Gaffes, Governance, And Social Media: The Fates of LSE Societies

It’s 3pm on a Wednesday — almost precisely the middle of the week — and a clutch of students are waiting to be admitted into a Zoom call. In a year defined by online schooling, this would be a common enough occurrence in universities worldwide, but today they aren’t in line to get into yet another class. 

Election season has come again and it’s time for the Economics Society’s hustings.

Hustings: A House Thing

Hustings are meetings for candidates to address potential voters, and while they aren’t compulsory for elections under the Student Union, many societies host them as a way for members to pose questions to the candidates. In other years these would be held in-person, but with pandemic regulations in place and LSE students scattered across the globe, campaigning – and by extension hustings – has moved almost entirely online.

As soon as everyone is let in (a scarce 22 participants at first), the outgoing president of the society, Celine, takes charge. To regular members she is a familiar face and walks through the proceedings with an easy-going charm and a smile that stands out even among the crowded Zoom profiles. The candidates begin with a short speech followed by taking questions from the floor. Most of the outgoing executive committee (EXCO) is present, ready to engage in some “light grilling”, as Celine puts it. But today there’s a different kind of tension in the air, beyond the ordinary public speaking jitters. 

In the past few days leading up to voting, the Economics Society saw a whopping 70+ new memberships signed up through the LSESU student website.

What’s in a Vote?

In order to vote for a society’s elections, membership to the society is required. For most societies this comes at the nominal fee of £3 which goes towards funding  various society activities throughout the year. Membership can be bought at any time throughout the school term, and while some societies incentivize membership purchase by running exclusive member-only events, just as many open activities year-round to all.

The Economics Society belongs to the latter category with many of their hallmark events, such as weekly Sen Club talks (hosting a variety of speakers covering a broad range of topics) or the Economics Symposium, being open to members and non-members alike. In that light, a sudden influx of membership right before election season isn’t that surprising, as free-riders throughout the year finally shell out the £3 toll to make their voices heard. However, on this day some active members are worried that their voices may be overpowered.

“It is upsetting,” says Celine, “Votes should go to those who have engaged the most with the society throughout the year. [A sudden influx of members] means that the preferences of participating society members could be ignored, while potentially unqualified individuals could be elected…if 70+ votes could be split among all candidates, it wouldn’t affect the outcome too much. If they’re all for one candidate (or group of candidates) — that is alarming.”

The issue is not uncommon. This year, German Society saw 40 new members sign up in the week before elections, in what some speculated to be an attempt to swing the vote. Fortunately, a clause in their society’s constitution – implemented three years ago after a similar occurrence – allowed them to contact the SU and bar these new members from voting. “I think it is very undemocratic to simply sign up your friends, and I have heard that many societies had similar issues,” said Maurice, the outgoing President of German Society, to The Beaver.

Not all are happy with this outcome. One of the 40 new members to German Society, who wished to remain anonymous, said that they had signed up for membership specifically to vote for her friend, and felt that the timeframe requirements for memberships had been unclear. “There should be some standardisation between societies – I was caught completely off guard when I learned that I wouldn’t be able to vote.” Commenting on the morality of joining a society just to vote, with no intention of further engagement, the member admitted it was wrong, but argued that since there was nothing preventing it the SU shouldn’t be surprised by such practices. 

The Economics Society has not closed elections to these new members – one source familiar with the matter revealed that the EXCO had reached out to the SU board but were unable to close elections. Speaking to the LSESU Democracy Committee, “some concerns were recently raised regarding this, however the committee did look into this further and could find no evidence that tied it to a single candidate. This complaint was unable to be taken further as they could not provide supporting evidence for this.”

For Celine, it’s an area of improvement for elections. “Voting eligibility should be much stricter. To be eligible to vote, you should have joined the society at least a few weeks prior to elections.”

Lend Me Your Ears

The Economic Society’s hustings kicks off with the presidential candidates. Avinash goes first. A first year Politics and Economics student, he’s dressed for the occasion, wearing a blazer and sporting a custom Zoom background with his name and the Economics Society logo. He speaks smoothly, touching on the main points of his manifesto, including a weekly theme for the society and more inter-division social bonding.

Aryan is up next. A first year Economics student and a regular attendee of the weekly Sen Club sessions, he’s a familiar face to most in the society, and is clearly at ease. With an energetic smile on his face, he goes through his manifesto, concerned with incorporating a vertical entry scheme for the society, increasing diversity, improving social events, and introducing more career workshops.

The number of viewers continues to grow as Celine takes the floor again. One by one, the questions start flooding in – some addressed to both candidates, others directed specifically at one. Someone questions Avinash on his candidacy for presidency in TedXLSE, and how he plans to juggle running two societies at once. He says that he has dropped out of the race for TedX, having only entered it to ensure the society wouldn’t be dissolved.

Running Against R.O.N

Societies under the SU need to fulfill certain requirements to continue being officially recognised by the school. One of them is having sufficient EXCO members elected to key positions – typically, president, vice-president, and treasurer. With a year spent online, a few have understandably struggled to garner the usual amount of interest in elections that they would normally, though most have managed to successfully open elections by this point after some short extensions for deadlines to stand. Smaller, tight-knit societies such as Tabletop Games have seen only one candidate running for each open position. On the other hand, larger societies  such as LawSoc have seen competition explode – with 42 candidates in total this year compared to last year’s 26.

But even with less candidates in the running, the competition remains fierce in EconSoc. Avinash and Aryan wrap up their allocated Q&A time allowing Viraj and Khushi running against each other for the Head of Corporate Outreach to step up to the plate. They are followed by Alex and Prerak for Treasurer, then Remo and Arif (with the third candidate, Peredur, being absent) for the Head of Special Events.

“The election process has been pretty exciting so far, it has been a great way to learn about loads of different societies through all the manifestos on the LSESU website and also understand the directions in which different candidates want to take their respective societies,” said Aryan. “I think online it is always a bit difficult connecting to people – I personally wouldn’t go as far as to say I campaigned, I am a big advocate for a hustings style election where people can get to know the candidates.”

Unite the League

In the background, the Presidential Candidates continue to answer questions in the Zoom chat. Things get heated as the questions get more directed. Someone asks Aryan what makes him qualified to lead. He respectfully directs them back to his manifesto on the SU page. Another anonymous participant asks why Avinash hasn’t been showing up regularly for the weekly Sen Club sessions and questions if he would be able to dedicate the time needed to run the society. Avinash explains that despite his other commitments, he’s kept up-to-date through Sen Club recordings and would be dedicating his second year fully to EconSoc.

It’s only natural for people to support their friends throughout their campaign by joining hustings to ask them easy questions or helping to spread their manifestos online. Where the line between support and campaigning gets blurry is when candidates running for different positions create group promotional material, almost presenting themselves as one unified party or EXCO.

It’s an established practice in SU elections — over in the Business and Investment Group, professional posters featuring 6 candidates standing for different roles have been spreading among students, while in the Entrepreneur’s Society, two candidates even created a joint Instagram account to canvas for votes. But while some view it as a natural part of the campaign process (according to the LSE SU Democracy Committee, “Slates are permitted and have had no mention of being barred or against election rules”), others have their concerns.

Celine is against it: “I’m not a fan, but I can see why it’s tempting. Simply: the best candidate should win in each division — and running in teams prevents this from happening.” In any case, while some joint promotional material initially emerged from the Economics Society candidates, they have mostly returned to individual campaigning on social media.

New Challenger Approaching

Back in the Zoom chat, Celine steps in before things get too ugly, politely but firmly directing everyone to pay attention to the candidates who are speaking. The comments in chat quiet down as Safiyya and Meghna discuss their plans as the potential Head of Sen Club, but pick up once more in the race for Head of Research.

There are three names on the ballot to lead the Research Division, but only one of them is present today. Yi-Wen, a first year Economics student, is wearing a white collared shirt that stands out against his Zoom background — a poster promoting himself, Avinash, and Remo for candidacy. His competitors, Marie and Allen, are unavailable due to academic commitments, leaving him to carry the spotlight on his own. In the lead-up to the election, there’s been plenty of buzz surrounding the research role, in particular concerning Yi-Wen’s lack of prior experience and involvement in the research division. This stands in stark contrast to Marie and Allen, who participated in the research division as an Associate and in the Incubator Programme respectively.

While candidates for key EXCO positions tend to come from the society’s subdivisions, there’s nothing preventing ordinary members from running either. In other societies, the practice can be even more pronounced — in two separate cases, presidential candidates who had been entirely uninvolved in the society throughout the year ran using the same manifestos they had used to stand for a different society.

“I think it’s important to emphasize that students don’t need to have subcommittee experience to run,” said Celine. “Rather, it’s the level of engagement that matters — maybe a candidate attended events instead of organizing them, and that’s great! If candidates don’t have any form of engagement, then they simply don’t have the knowledge to lead. Not only is it detrimental to the society, but it could place the candidate under great stress and pressure if they find themselves in a role they’re not prepared for.”

Speaking to Yi-Wen, it’s clear that his intentions are in the right place. “When I brought this lack of experience up with the current head of research, Eddy, he told me that ‘there’s always room to learn before or on the job’ and that ‘if you’re into the idea of supporting others in the division, I think you’re more than welcome to have a go.’ That was what made me run.”

Despite this, Yi-Wen is facing his fair share of doubters. After the candidates give their speeches — with Stefanus, Marie’s research group leader, reading out a short speech on her behalf — the questions start coming in. Mikael, the deputy Head of Research, questions how he will be able to provide guidance to groups, given his lack of experience. Yi-Wen replies that he need not necessarily be the one to provide research expertise, and proposes making use of external resources (tutors and seniors) to fill in the gaps.

Questions concerning skills, competencies, and motivation stream in. Through it all, Yi-Wen maintains a level-head and answers coolly. There’s one minor slip-up at the end regarding the screening process where his unfamiliarity becomes evident – he mistakenly believes the screening process merely consisted of a CV review and interviews when there was an extensive empirical exercise and research proposal phase involved – but other than that, he performs admirably under the circumstances.

“At the beginning of this campaigning process, I didn’t think that the campaigning was such a gruelling process,” said Yi-Wen afterwards. “I thought there wouldn’t be much buzz about it. I’d maybe have to answer a few questions, make a poster, and be done with it. But then things started to ramp up [with] boisterous trolls coming around, and all sorts of other politicking. Honestly, I didn’t expect this for an academic role…I was glad to do the hustings because that was my chance to speak for myself in front of a fresh audience.”

Aryan shares a similar sentiment. “I think having elections open for 8 days is somewhat excessive – I understand UCL’s elections were open for 2-3 days and a voting window of that size is ample.”

After the gauntlet of questions posed for the Research Division — the Q&A time runs nearly double the length of other roles, save for that of the President — Yutong gives her pitch for Head of Marketing. As the only candidate running and a previous member of the marketing subcommittee, she seems a shoe-in for the role. She speaks about improving communication and awareness as well as developing better society merchandise.

The End of An Era

The hustings wind down, and one by one participants begin to leave the Zoom call. Those that stay on —  mainly the outgoing EXCO and regular event attendees — turn talk away from the elections. For a moment everything else is forgotten, and it’s almost like the aftermath of any other Sen Club session, aimless talk and laughter over nothing in particular. Even separated by thousands of miles, there’s a warm glow to the air, a bond that stretches across the insurmountable space, the unfathomable distance. 

By next Thursday, the results will be out, and an entirely new EXCO will be leading the society to an indeterminate future. But here and now, they’re together. Maybe that’s all a society needs to be.

Aryan was elected as President, with Alex Kneafsey as Treasurer, Dan Mikhaylov as Secretary, Yutong as Head of Marketing, Marie as Head of Research, Remo as Head of Special Events, Safiyya as Head of Sen Club, and Viraj as Head of Corporate Outreach.

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