Campaigning begins in SUSU elections, TDB analyses the manifestos

Posted on February 24, 2011 by


Campaigning has begun for Southampton University Student Union’s (SUSU) annual election, with a wide slate of candidates running. Blowhole reporter Mike Gecko takes you through some of the main manifesto points and where the Union could do better.

Thirty candidates have stepped forward for the 10+ positions, with eight running for the President role. Most positions will see stiff competition, but only one person has stood for the Environment and Ethics Officer, only one Trustee position has been filled, and no-one has run for Equality and Diversity Officer.

This is also the first year where the newly defined positions are being rolled out, with an extra Vice President position created following much discussion and debate this past year. The main results of this process was the splitting of welfare and societies to reduce the old role’s massive remit, and to broaden the Winchester VP to include other satellite campuses with a view for eventual abolition of this post.

The manifestos are a mixed bag of different proposals and policies and, as per usual for a student election range, from some which are clever and well thought-out to the populist inane and unexciting.  Here we’ll go through some of the main issues represented, as well as more crucially what isn’t.

Democratic Defecit

Many candidates have picked up on the perceived democratic deficit at SUSU, accepting to an extent that the Union can be cliquey and decision making not very accessible being caught in a tangle of beuracracy and sheer boredom (e.g. see this past week’s farcical Union Council), promising measures to make the decision making process more transparent and get members involved more. However, few of these proposals go further than things like regular video blogs, ‘market’ research on how to get more people to the mind-crushingly boring UCs (subtle hint there), publishing meeting minutes faster and online and publicising the UC more (or renaming it…).

Sam Ling has picked up on last year’s farcical AGM and has suggested having voting on motions online for a week after to allow everyone to take part, which goes some of the way to the model of termly general meetings like this that some other unions use.  Having voted No against the NUS last term in part against their poor record on democracy (as campaigned on by the Democratic Students group), it seems hypocritical not to deal with these issues in Southampton too.  Which candidate will pick up most on this in office?

Societies and Welfare

Societies and engagement are a bit of fuzzier area, with all candidates very keen to make RAG more visible and raise more money and some vaguer points about training for society positions, being able to log volunteering for CVs and the like. From what we’ve heard at The Blowhole what many people involved with running societies want is for SUSU to listen to and include them in their plans more so that they can say what they think will work, but by the looks of it they probably shouldn’t rely on the union to push this through themselves.

Welfare and Communities is a new role for this year, prising off the welfare campaigns and student communities (postgrad, international, disabled etc.) from societies. Standard safe drinking / shagging campaigns etc. ahoy, along with encouraging different student groups to take part in stuff and get into volunteering. Frankie Fry does a good job looking at housing issues, which also feature in Sam Ling and Alex Cunnigham’s manifestos in creating a SUSU letting agency to stop people being ripped off by crap landlords.

For satellite campuses the expanded Winchester and Sites portfolio is contested between two WSA students and a NOC student – last year RON won this position following a campaign of dissatisfaction by WSA students, so this year will be interesting to see how it goes and whether including other campuses may swing it from being a Winchester only position.

Media independence

Media is set to be an interesting battleground, with all of the current heads of the Wessex Scene, Surge radio, SUSU TV and The Edge in the running. It’s perhaps no surprise that we at The Blowhole are most interested in their positions on press freedom, and are pleased to see that both Dan Webb and Jo McLo propose greater journalistic independence. Dax Wood is keen on ‘cracking the SUSU clique’ and reforming the UC too, but is a bit vaguer about how. A lot of the rest of it is generic making websites sexier / develop ‘branding’ (eurgh) etc., along with the inevitable suggestion of applying for a late licence for the cube again (presumably to get rejected by the City Council again and spend lots of money on being rejected again and so on ad infinitum).

Where’s the fees?

Despite the recent seismic shifts in higher education policy and the massive debate and movements by students across the country in recent months, along with the massive changes afoot at the University of Southampton itself as they implement their corporate strategic vision, most of the candidates are pretty quiet on this issue, with only some mildly suggesting asking for better services for the higher fees.

Considering the depth of feeling on this issue it is perhaps surprising that at least one candidate didn’t make it more of a main issue (as would be expected in many SUs at the moment), but then Southampton has never been much of a hotbed of student activism.  With such large changes being put through both on a national and local level it is crucial that the VP Academic Affairs is willing to make a fuss and target these issues, so we can only hope they develop this in office…

The candidates do make good though on trying to improve the tutoring, feedback and course rep systems, see the manifesto page for more details.

Environments and Ethics

A few candidates make good on environmental and ethical issues. Aaron Bali supports measures like allotments, retrofitting the SUSU building and maybe even solar panels, Dan Webb wants to work with different groups to improve the SUSU buildings terrible energy rating (although manages to misname Green Action, hopefully he would actually be able to find them if he does get in), whilst Sam Ling goes further and aligns his campaign with the Transition Union and University Initiative (making his manifestos one of the boldest in actually setting out big new things, much to Green Action’s and others delight).

Oh, and of course there’s Derek, who goes beyond last year’s promises of monorails to include annexing the isle of wight and declaring independence (ironically he’s also the candidate mentioning the fees issue the most too…).

What can SUSU do better?

So overall there seems to be some good proposals being put forward in these year’s manifestos, but few propose anything major. From our discussions with contacts in the Union, Wessex Scene, Societies and others, it is clear that there is a demand for changes in many areas which are not really being represented.

Union democracy needs to considerably improve, and publicising the UC better or making minutes more available won’t be enough to do this – serious structural change is needed to clear out a lot of bureaucracy and make SUSU closer to its grassroots.  Regular student assemblies (think AGMs but much better run) with the ability to make binding resolutions, including online voting, could be a way to do this, along with cracking open committees to include anyone who wants to help out.

The Wessex Scene and other media outlets needs more than soundbites on their independence to help them better scrutinise the union and university.  A hands-off relationship by the Union could be established to enshrine this independence in the SUSU constitiution, gauranteeing protection from the varying whims of new VP Comms.

And societies voices should be at the core of SUSU’s policy on societies – we’ve heard too many stories of decisions made by officers that societies know won’t work but have too little impact to affect them.  Consult the societies on any major decisions by reforming the tedious President and Treasurer’s meetings to become forums for all societies to contribute to the policies that affect them.

Another growing issue is that of the relationship with some of the permanent staff and manager, which have been questioned in recent serious allegations made by one ‘SUSU insider,’ and were an issue in the recent NUS referendum where ex-sabbs alleged that some of the current staff we’re working to support a yes vote or had conflicts of interest (voters may also like to check out which candidates were campaigning in the referendum, with many including Sam and Aaron from the no team and Charlie Torrible a yes team supporter running for president).

Beyond the Ballot Box

So check out the manifestos online and read them yourselves to make your decision on how to vote, but remember that if SUSU is to improve then it needs more radical changes over superficial or populist ones, and that achieving this may well need work beyond the ballot box.