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

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.

Beth Perkin
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