What is a fair SU election anyway?

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

It’s (almost) students’ union election season – as the slow process of converting initial interest or sparks of talent into a viable candidacy gathers apace.

There’s been lots of focus over the past few years on turnout (where some say that voter quantity may well have taken the priority over voter quality), the diversity of candidates, the way elections are promoted (it is a “leadership race”, or a graduate job, or a festival of students “choosing”) and the support given to candidates.

And time was that there was an active debate over whether students’ unions should move their balloting online – whereas now everybody seems to be moving their hustings (or candidate interviews, or equivalents) online.

But as well as the above, there’s plenty more contemporary debates that surround elections and how they are governed and run. We’re not so much talking about who does that, but the rules that SUs use to secure “fairness”. The whole idea of “fairness” is necessarily contested – and here, on the assumption that there’s still time to change things, we’ve rehearsed ten of our favourite “fairness” debates over election and campaigning rules from the past few years.

Get fairness right, and students will be celebrating a good election. But if the stench of unfairness surrounds a result, it can spoil a whole year in office and undo good work on trust with your members. Many unions spend a lot of time explaining fairness to their candidates. But what about to students?

For example. Some argue that any rule needs to be practically enforceable, else it shouldn’t be in there. Others say that some rules are merely about setting a good and positive tone, even if they often can’t always be enforced. Who’s right?

In addition, some start from the principle that anyone with pre-existing advantages should have them hidden or taken away to level the playing field. But in the end, this is a popularity contest and it’s surely not realistic to have rules that seek to erase the memory of a popular and successful re-standing officer. Who’s right?

Here’s ten more. Do let us know in the comments if you think we’ve missed any.

  1. Lots of unions have heavily restrictive policies on endorsements – from university staff, student groups, other officers, and people outside of the union. But isn’t politics all about freedom of association, alliances and “lateral support” as well as vertical support from the electorate? Shouldn’t we encourage this sort of activity on the basis that it draws more people into the process? And doesn’t the same argument apply to “slates”?
  2. There are lots of unions where the deadline for nominations is the same as the deadline for manifestos. But there are others that argue that giving candidates training on how to write one and what to write after nominations close is a better approach. And some take it further – by seeking to require candidates to make a specific number of promises, or by specifying how much space candidates should spend on beliefs, intentions or even intended wins. What’s the right balance between supporting candidates and stifling creativity (and SUs giving candidates an undeserved edge?)
  3. Plenty of unions make existing sabbatical officers take “annual leave” if taking part in an election week. But why? Officers are student members of the SU, and the sabbatical salary is in theory a replacement for the maintenance loan and part time work that students are able to take advantage of. Do we take money from other candidates that take part in the election – and what business is it of a returning officer if some view a sabb as not working hard enough during that period?
  4. Almost every SU still gives students the opportunity to vote to “Re Open Nominations” – but there’s a debate over whether this should be treated as a “candidate” (with students appointed to lead that candidacy) or merely an option on the ballot paper. NUS argues that Re-Open Nominations (RON) should only be on a ballot paper if there is a call for a RON candidate from your membership and someone is willing to be responsible for their actions. But isn’t the point that it’s not an option that can be removed from a ballot paper – and therefore nobody should try to regulate any campaigning for it? And isn’t RON the only meaningful way for a restanding candidate to be held to account these days?
  5. Some unions seem to retain rules for missing deadlines that seem to make no sense. It might make lots of sense to draw a hard line on a nominations deadline (not least because relaxing it might be unfair on other candidates) but does it really make sense to exclude a candidate for missing an expenses deadline by five minutes, or a manifesto deadline by half an hour?
  6. Most unions empower a DRO or returning officer to make decisions following complaints about candidates – but are they directed to make that directed to make those decisions on any particular basis? For example if a candidate is found to behaved badly and DRO or RO is asked to consider “fairness between candidates” that may lead them down one route. If they were asked to consider fairness on the electorate they might ask “is it fair to set aside the electorate’s freely expressed preferences over this?” and they could come to another decision. And when it comes to investigations, is conduct assessed on balance of probabilities, or does a rule breach have to be “beyond reasonable doubt”?
  7. Some unions retain rules that dock votes for types of conduct. We could write a paragraph on why that approach is palpably problematic, but we won’t bother.
  8. As complaints increase about bullying, harassment and EDI issues, these are bound to bleed into elections processes where scrutiny of candidates is high. Should conduct outside of a student’s candidacy be up for debate or regulated by a returning officer? And even if we’re talking about something that happens during an election, what’s the interrelationship between an SU election’s rules and a union (or university’s) wider disciplinary processes?
  9. Some unions fact check material, some stop talking about other candidacies altogether, and some stop candidates from promising things that are deemed to be “impossible”. But surely student politics is about evaluating your ideas against eachother’s (as long as done politely and reasonably), and isn’t it up to the electorate to judge whether someone is lying or promising something unrealistic?
  10. And one final one. A glance at the comms suggests that some unions appear to spend almost the whole term electing new officers, with slick marketing and a drawn-out process. Is this fair on incumbent officers who are still trying to get things done – and what message does it send to students that the union seems more interested in picking leaders than doing actual things for students? And why are the manifestos of winners so hard to find on elections results nights?

4 responses to “What is a fair SU election anyway?

  1. The questions posed here are all genuinely really interesting, and should raise the eyebrows or cause some head-scratching for a few membership services! A few thoughts:

    Question two – We have always liked the idea of briefing candidates with ongoing student voice work and insight (from both the Union and University), encouraging them to shape any calls for tangible change in their manifesto around what students have told us they care about.

    Question Eight – Conduct outside of a candidate’s candidacy is a big one, and for us it all comes down to emphasis on fit and proper. All of our candidates have to go through a fit and proper meeting with a staff member whereby we ask for disclosure of any disciplinary issues. Nolan principles are emphasised, obvious things like social media conduct is covered. It may be a bit of a blunt tool, but a hammer is an important tool nonetheless!

    In general, I’ve always been interested in slates. The campaigner and marketer inside me loves the creativity and branding aspect, but I do wonder whether any Union has had a stronger group of individual candidates without them (open question left ominously dangling…)

  2. ‘the sabbatical salary is in theory a replacement for the maintenance loan and part time work that students are able to take advantage of’. I haven’t it heard it expressed that way before?

    1. some really interesting questions you pose Jim. The “annual leave” item is a little disingenuous here as all those current sabbatical officers will of course still be paid through their period of annual leave, so the argument of taking money away is a moot point. We encourage annual leave, not because there is any issue of not working hard enough, but it removes risk of accusations of officers using their work access to their advantage. More importantly however it enables them to fully engage in the campaigning activity , the self promotion and the glad handing and giving themselves equality of opportunity with all other candidates.

  3. Ben – that’s actually where sabb salaries originated. When the “living grant” was genuinely a living grant, the standard way to calc a sabb salary was to take the full grant and to bulk it up to cover 52 weeks – all on the assumption that therefore sabbs were still “volunteers”. The problem that emerged, of course, was that the max (now) loan started to not be enough even when bulked up.

    Obviously we now have LOTS of diversity of practice – although some unions that want a peg have either been going with a spine point in the union/uni, or living wage – which for ref works out as £9.90 at 37.5h pw = £ 19,305

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