Uncovering the Union: An elusive Summer Ball and the obstacles facing LSESU events

By Honour Astill

This is the third article in the “Uncovering the Union” series, a series dedicated to providing greater insight into the inner workings of LSE’s Student Union. 

On 4 November 2022, the LSESU General Secretary Tilly Mason announced that she “presented the LSE Summer Ball to members of LSE staff, which we’re still working through, […] but it’s looking good!” Another statement followed a month later, mentioning “good progress … with hopefully more updates and the start of a marketing campaign in the new year.”

But another update on the Summer Ball didn’t come until the sabbatical officers’ final email of Lent Term 2023 – more than six months after the previous email regarding the Summer Ball. 

In the email, Activities and Development Officer Romane Branthomme explained that she “tried to revive the Summer Ball project.” Though it was no longer going to happen at the end of term, Romane said that “LSE has agreed to put aside a pot of money to make it happen in the Summer [of] 2024, so my fingers will be crossed for those of you who will still be there then.” 

But the question remains: what happened in those six months?

The concept of an LSE Summer Ball long precluded the officers’ tenure. In 2017, a Geography with Economics student William Stein created a Change.org petition with a group of dedicated campaigners to demonstrate demand for the Summer Ball, gathering over 1,000 signatures over a year. In 2018, the group proposed and passed a Union General Meeting (UGM) Motion with 390 votes in favour.  

It’s hard to overstate how much of a phenomenon the Summer Ball was at the time. Touted as a panacea to all of LSE’s problems, the UGM Motion promised to tackle “a sense of loneliness among LSE students” in light of the School’s low student satisfaction scores. A contemporaneous article in The Beaver even made light of people likening the Summer Ball to “divine intervention.”

Due to the efforts of then-General Secretary Zulum Elumogo, the Summer Ball was set in motion: the date was agreed for 13 June 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted those plans, but the SU announced via Facebook that the Ball would be back in 2021. But Summer 2021 also came and went with no Ball in sight.

In order to fill in some of the gaps, Romane, who was tasked with implementing the Summer Ball in 2023, spoke to The Beaver. Upon her election, Romane successfully convinced LSE to continue supporting the Summer Ball. Initially, the initiative enjoyed support from both the Student Union and LSE. Over time, however, the working team felt that LSE’s enthusiasm vis-à-vis supporting the Summer Ball began to falter.

Several issues quickly became evident to the working team. The personnel LSE sent were not equipped to support such a large undertaking, and the 2020 plans were rudimentary and no longer feasible. The proposed budget and original ticket price of £60 would not cover the costs, due to recent inflation.

Despite these challenges, LSE refused the LSESU request to contribute more funding, remaining steadfast in only agreeing to match the Union’s contribution – despite vast differences in each organisation’s funds.  

“By February 2023,” Romane said, “it was clear the project was not going to go ahead.” 

Romane conceded that there was a good case for postponing the Summer Ball during her tenure. Besides being financially and logistically untenable within the short time frame Romane had to organise it, it came down to an “issue of priorities.” It would have been a huge investment at a time when demand for the Summer Ball was not as virulent. Romane noted that “if such a hyped-up event goes terribly, that makes the SU look extremely bad.” 

Regarding the Union’s lack of updates, Romane’s explanation was that for a small and stretched team, the officers have to be selective in what they choose to communicate and how. 

Romane also mentioned scoping out Imperial College Unions’s Summer Ball, complete with fireworks, fairground rides, and live music. This suggests that organising a university ball in London is possible, but may require more proactivity on the School’s behalf, rather than relying upon graduates with one-year tenures to implement substantive student policy of this nature. 

As for today, the Summer Ball policy was again passed, and will not expire until 2025, following a referendum proposed by Emma Somos, a Sociology student. According to the policy brief, the current Activities and Communities Officer, Chris Adewoye, is “responsible for implementing this policy … leading an SU project team this term to make it happen.” 

Chris told The Beaver: “Having reviewed our in-year financial position and taken board advice, as a Sabb team we decided against a 23/24 Summer Ball due to a lack of available funds. 

“However, we are working to improve the financial position of the SU as we look forward to the next business cycle. I truly hope that there will be enough available funds for a Summer Ball in the not too distant future, and I am currently working to make that happen.”

Evidently, while sabbatical officers enjoy discretion in their ability to pursue policy agendas, they are constrained by limitations in resources, manpower, and cooperation. This stands in stark contrast with the lofty expectations placed upon them: both self-imposed, through campaign promises curated to appeal to student voters, and externally imposed through referenda.

Structural factors, such as the officers’ short one-year tenures, result in a high level of turnover and a lack of institutional memory. Though there is an extensive handover process during transitions, the officers’ individual discretion and preferences can lead to discontinuity in policy. 

These limitations are further exacerbated by the small team size (worse still this year, as three sabbatical officers are currently picking up the slack of the vacant fourth slot) and limited resources and expertise at their disposal. For instance, according to Romane, organising the Summer Ball necessitated hiring an external events company, since fulfilling the Summer Ball mandate “[required] expertise that the SU just didn’t have.”

Even in the best of times, sabbatical officers face intrinsic limitations to their ability to effectuate policy, whether through veto-points from within the organisation, or through insufficient support from the School. Cooperation with the LSE on the Summer Ball was a rare occasion, as Romane said that ‘‘it’s not often [that the LSESU has] partnership projects with LSE’s management.”

But under conditions of limited resources and a small team, sabbatical officers have to be strategic with the time and effort they invest in implementing policy. If demand from students is concerted, there is a strong case to garner cooperation to aid in meeting their objectives. As the case of the Summer Ball demonstrates, fulfilling certain goals can become challenging when the student body’s energy behind a mandate wanes.

Without regular updates, students are unable to assess whether the sabbatical officers live up to their mandate. However, as seen with the Summer Ball, full transparency is sometimes sidelined in favour of competing, immediate priorities. “Communication to students is tricky, because there are so many different ways of communicating and with quite a small team,” Romane opined.

The case of the Summer Ball encapsulates many of the tensions present in the LSESU’s nascent democracy. But despite structural issues, such as limited institutional continuity and sabbatical officers’ constraints, students managed to push for the LSESU to repeatedly commit to a highly in-demand policy. As it stands, we may have to wait yet another year to see if the Summer Ball will materialise.

Illustration by Francesca Corno

A deep-dive into the history of the LSE Summer Ball which never materialised.

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