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If this is what democracy looks like then please take it back

The General Assembly made a mockery of democracy argues Beth Perkin

This week’s General Assembly was to put it bluntly, a complete shambles. Over 500 people gathered to decide what sabbatical officer roles should represent UCL students, but the proceedings hardly ran smoothly.

That’s because the organisation of the Assembly was poor in every respect, undermining its political legitimacy from the beginning and allowing it to be treated like a joke. For starters, the numbers on the screen didn’t correspond with those in the voters’ booklets. But it was Mohammed Fahed, who acted as chairman for the Assembly, who set the farcical tone of the event. Not only did he fail to take control of the room, he seemed to have no knowledge of the motions being proposed. Without an assertive and knowledgable chairman there was no sense of cohesion and purpose to the proceedings. His failure to establish respect from the beginning meant that disrespect was the running theme of the evening.

Furthermore, the Institute of Education, who have only recently joined the Union, were given only two working days to prepare a statement. Considering the IOE brings in 8,000 post grad students, it is disgraceful that their voices were not considered earlier concerning a motion that determines whether or not to cut the role of the Post Graduate Students’ Officer.

Even worse than the organisation of the Assembly, was the bitter smacking of sexism. Lad culture was there in all its glory. A General Assembly, like any democratic forum, is supposed to be a safe place in which people can stand up freely and give their opinions. Instead it became a place of fear. When Black Minority Ethnic Students’ Officer Hajera Bejum spoke out in defence of the Sabbatical Roles she was met with a torrent of boos, in what could only be seen as a crude ploy at intimidation. Katendi Heald, a second year student at the Assembly, felt too intimidated to stay for the whole event, saying that: ‘Anyone who says that lad culture doesn’t exist at UCL would only need to sit in that room as a woman for five minutes and be made to feel that their opinion is irrelevant’.

Similarly, current Women’s Officer Annie Tidbury was angered by some of the representation of speech, and argued: ‘the claim that I *only* see two students a week is willfully misinterpreting what I said in my General Assembly speech. I’m not surprised that the proposers of Proposal 3 don’t understand what Women’s Officers do. If they did, they wouldn’t have tried to get rid of the position.’

‘Anyone who says that lad culture doesn’t exist at UCL would only need to sit in that room as a woman for five minutes and be made to feel that their opinion is irrelevant.’

This intimidation wasn’t exclusive to inside the Assembly, or even to those in favour of keeping the Sabbs. Prior to the event, sports team members were pressured into attending the Assembly and voting in favour of merging the Sabbatical Roles.

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On the UCLU Closed Group Hockey Facebook Page, members were bribed to turn up to vote: ‘Currently working to get some Motion 3 supporters beverages for added incentive’ while the committee was firm in telling members that their attendance was ‘not optional (we like equality like that)’, adding ‘and I am genuinely considering a register at the moment…’. Senior members of the society even threatened those who didn’t turn up with ‘a world of pain’.

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Democracy was essentially spat on when the sports teams decided to intimidate people into voting, because that’s not what democracy is. Forcing someone to turn up and vote a certain way is what happens in dictatorships, not democracies. The sports teams complained about the Union being undemocratic, yet ultimately used their ‘democratic’ power to cut the meeting short when their motion didn’t pass. They complained that their interests were not represented by the union, but whose interests were they even talking about? How many of them turned up because they wanted to and not for fear of the infamous society drinking challenges?

The true extent of the division within UCL was made clear when Gabriel Gavin took to the podium, shouting that he would bring people back and make the proposal go through. This outburst completely ignored the fact that nearly half the students voted against the motion. In viewing the societies as the only thing that matters in our Student Union, UCL is being split into two. Student Unions shouldn’t be exclusively for people willing to pay £90 to get drunk on a boat, or go to a ball. They should also represent the interests of students who do actually want a campaigning, political union. And if UCLU is, as it seems to be, split down the middle, then why are we only talking about cutting Sabbs, and not expenditures like Boat Club’s obscene £10K on new instructing methods?

What happened was a joke. An ugly, twisted joke.

What happened on Tuesday wasn’t remotely democratic. What happened was a joke. An ugly, twisted joke. A legitimate democratic process was turned into a farce. What should have been a free and open space instead became a discriminatory one. But there has to be a positive side to it. We can only hope that we have reached a turning point: Tuesday’s Assembly pointed to a much greater problem, that of the toxic attitudes that are rife in UCL. Ultimately, it’s this that we need to talk about getting rid of, not the Sabbs trying to fight the problem.

Featured image credit: Mimi Launder

This article was amended on Monday 15 December while further information was sought to clarify remarks.

If this is what democracy looks like then please take it back Reviewed by on December 14, 2014 .

The General Assembly made a mockery of democracy argues Beth Perkin

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9 COMMENTS

  • S. J. Speaks

    Totally bull, slanderous article if ever I’ve read one – never read such diatribe – such a misconstrued view on the whole meeting and tries to insinuate that anyone who favoured motion three was a misogynistic “Lad”. Especially the libelous remark about Sam’s speech which are taken out of context and given a completely false twist. This kind of attitude is certainly part of the problem we face in heading towards being a collaborative union and reaching a solution.

  • I did not say that everyone favouring motion three was a lad. Although I will say that lad culture is rife at UCL and needs to be handled with. I did not twist Sam’s statement, I heard it and could not believe that people were laughing and engaging with such sexist humour.

    • S. J. Speaks

      It’s good to see that this has now been removed!

  • A. Non

    The point put forth in this article is one that should be discussed, however the way it has been put forth and with classic journalism skills of misrepresentation is quite frankly outrageous. You’ve managed to belittle entire societies (and these are ones known for their strong relationships between teams of both sex) as sexist and anti-democracatic at a vote where the majority needed for any motion to pass was an astounding 75% majority, you wouldn’t get that in government let alone in a union as diverse as ours.

    Now onto your point of supposed enforced presence at the meeting. Anyone reading that and with any idea of the person who wrote it would be aware that this was clearly in jest, and if you saw the turn outs from the societies concerned, astoundingly low might I add, you’d also realise that this was not enforced.

    In future perhaps it would be wise to take information from both sides of the supposed story rather than submit a one-sided argument with no opportunity for the accused to defend themselves.

  • A Non

    Just the other day I read a really good long comment on here. I came back to show it to all my mates and its gone??!? WTF!
    Can someone from Pi get back to me with the full comment or maybe an explanation on why its gone? It was literally better than the article.
    it was about how the article was rubbish. id really quite like to see it tbh.

    Anyone??

    • Ben Monteith Ben Monteith

      What an odd thing to show to all your mates.

      We don’t delete comments, and only comments that have been pre-approved appear on the website, so I’ll presume you wrote said “really good long comment” (the alternative being you dream about comments on this website – but I think it’s best for all of us to assume no one does that). The comment did not make it past moderation due to being patronising, and arguably both ableist and misogynistic. Its length was primarily due to spending so much time on doling out bad writing advice, and ain’t no body got time fo’ dat.

  • a non

    I don’t understand why people are saying 75% majority is too much to expect when you’re changing bye-laws! These are whole governing structures. And yes it is the same is all the unions I have come across. People complaining about that clearly don’t understand what unions are about. If the majority of the union can’t agree to a change than the status quo remains. Simples.

  • Anon, you’ve shot yourself in the foot there with that one. Another piece of evidence of the misogynistic attitudes at UCL!

  • Anonymous

    The rest of the universities in London have 5 sabbatical officers, yet UCL has 10. Imperial’s union works better than UCL’s. Money can be distributed better

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