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One of the main issues that came out of the recent SU council meeting was the poor turnout at the last Students’ Union Election. Only 5,610 students (16.5%) out of 35,000 students voted. Impact talked to Luke Mitchell, Democracy and Communications Officer, about the issue.
Turnout at the election was a record low. No Students’ Union election at Nottingham has had such a poor turnout since 2005. The elections are held every year, with positions open for both Representative Officers and SU Executive Officers. These Officers are the only representatives that students have within the University, and as such they occupy positions of significant responsibility.
As Democracy and Communications Officer, Luke Mitchell has been elected into a position that must deal directly with this problem of student apathy. However, he said that low turnout was only part of the “big picture”.
Mitchell predictably sees a high turnout as necessary to ensure that the “issues that students are facing are going to be pushed higher up the agenda.” This is unlikely when apathy as it an all time high.
Some have placed the blame with the Union itself. The link between the students and their union is alleged to be down to a lack of publicity about the elections. But Mitchell says that more leafleting during elections would be a “red herring”.
Mitchell argues that it is largely a structural problem preventing candidates from engaging with students. The amount of rules and regulations leads to negative campaigning by some candidates who “spend their time writing up grievances about rules other candidates have broken rather than spending their time engaging with students”.
These rules can sometimes tie candidates’ hands behind their back when they try to engage with students. There is, for example, a rule which states that candidates cannot knock on students’ doors to tell them about their policies. Mitchell seeks to overcome this issue by replacing a list of rules with a statement about candidate conduct. Unless there is a thorough reassessment of these rules however, it is unlikely that candidates will be able to escape from this inherent structural and bureaucratic obstacle.
The gap between when the SU nominations finish and when campaigning for SU elections begin is another part of the structure Mitchell sees as getting in the way. He believes that there is not enough time for the candidates to prepare their campaigns and in the past this has lead to some candidates dropping out of the election.
But this is something that was in fact addressed by last year’s Exec. President at the time, ‘Corky’, commented that the turnout was “not connected to the shorter campaigning time…because it was shorter this year, we are expecting a big jump next year, which is going to look good on next year’s Exec.” Luke’s comments on the campaign time would suggest that he is slightly more cautious than this optimistic prediction.
Perhaps one of the most comprehensive changes that Mitchell wants to bring about is a change in the relationship between Student Run Services (such as Impact, URN and NUTs) and the Students’ Union during the election period. He commented that in the past there had been tight restrictions on these services that were both detrimental to the SRSs themselves and to the student electorate. He said that in the past Impact and other services have been restricted to what they can ask SU candidates and the extent to which they can criticise the policies of those running in the election.
Due to regulations regarding impartiality, Impact had been unable to ask last year’s joke candidate ‘Dexter’ why he was dressed as a murderer. Mitchell stressed the importance of allowing media groups the freedom to question SU candidates’ policies and to hold candidates to account if they make mistakes and don’t act on promises that they have made during their campaigns.
One of the most important roles of student media is to be able to hold the SU and the University to account. Part of that is being able to offer students a critical perspective on those candidates wishing to represent the student body. If Mitchell is able to make this change it would see a complete rehaul of student media. This would not only encourage students to think critically about University democracy, it would also help the SRSs themselves develop the techniques used by national media outlets.
The SU council passed Mitchell’s motion for a change to the rules in SU elections unanimously. Clearly, if the SU wants to be representative of the student voice, it needs to be as open as possible. SU candidates need to engage with students not just at election time but throughout their time on Council. For this to be possible media SRSs need to have the freedom to question candidates and make sure they are listening to the needs of students they were elected to represent.