Let’s stop pretending sabbs should be apolitical

Sophie Kelly is Activities Officer University of York Students' Union

As a student officer, I think about power a lot.

The meetings, projects, emails and more meetings – they are all usually underpinned by questions of power.

Who has it, how much of it, what they do with it, and when.

In a university, the balance of power is consistently shifting between students, the government, universities, staff, communities and numerous other stakeholders.

Power matters because students’ unions offer students a platform on which to have more power.

In recent years, for example, most of us have seen an interesting battle for power manifest itself in a long-running industrial dispute.

And this year’s incarnation of that dispute has raised interesting questions on our campus about both power and politics.

Power pose

After the announcement of the latest round of industrial action, my officer team, like other officer teams up and down the country, met to discuss what stance the union should take in relation to the strikes.

I’m lucky to work with a team where we can all share ideas comfortably and work together to reach an action – despite often having different ideas about the way in which we should approach issues.

It quickly became apparent that amongst the group, we had very different ideas about what action we should take in relation to industrial action.

Before becoming the elected Activities Officer at the University of York Students’ Union, I’d been the Chair of my University Labour Club having developed a strong sense of social justice. Throughout my election campaign to become a sabb, I made no attempt to hide my personal political background.

Naturally I was strongly in favour of showing solidarity with our striking staff, and of mobilising our student groups to express their support. To me, this was a matter of social justice and I strongly believed, on a personal level, that working conditions are learning conditions.

But to my surprise, there were calls from other officers, responding to voices from students on campus, to take less “political” stance. I was confused because in my mind it was simple – there is a huge imbalance of power between university staff and students who suffer as a result of poor working conditions, versus Universities UK and the government. How could we possibly approach this… “apolitically”?

Channels and amplifiers

The kernel of what others were recommending was that we give anti-strike students a way to express their frustration about the strikes too. When I thought about it, that in itself would have represented a political decision – shifting the balance of power away from supporting the collective, towards championing the rights of the individual.

Both approaches are legitimate political beliefs. But we should be careful about falling into the trap of somehow thinking that individualist approaches are “apolitical” and “student focussed”, where collective approaches are “political” and therefore not student focussed.

I’m sure everyone had students’ interests at heart.

What was strange was that I was faced with calls to separate my political opinions from any actions we might take. But my values of equality and social justice underpin everything that I do – there is no “off switch”. This is true of us all – we are all constantly behaving in a way that aligns with our values and underlying political beliefs, whether we’re aware of them or not.

False dichotomies

So it wasn’t that some of us were being “political” and others “apolitical”. Our team was very much operating in line with its beliefs – some prioritising freedom and openness, others placing importance on social justice and equality, and others just trying to make sure we were all happy in some sense. And inevitably, these differences in view fell along political (partly party political) lines. That’s a good thing.

Student officers, like all other human beings, have a political voice – and in a representative role students expect us to be honest about that voice. That isn’t to say that a students’ union should always adopt a partisan stance on an issue – but it is to say that when its student leaders pretend to be operating in an “apolitical” way, the danger is that students ignore us, or worse, think we’re hiding something.

In my experience, as long as we’re demonstrably working in their interests and happy to be held to account, students not only forgive us if they have different opinions, they expect us to own our values and share our voices proudly.

That can be uncomfortable. We can end up with criticism from students, but it can also result in positive and fruitful discourse. As an officer team we settled on a compromise as our response to industrial action. And the actions that we have decided to take will ultimately, we hope, have a powerful impact.

It’s easy to just do things “for” students as individuals. But students’ unions ought to be about more than just serving people – they ought also to be about giving students the tools they need to develop their views, understand the choices that decision makers face, understand and disagree with others, and mediate their own collective interests in public. National politics might have a bad name right now, but the answer to that is doing politics in a way that gives students power rather than taking it away and pretending that that’s “apolitical”.

There’s power in our unions, let’s not be afraid to acknowledge this, but most importantly, to use this.

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