The past couple of weeks have been a controversial time on campus but one issue seems to have been neglected: the dearth of competition in student elections. In the SRC alone, two of the four executive positions, including the president, were uncontested, whilst out of 34 non-executive positions only nine received more than a single nominee and a further 16 remain unfilled at this moment. Even with the implementation of online voting the turnout in the elections was only slightly higher than that of the preceding week’s independence referendum and none of the five postgraduate convenors’ positions were filled. It seems like a simple point but if you feel strongly about an issue then engaging in the democratic process is the way to effect a change; no action taken is a tacit endorsement of the status quo. Over 700 people joined a Facebook group entitled ‘Reform the GUU’ yet their presence at the other union’s AGM was conspicuous by its absence. Instead the hand over to the new board of management was a sombre affair, laying out their vision for the future of the union but devoid of the sort of confrontation that those in attendance had expected.
So why is competition important? Across all four student bodies I’m sure that all the newly elected candidates will approach their new roles with diligence and professionalism (lol Stuart Ritchie) but merely the process of having to defend their manifesto, commitments and personal suitability is an important part of a democratic system. In John Stuart Mill’s famous defence of free speech he commented that the presence of dissenters from a particular viewpoint, bringing forth fresh challenges, forced people to re-examine the grounds for their convictions and brought about a better, more plural society. In student elections the presence of rival candidates encourages students to not only read up on what each of their prospective representatives stands for but also emboldens them to take a more active role in our university community and hold to account those who claim to act in their name. It’s rare for members of any large organisation to have such an opportunity to affect the way their institution is run and it’s disappointing that so few have chosen to take it.
However, before hand-wringing types suggest that student apathy means that campus democracy is in its death throes, there are still bright sparks out there. Last Monday saw elections to the board of the Glasgow University Dialectic Society, organisers of the recent Independence referendum and banner-holders for student debating on campus. Perhaps because people whose idea of fun involves sitting around arguing about the intricacies of the political process are generally pretty keen on voting for stuff or perhaps in response to the controversial events of the past few weeks the turnout was high and the level of competition intense. Just a few years have passed since a particularly controversial ex-GUU president claimed that the Dialectic Society was a ‘rabid dog that needed putting down’ but under the leadership of Emily Askham and Michael Gray the society has gone from strength to strength.
Three candidates with radically different agendas stood for the position of President and after a brief discussion about the relative merits of first-past-the-post and the alternate vote method, the sealed ballots were completed, with medical student and Dialectic treasurer Hannah Gower winning out over Peter Stewart and John McKee, who ran on a controversial agenda of allowing only women and gay men full member status within the society until such time as the University addresses allegations of sexism and misogyny within campus bodies. An impressive total of twenty one candidates stood for the nine available positions.
Gower, who is also captain of the Glasgow Karate Club and School Representative for Medicine, addressed the events of the last weeks and the success of the independence, suggesting that it was up to the society to take the lead and expand debating for all across campus with a series of debates addressing the issues that students are talking about.
As departing Dialectic Society President Michael Gray suggested, within the next twelve months Glasgow University students will have the opportunity to vote for a new rector to replace Charles Kennedy MP. Perhaps the moment for students to reassert their political edge is coming sooner rather than later.