SU elections are one big pantomime

Frank Longdon is Student Insight & Voice Manager at Lancaster SU

Getting lots of people to do anything is difficult.

As Jim Dickinson has espoused before – school plays sell out. Despite their reservations about the quality of the production, parents want to see their kids on the stage.

However, school plays aren’t the only amater(ish) show in town. 43 per cent of Britons say they like or love pantomimes.

So if over 8 million people actually go each year, and they keep the lights on in many of our local theatres, maybe there is something to learn from their success (oh no there isn’t!).

As such, I want to talk about a “pantomime” approach to elections. This is something we have recently attempted to try out at LUSU – but some of the same principles could be applied to any major, annualised activity (such as a Summer Ball or varsity).

Predictability and routine

Pantos happen at Christmas. Most people book their tickets and attend in the run up to Christmas. Elections really aren’t that complex either:

  1. We release the details of elections in early January.
  2. Nominations open for a few weeks, SU staff speak to existing student leaders, interested students write their manifestos and submit their nominations.
  3. Candidates are briefed, gossip spreads of who is running for what, and candidates start building their campaign teams and seeking endorsements from other student leaders.
  4. Candidates’ identities are published, campaigning starts, candidates’ interviews with student media go live, and conversations about policies and identities begin.
  5. Candidate Questions event takes place; more policies, identities, and incidents to discuss.
  6. Voting opens, the keen beans rush to do it first. Campaigning activity ramps up.
  7. Voting closes, campaigning stops.
  8. Results announced, student media analysis, candidates celebrate.

Every SU needs to establish its pattern for elections. The more routine and predictable it is, the more we can leave space for leadership by students (they can factor it into their plans), the more university staff can buy-into the process to encourage participation, and the more students can build a habit of engagement.

Community leadership that is fundamentally participatory

My local panto is an entirely amateur production. We’re currently collaborating with the Queen from the 2023 production of Sleeping Beauty on a project to improve the university’s curriculum.

The actors in our elections are members of our communities too. When Josie introduced our candidates during their interviews with LA1TV, she said their name, academic department, and college before launching into questions.

Sometimes we fall into the trap of putting our candidates on a pedestal, making proto-celebrities of them through our central SU communications.

That’s not to say this doesn’t happen naturally. However, emphasising the core tenet of elections – that the student community chooses their leaders from amongst their own – is surely a worthwhile endeavour.

Everything we do as SUs should lift-up students. At LUSU, our main goals (yes, it takes precedent over turnout) are:

  • elections are fair, legitimate, and democratic, and
  • as many students as possible are empowered to develop themselves, their skills, and their portfolios.

That should mean thinking carefully about how we support student journalists, student media, student contributors, and student groups to engage with candidates and debate.

The more students that contribute, the more students engage, the more students vote. It also means talking to candidates about the application of the experience of campaigning to their CV as an example of good project management.

Dependable levels of entertainment

There was a moment in one of the interviews for the President candidates that caused a lot of controversy. Beside it being a good opportunity for me to talk about our obligations to uphold freedom of speech, many people were concerned we would be unable to replicate the same level of interest year-on-year.

If every year LA1TV publishes interviews with the candidates at the same time, they approach those interviews with comparable enthusiasm and rigour, and if they receive the same level of support and trust from their SU, I could predict with some certainty that something of note would be said, some new debate started, some talking point initiated that would last the duration of the election.

When working with student media and student journalists, we can make sure they produce simple content that is informative, interesting, and entertaining in a concise and digestible format. We have made the mistake before of giving overly prescriptive briefs and encouraging the over-complication of content for the sake of it being attractive or professional-looking, or “fair”.

Perhaps if there is anything to learn from school plays and panto it’s that authenticity can be reinforced if everything looks a bit rough around the edges.

And then it’s gone

When Garrick restricted panto to the Christmas season he made a space for a controversial, often scandalous art form to exist, burn brightly, then disappear.

If we have more than one major election season our audience will become oversaturated, like Love Island’s experiment with an additional winter series. Elections are a means to an end. They absolutely should not consume our time nor our focus on actually going good and making an impact for students.

At LUSU we have three election periods. We have worked hard to make sure that two feel like distinct events in the year – one for the executives of our College JCRs, the other for SU posts. The third we have deprioritised – but retained – as a functional element of our democracy.

It’s behind you

Our historic elections data is a little shaky (I am currently trying to gather a project group of student volunteers to research this over the summer).

As far as we can tell, we had our best ever turnout – 4,467 students voted, or 27 per cent of the overall student population at Lancaster.

Despite this, the Vote Now banners and feather flags stayed in their cupboard gathering dust. We didn’t order any new materials, nor did we incentivise voting in any transactional way (we do plant a tree on-campus for every 20 students who vote through our Trees for Votes initiative, but it’s hard to believe that that is a turnout booster).

We didn’t do a candidate breakfast (why compel them to be on-campus early in the morning – surely that just encourages burnout) but instead just gave them vouchers to buy whatever they wanted from our SU shop.

Our staff continued to get on with their jobs, even in my team – we carried on planning campaigns, organising for our APP submission, and engaging with student and staff stakeholders on our changes to student academic representation at Lancaster.

ITV came to film our Supper Club on the last day of voting.

Our goal this academic year was to create the strongest democracy in the sector. Should we be able to carry forward the pantomime model for elections, who knows how many students will vote and how much unnecessary stress will have been avoided.

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