By Peter Lyon
Thoughts from a hack on where we’ve gone wrong and how we might fix it
In last week’s edition of this newspaper, I read with interest Benjamin Thomas’ and Hari Prabu’s accounts of the state of democracy in LSESU. Everyone seems to agree that it is in a very poor state. One only needs to consider the appallingly low attendance at UGMs, the absence of opposition to motions, lower elections turnout and the disappointing fact that none of the three (out of the requisite five) successful Democracy Committee candidates in the LT elections had regularly attended UGMs.
I have been highly engaged in the SU’s democratic processes throughout my three years at LSE. In my first few days here I was added to a group chat of hacks seeking to reverse the then General Secretary Nona Buckley-Irvine’s attempts to replace UGM with a Student Congress. I have proposed motions, opposed motions, and been Chair of Democracy Committee for the last year. I’m probably one of the select few students left to self-define as a hack. So, in this final edition of the Beaver of my three years at LSE, here are my thoughts on where it went wrong and what can be done.
Firstly, Ben is right to point out that a lot of the factors we can do little about, such as students needing to spend more time on careers or part-time work. However, over the years the SU has made mistakes that I believe has contributed to the current levels of engagement. Since Nona (who as mentioned above nearly abolished the UGM), there has been a decreasing interest in and prioritisation of UGMs by the
Exec, particularly the General Secretary, which I think are partly to blame for the loss of the Old Theatre as a venue and the abolition of the timetable gap. It’s no surprise that the School has no regard for UGMs if the SU Exec does not either.
Twenty years ago, the UGM was the lively weekly forum for Officers engage with the students they represent and explain their policies, and participate in student-led debates about SU policy. To return to these happy days, the Sabbatical Officer team need to do everything they can to make the UGM the SU event of the week. This means, among other things: wider publicity, involving other events/ initiatives in the UGM itself and ensuring other events are not scheduled for the same time.
Another mistake identified by Ben was the introduction of online voting several years ago. Although it clearly had the noble intention of making it easier for students to vote, it had the predictable but unintended consequence of decreasing attendance, since students no longer had to turn up to vote. The more recent introduction of livestreaming has added fuel to the fire; nowadays students don’t have to turn up to hear the discussion either. While I would not reverse these changes – it’s not fair to expect everyone to be able to turn up every week, especially as the School shows no signs of reintroducing the timetable gap – I would introduce an in-room vote (in addition to the online vote) which has some bearing on the result. Perhaps you’d need a majority of attendees and a majority of online voters. This would encourage those who feel strongly about a motion (on either side) to turn up and
put their case to the room. I expect the question many readers are asking at this point is: hold on, weren’t you DemCom Chair this year – don’t you hold some responsibility? Of course I am partly responsible. The majority decision of DemCom at the start of the year to move UGMs to the evenings, was in hindsight a mistake, and one that I hope is reversed by the incoming DemCom. However, DemCom has very little influence and few resources, and must work within the institutional limits of the SU. Publicity of meetings and motions has been inadequate, especially at the start of the year, but this is an area in which DemCom itself is not involved. In addition, the voluntary role of DemCom in considering motions and interpreting the bye laws is a time-consuming
one in itself. What is really necessary for greater publicity is for the Sabb team to work with DemCom to prioritise UGMs as the weekly SU event.
Ben is also right to point out the polarisation between “the SU” and “the anti-SU” blocs. When people refer to the SU, they don’t mean all students, they mean the select crowd of Officers and hangers- on who go to SU events and are involved in the handful of societies with which SU Officers seem to have good relations. “The SU” must do more to engage with the vast majority of students who don’t find them welcoming or engaging.
On the other hand, in truth, there is no anti-SU bloc today. People who are opposed to SU political stances or the left-wing or liberation agenda simply do not engage. There has been no opposition to any motion this year, even on politically contentious issues like Donald Trump’s travel ban. This is a very serious and worrying development, and gives me the impression that students with certain political beliefs are not only apathetic about the SU, but afraid to speak out and voice their opinion.
The SU should make clear that everyone has an equal voice at UGMs, and we are respectful of each other’s views. But we also require those people who hold views that are currently less popular in the SU to speak up and get involved. It’s not good enough to say “Oh, UGMs are only for the left-wing people” and then complain that the SU is taking political stances that are at odds with most students. After an election season that some have interpreted as a minor defeat for “the SU bloc” and a resurgence of the AU and less political groups in SU democracy, the latter should remember that democracy happens every week at LSESU, not every year, and if they want to make change, they should get involved at UGM.
I have learned a lot from and enjoyed participating in UGMs in the last three years, and am sorry to see its current state. To return to the days of several hundred UGM attendees (not many years ago), SU Officers and both blocs all need to contribute to a drive to increase engagement in our democratic processes. It will not be easy. However, I have hope in that fact that the incoming General Secretary was UGM Chair, so understands these issues and has ideas to work with the incoming DemCom to make sensible reforms to UGMs and widen engagement.