This afternoon (Friday the 25th of February) saw the candidates competing in this years sabbatical election campaign take part in a husting event designed to allow them to present their manifesto points, suitable experience and take questions from the audience. Whilst many of the candidates gave good accounts of themselves and presented strong points, there was a noticeable overlap between many the points raised, even across positions. This kind of predictability in pledge year on year on one hand represents a consistent demand for the topic in question but also could be seen to demonstrate a lack of either originality or feasibility.
What follows is a hypothetical ‘anti-manifesto’ that doesn’t represent any one sabbatical position but puts forward points that never seem to be taken on board, either in sentiment or practise. They attempt to ‘think the unthinkable’ and challenge the unspoken assumptions involved in campaigns. Whilst the points do not necessarily have any correlation to my own beliefs, or indeed reflect viable or positive ideas, my hope is that they represent an important criticism of the continued set of core manifesto points that annually appear in manifestos and act as a source of reflection for the candidates in 2012.
Close the Cube
Every year candidates will present new initiatives or themes aimed at revitalising the student union night cub and attracting a steady (and profitable) crowd throughout the year. This reflects the continued expense of the operation of the Cube and the fact that it continues to make a loss, a fact acknowledged by many of the candidates today. Basic business logic would suggest this is unsustainable and it is clear that the Cube is simply unable to compete with other venues in Southampton.
The Cube has however an almost sacred and untouchable status amongst those involved with the union, one that ultimately is unjustifiable when the space could be utilised for any number of more effective schemes. As an example, the Stag’s Head is a far better attended and ‘coherent’ venue that is frequently overcrowded for big sporting events or karaoke. An ‘unthinkable’ manifesto point could thus be to close the Cube as a nightclub and expand the Stag’s Head into the space.
Close/Sell off/Distance from Winchester and Sites
This idea is clearly more controversial to the Cube closure (and even less likely) but one based on a similar principle. Every year candidates stand and attempt to suggest that they will be able to shake up the sheer divide that exists between the Highfield Campus and Winchester. As is clear by the continuation of this theme trying to maintain a coherent student community between the two is difficult to the point of futility. The logic and ‘unthinkable’ here would simply be to cut the link and to either seek to integrate it into another university (for example Winchester) or close the site and either move or cease teaching the relevant courses.
Even if this isn’t implemented, there is a need to reform for the election system for Winchester. If Highfield students are unable to vote for Winchester candidates, for example, why are they campaigning to them during the week?
Reform of the Union Council
Much is made of the need for accountability and visibility for the sabbs and occasionally this is extended to the council in manifesto points. However these points tend to simply emphasise greater publicity of the result of discussions. Union Council needs a far more democratic process of election, potentially in a similar style to sabbs who have to stand in a public election. As it stands those who turn up to the first council of a year are all but guaranteed a job there and then, being granted important voting rights throughout the year. It would also demand a greater level of involvement in the position. The recent Nestle fiasco demonstrates well either the lack of interest that some on council have in the motions brought to them, or a sense of concern when a potentially controversial decision is placed before them.
Union or Business?
A point I raised to the presidential candidates was whether they considered SUSU to be a union or a business. The question was intended to be deeper then it might seem at first sight and relates to the operation and expansion of the union.
If a union, then some of the manifesto points this year (such as the suggested creation of a ‘Union Letting Agency’) certainly raises questions as to the accuracy of this label. If business is needed to support the union, as some candidates suggest, why stop at a letting agency. The Cube could be closed and replaced with a low-price supermarket (as an expansion of the SUSU shop) or clothes shop, both of which are also areas of noticeable demand to students.
If a business, then a compelling argument can be made that elected graduates are a poor system to manage a multi-million pound business. It also questions whether it is right or efficient for the union to be taking any kind of political stance on national issues, such as the student fees debate which (for the purposes of this article) I will argue is a lost cause and a waste of any further time or money spent in opposition to.
Abolition of the Sabbatical Positions
The complete removal of sabbatical positions is a final point and one that in part follows on from the previous one. Student politics can inspire as much resentment as it does involvement and it would be difficult to argue that it doesn’t have significant failings. These include the ineffectiveness of sabbs at bringing about real change, the limited term of office and lack of true electoral accountability and some labelling them as mere ‘popularity contests’ amongst others. It would be bizarre in the extreme (as well as unclear in possibility) for a candidate to run on a platform of abolishing the positions themselves, but candidates should at least consider how they will prove to critics that they could fulfil their brief better then a hired individual and if their brief itself is really needed.
The points discussed above do not represent a clear direction for a future candidate nor are they necessarily in any way suitable or defendable positions. It is also only a start, there are many other radical or ‘unthinkable’ points that people could add. What I hoped for them to do is to highlight how many manifesto points crop up year on year and that I believe this negatively impacts on participation and enthusiasm in SUSU as a whole. I hope that they act as points for discussion, and potentially derision, in the process forcing people to qualify exactly why they believe their own beliefs to be coherent.