Dan Jacobson investigates in the midst of the current SUUCL election
The issue of representation within Students’ Union UCL has always remained enduring and contentious. Students have consistently been assured that this is not a problem, as the officers working within the Union are elected. However, the Big Vote 2017, which included the election of the current Sabbatical Officers, saw votes from only 4,729 students, totalling around 10% of the total UCL student population. In addition, the diversity of the elected Sabbatical Officers, particularly politically, has always been questionable. This can be seen clearly by looking at the individuals who endorsed the candidates during their elections campaigns.
According to the Union rules, each candidate “may provide a list of up to ten supporters with your nomination”, which can then be displayed on their manifesto. Whilst candidates may only be endorsed by individuals, as opposed to societies, society positions taken by supporters is almost always included in the candidates’ manifestos.
An endorsement does not count for anything in real terms, such as votes. However, it is often used as an opportunity for a society to campaign for a given candidate, allowing them to garner more support prior to the elections. According to the election rules, candidates may spend “a maximum of £100” on their election campaigns. However, the backing of a society, via endorsement by an individual, can add significant strength to a campaign. Some societies have been seen to conduct this more effectively than others.
The most notable example of this is the Islamic Society, whose president last year, Bilal Aziz, elected last year as Union Chair, endorsed five of the seven current Sabbatical Officers. At a recent General Assembly, the society came under scrutiny for their use of iPads during elections which has previously resulted in candidates being deducted votes, following allegations of harassment, and coercing students into voting inadvertently. This was made clear by current Welfare and International Officer Aiysha Qureshi, who, given the tactics utilised by the Islamic Society, argued that the motion to remove their usage in elections targeted Muslim candidates. The society was approached for comment but has not provided any.
It is clear across campus that this technique is being used by the current crop of candidates too. According to a first-year history student, who was approached by a candidate with an iPad, “He just told me a name and then clicked submit for me”.
To investigate these claims further, I decided to collect data going back to the 2011/12 elections to see if endorsements by individuals from certain societies had any effect on the overall outcome. These data refer to endorsements made specifically clear in each candidate’s manifesto, when applying for a Sabbatical Officer role, and was compared to the overall outcome of the election. These claims have been confirmed.
The most effective society was the Islamic Society, who have collectively made 34 endorsements since 2011, 32 turning out to be successful. It was also seen that, independently of any other society, an endorsement by a member of the Islamic Society can increase the probability of a candidate being successful by over 60%.
The data also showed significant overlap between the Islamic Society and other notably successful societies. Individuals from the Friends of Palestine Society, Arabic Society, Somali Society, Pakistani Society, and Hip-Hop Society have made a total of 40 endorsements across 21 different candidates since 2012, all of whom received additional endorsement from an individual from the Islamic Society. Only one of them was not successful.
The Labour Society have also been noted to provide support for successful candidates, with 17 of their 20 endorsements resulting in success.
These statistics have been used to correctly predict the results for 15 of the past 21 Sabbatical Officer roles contested by more than one candidate, going back to the Big Vote 2014, using information about society endorsements alone. They have also been used to make predictions for this year’s Leadership Elections.
“The people who are usually running are either left-wing and Labour Society-backed, or Islamic Society-backed” says Max Traeger, a committee member for the UCL Debating Society. “It isn’t very good for democracy if not enough people vote in order to stop these societies having a monopolisation of power.”
Debating Society is a notable society in this situation, as they have actively endorsed candidates over the past few years, but have had little success, with only 3 successful endorsements from 11. Other societies for which this has been the case include the Model United Nations Society, who have had 1 success from 10 endorsements, and Pi Media itself, who have made 14 endorsements, from which only 5 have been successful.
“It’s partly about getting members who are loyal to a certain decision”, suggested Traeger, referring to the society’s past record. “Debating Society are usually quite neutral. Nobody says, ‘If Aidan [President of Debating Society] thinks this, that’s what we should do.’” Traeger fears that this may be the case concerning the Islamic Society, saying “I don’t think it’s Islamophobic to suggest that one society has so much power. If any society had that much power, they should be scrutinised.”
There are also additional concerns regarding lack of engagement with the majority of the student population. This opinion is held by Robert Nash, Treasurer of the Conservative Society. “People don’t really know about the mechanisms of the Union.”, he said. “I don’t know if most students know that the Union does anything other than run bars.”
Society monopolisation is not necessarily bad. Many view this as evidence of certain societies using the elections as a way of manipulating the union for individual gains. However, this can also be considered as encouraging involvement in student politics, which is undeniably positive. The issue only arises if it amounts that the union is seen as either not acting in the best interests of students or directing negativity towards a specific student group.
Recently, following the announcement that the leadership elections for all societies would take place online, many societies voiced concerns that this decision was not in the best interests of members. “This would have been bad for smaller societies such as the Conservative Society, because our AGMs are generally not attended by that many people, and nominees can be in short supply.”, said Nash. “In a smaller society it is quite easy to hijack the elections by bringing friends in support.” He noted that whilst this may not pose a great concern this year, as voting in a society election requires having been a member since February, it may become more apparent in later years. Since this announcement, the majority of societies have ensured that their elections do not take place online.
Another example of this concerned the recent debate of UCL’s membership in the National Union of Students (NUS), which has remained unclear since it was decided to be put to a vote during a Council meeting in June 2017. The vote, which took place in late October, was deemed invalid, following a vote turnout of just over 2%. This has been owed to the Union providing a lack of advertising for the vote, speculated to be due to their reluctance to leave.
Following the poor turnout, it was determined that the rule would be decided at a General Assembly, though this was pushed forward to an Emergency General Assembly to be held two weeks earlier, leaving just one week for promotion of the event. The UCL Vote Remain in NUS campaign posted on Facebook that “the only promotion of [the meeting] is a handful of posters on campus and a small item buried in the union website’s calendar with no proper announcement” and announced that they would not be attending the meeting as they did not “believe it can have any democratic legitimacy”. The meeting was 10 people short of validity.
A notable example of the dangers of a lack of diversity in the Union was seen through their response to the re-invitation of Israeli activist Hen Mazzig. This was confirmed when the Union shared a photo made by the Friends of Palestine Society referring to Mazzig as a “war criminal” and advertised the subsequent protest.
In addition, many sabbatical officers were present at the protest, as well as the initial protest which took place during Mazzig’s last visit in October 2016, which the Union called to block. In a video filmed for PiTV, Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) Students’ Officer Ayo Olatunji said, “If you are inviting back a member of the IDF, you are pro-Israeli”.
The Union also voted to support the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement in early 2016, though any practical measures, such as the boycotting of Israeli goods, were removed by the union’s board of trustees, having been told that such moves “cannot be legally implemented”. It is still official Union policy.
“If you see the people who run for election, they are all endorsed by the Friends of Palestine Society”, said Alex Taic, President of the UCL Friends of Israel Society. “It effects the fact that when they make decisions they are not representing us.”
She referred to a motion submitted by Olatunji to the Union Council on 23rd November 2017 which resolved to prevent IDF soldiers from speaking on campus. Taic claimed that the Friends of Israel Society were not informed about the motion and was disappointed about the lack of perspectives present regarding the issue. She continued, “the Israel Society and the JSoc fall under BME, but Ayo is the one holding the megaphone.”
Whilst the necessity for debate concerning the Israel-Palestine conflict is obvious, the greater concern is that the actions of the Union cross the boundary into anti-Semitism. Here, Taic stressed that she does not claim that the Union itself is anti-Semitic. However, she does note that “holding Israel to a double standard falls under the new definition of anti-Semitism” and is concerned that whilst the UK has adopted this new definition, it has not yet reached our students’ union.
In the past six years of union elections, neither the Jewish Society nor the Friends of Israel Society have endorsed a candidate, which Taic says reflects the resulting interests of UCL’s Jewish population, following this lack of representation. “It would be so great if a Jewish person said ‘I want to be BME officer’” she said, though she voiced concerns as to the possible backlash that this decision could have on the candidate in question.
Photo: Students’ Union UCL