone’s interest to stop speculating about perceived ‘concerning situations’, as these are detracting from the process of referenda and attacking the integrity of those involved.

  5. Anon
    February 12, 2012 at 13:27 — Reply

    It’s a shame seeing some of the best things about Nottm’s SU being lost to pressure from the NUS. Allowing 2 year sabbs for instance will reduce the number of students who ever get the privilege of being an Officer, and the reduction in the number of sabbs does the same, whilst shifting responsibilities to staff of the Union instead of the students of the University.

  6. Anon 2
    February 12, 2012 at 13:31 — Reply

    If only the Officers put as much energy into pushing for improvements at the University and tackling the local issues that effect students (housing for instance) as they did playing about with their own bureaucracy then maybe they could deliver something useful for the student body.

  7. SU Observer
    February 12, 2012 at 13:41 — Reply

    Thank you for your comments Danny. You say “that the yes campaigners have masterminded a plan to overrule referenda and introduce the plans regardless of what happens in the Big Ask, this is just not the case.”

    But surely, if the referenda is inquorate, then that shows that not enough students are motivated by the issues to vote. So why then are you holding a second vote where only 500 people need to fill in proxy forms, where if most say “For” (sorry, not Yes…but that point is still valid and alas I am not mistaken on it), you will say “The referenda stands” even though the vote wasn’t sufficient to pass quoracy.

    But didn’t the level required to be quorate in a referendum drop last year to make it easier to pass? So if you cannot even make the lower level of quoracy that has been set, why should the referenda proposals go through…clearly not enough students care enough for the proposals to be worth while.

    And surely the legal requirement for the general meeting is to confirm the articles of association? So by second guessing that the referenda is going to be inquorate, and then putting in place resolutions 1-4, you are saying you expect an inquorate vote, and plan to bypass quoracy accordingly.

    I’m sorry to be “speculating about perceived ‘concerning situations’” but the turn around time of this general meeting is so quick after the end of referenda, that in itself is a ‘concerning situation’.

    I assume this is only being done so the referenda can be “confirmed” if inquorate and the exec changes to come into place in time for the upcoming SU Elections (which is not giving people long to nominate or understand the full new job roles – given that they haven’t even been decided in full (or if they have, where is that information available for everyone to see?). Given that the articles of association could be updated at any point before the new changes came into place, it would seem that the point of this GM is to rubber stamp the referenda result, with the changes to the articles of association being merely a convenient secondary goal.

  8. Matt Styles
    February 12, 2012 at 14:13 — Reply

    I’m sorry Danny, but I don’t accept at all that this article suggests the General Meeting is there to bypass quorum – only that it has the ability to do so. I acknowledge a number of times that it is needed to update the Articles of Association, and I feel that this is clear from the article.

    Yes, I point out that the GM has the ability to bypass quorum, and that I disagree with people being told to vote ‘as the proxy sees fit’, but not only because it has the ability to bypass quorum, but because proxy votes are hard-coded – they can’t be changed. It would essentially give extra weight to an individual’s vote in a system where a member is able to vote and act as a proxy on behalf of as many students as they like.

    My entire point is that the way General Meetings happen is unfair, not because of this particular example, but by their nature.

    In summary, I have not asserted or suggested:

    a) that you (or anyone else) hasn’t tried to raise awareness of this meeting;

    b) that the yes campaign has come up with some masterplan to put these changes through through other means.

    My article is a gripe with how we need to hold a General meeting in the first place, and the downfalls of such a system.

  9. Dave J
    February 12, 2012 at 14:38 — Reply

    The problem they have is that the ‘Big Ask’ questions simply can’t be allowed to fail – because the referendum has come at the ‘end’ of the process instead of before it, the SU has already sunk time and money into the ‘yes’ option. If the student body had the cheek to vote no, that’d essentially mean a waste of 2 or more year’s work which, while hilarious, simply wouldn’t be allowed to happen by the SU higher-ups.

    They’ll find a way for this to pass, by hook or by crook. SU Council wasn’t enough last year, so they lowered quoracy on referenda to try and make that work. If referenda don’t work, they’ll find another mechanism. And in the meantime, the representation of students will fall completely by the wayside.

  10. Resign
    February 12, 2012 at 16:18 — Reply

    If Democracy and Communications survives can we have Sammy B re-run and restore order please?
    Dave J has hit the nail on the head. Exec have wasted half the year on this and it isn’t going to be allowed to fail.

  11. Dave J
    February 12, 2012 at 17:46 — Reply

    I notice the HMO legislation passed, as did the ‘students have to pay for parking permits’ thing. Wonder if they can hold a ‘big ask’ on that.

  12. Me by any other name
    February 13, 2012 at 10:18 — Reply

    I wonder how the SU thinks that the Welfare and Community Officer is going to cope being the Accom & Comm, Equal Opps & Welfare and E&SJ all in one? The current Accom&Comm officer couldn’t even pull off a half effective campaign against parking fees and Article 4…. and that is one officer with one remit….

    Anyone else think that Welf&Comm is going to be faaaar to big for one person?

  13. Joseph Clough
    February 13, 2012 at 11:09 — Reply

    I would recommend people read 73.1 of the articles of association. There was a 6pm deadline yesterday to hand in proxy forms for the general meeting.

  14. Matt Styles
    February 13, 2012 at 16:15 — Reply

    Made a mistake in this – turns out all four referenda would affect the Articles if passed. Such a confusing document. Cheers to Danny for pointing it out 🙂

  15. Apathetic Student
    February 18, 2012 at 15:01 — Reply

    “University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”— Henry Kissinger.

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