Among the active bodies of the University, from societies and JCRs to the highest tiers of University Management, it’s hard to find someone who does not hold a view on Michael Payne. In his two terms as President of Lancaster University Students’ Union he has been a divisive figure and for that reason alone will probably linger in the memory longer than most LUSU presidents.
“I never set out to be popular, that was never my intention,” he says looking back over his five years at Lancaster. “You could go back and look at manifestos and you wouldn’t see ‘Point One: To become the most popular person on campus’. I came to do the job and you’re not always going to please people.”
Payne’s term in office will be remembered for more than just being the first time a LUSU President has completed two terms. It has also seen the biggest restructuring of the Students’ Union since the organisation came into being. This has ranged from the largely unknown review of the Union’s Constitution, the internally divisive Part Time Officers review and Payne’s raison detre, last year’s Sabbatical Review. The latter saw a major change in the structure of LUSU’s paid officer positions (now renamed Full Time Officers, a group of six elected students officials who are employed by the Students’ Union for a year), and was the completion of a particular part of Payne’s vision for the organisation.
“They didn’t pop into my head,” he answers when asked when the idea of the restructuring reviews first came to him. “There was a very deliberate long-term plan, and it was a long-term plan that was in a sense agreed and supported with the previous LUSU President [Tim Roca] and I continue to support that plan and I hope next year’s team will realise that no amount of short-termism is going to achieve for students. It might make you popular, but you’re not here to be popular, you’re here to get a job done.”
As a first year in Cartmel College Payne fell into talking with the then President of Cartmel JCR, Sooz Palmer. Palmer herself would go on to be a LUSU President, but Payne took the route without ever having been part of a JCR. Tied more to the LUSU than to a college, he had his own very clear vision of how the Union should be operating. On the Sabbatical Review he says: “There was clearly a very strong feeling amongst students about how they wanted their representative structure in the Students’ Union to look and quite rightly so. But what we should be very, very clear about is nobody had ever had that debate before, nobody had ever actually set out their vision and while nobody’s coming to the table with a vision organisations won’t move forward.
“I think I’ve done that. I think my vision isn’t always the right vision, but it is a vision I believe in and I do not enter a discussion or debate without being fully behind the vision I’m setting on the table.”
When then has his vision not been right?
“The phrase ‘they’re not always right’, I don’t know; other people would have to judge. But if what you’re getting at is ‘do I have regrets? Are there things which I think we got slightly wrong?’, then yes. I don’t think we went far enough with the Sabbatical review, I don’t think the student body was ready for a more radical approach and I can understand that.”
Payne’s vision and the one that eventually came into being varied around the proposed addition of a LUSU Vice-President for Student Activities, which would have been responsible for Societies and Sports. At a General Meeting held to ratify the review the Athletic Union turned out in force, and so ensured for themselves an officer wholly dedicated to sports.
“I wish I’d fought tooth and nail at every waking minute of the day to make sure the Vice-President (Student Activities) went through, because I think that was the right thing for the organisation,” Payne says. “I think we’re beginning to prove that now that the role of the Vice-President (Finance, Events, Democracy and Societies) was a mistake and I accept that that was a mistake. I think it should have been the VP (Events and Democracy), because societies would have moved and I think the finance thing is a bit of window dressing actually.
[pull name=”Michael Payne” title=”LUSU President 2008-2010″ position=”left”]I’m not going to sit here and defend myself against some ridiculous cheap pot-shot, I think which is exactly what it is. Anybody can look back over my work here…[/pull]
“That’s one of my biggest regrets and I just wish I’d fought harder for the wider interests of the people. That we’d engaged more with the societies … They’d have ended up having half of a Sabbatical Officer’s time instead of what is at the moment is between a quarter and a third.”
The other contentious issue of the Sabbatical Review was the removal of a guaranteed women’s representative on the Full Time Officers team. Payne had been part of a group who campaigned for the removal of the Women’s Officer position back in 2007. At the time the proposal went to a referendum, open for all students to vote on. Although the majority voted for the removal of the position, the referendum didn’t reach the required quota and so the result was discounted.
Successfully getting rid of the position earned Payne and LUSU a place on the Labour Students’ ‘It’s Time To Get Angry’ board at the National Union of Students’ Women’s Campaign Conference.
The sequel to the Sabbatical Review came this year with the Part Time Officers Review. This review was contentious in its own right, though the dividing lines were drawn within the Union itself more so than within the student body. There is still a feeling amongst some Part Time Officers (a group of cross-campus elected student volunteers) that they weren’t properly consulted before the Review took place, a feeling which has left behind a bad taste.
“The Review wasn’t a way of downsizing or degrading Part Time Officers,” Payne insists. “It was about making them more important, bringing them to the forefront and making them relevant to students. Because that’s what it’s all about. It’s not about personalities within the Students’ Union, this isn’t a private gentleman’s club. It’s about the students that sit outside of the organisation. So my view on supporting the Part Time Officers is hoping they will come forward and is about people having vision.”
Vision is a key word with Payne. He keeps coming back to it in reference to his own time within LUSU, and is still looking for it in the Union’s Part Time Officers though admits he thinks “you struggle to find that.”
“I think you find one or two in 50 people who are really passionate about what they want to do. Whether people agree or disagree, I’d like to think people would struggle to argue about my levels of passion. I think I’m very passionate about what I do.”
Having invested most of his time here at Lancaster into being an officer of the Students’ Union, Payne has an institutional memory that is hard to be reckoned with. It is something some student officers have found intimidating when crossing it, and even those who don’t find it hard to contend with his knowledge of the Union and University. Does he feel he can be an intimidating prospect to less experienced officers?
“Of course people are going to have the view ‘well this guy has a certain level of experience and he’s been here for two years’ but I’ve always been very, very clear, if someone’s got a criticism to make or a question to ask then they pose that question. I’m not going to take my foot off the gas in terms of the level of commitment I have for the job simply because somebody may feel a little bit upset that I’m being a bit vociferous about my passion, because I think that’s the right thing for the organisation.
“Look I apologise if anybody has felt in anyway intimidated as an officer or a student by the passion and commitment – because that’s what it is – that I have put into my decisions but I’m not about to change. I don’t think it’s my job to sit there silent whilst other people are contributing and have nothing to say.”
Reigning himself in a bit he added that there are some “excellent people” involved in with the Union, who do not get paid by the organisation but do it out of their determination to make a difference to students’ lives. “I’m not going to sit here and criticise or make general assertions or criticisms of the whole body of Part Time Officers or JCR Officers. I think every organisation has its problem people and its people who are never willing to give 100% commitment that other people have. But every organisation has real hidden gems as well and people who work very hard.”
Payne’s unofficial slogan of the Part Time Officers Review was that you don’t have to be an officer to be involved in the Students’ Union. Have all the reviews and changes then made a difference to amount of people getting involved or taking an interest in the governing of LUSU?
“I think it will be a perennial problem,” says Payne. “How to tackle that problem is by investing time in people, and if you invest time in people they’ll invest time in you […] It is about investing more time in people, you’ve got to get out there and talk to people, you’ve got to open yourself up to criticism and be there in the public eye.”
Criticism is something Payne knows about well, both the constructive and unconstructive kind. Within the student body there are those who will criticise the Union as a whole, and then those who save their poison shards for its President. (Search for ‘Michael Payne Lancaster is an idiot’ in Google and you’ll find the blog of one disgruntled Post-Grad.) Payne admits that sometimes the shards get through the armour built up by being a public figure – “Criticism can sometimes be quite hurtful. It can sometimes be crushing if you think your vision is right and you’re being told ‘this guys a lunatic, what on Earth is this guy on about?’, but I think you have to learn to cope with that.
“You’ve got to have tough skin in a job like this, otherwise you won’t last. Or you can sail and drift for a year changing nothing. Because with change comes upsetting people and with that comes, inevitably, creating a group of people who will have a difference of opinion.”
[pull]I don’t think I’ve been any different as a person. I think I’ve been as approachable as I always have been. People are what matter to me in life.[/pull]
When he does get rattled is on the subject of careerism. It’s another popular criticism that Payne’s main driving force of the past five years has been to build up a portfolio fit for a job in politics, and it’s one that obviously annoys him.
“Somebody else can make a judgement call on that,” he remarks when asked about any careerist intent. “I’m not going to sit here and defend myself against some ridiculous cheap pot-shot, I think which is exactly what it is. Anybody can look back over my work here, whether they agree or disagree and see that I worked very, very hard […] I think this silliness about careerism and constantly criticising people about careerism is ridiculous.
“Let’s just pause on the word careerist: everybody’s careerist. Everybody wants to progress their career. Just because somebody goes into being a representative or politics I don’t think you can then start treating them in a different way to the way anybody else’s career would progress.”
Regardless of the motives his career at Lancaster has been a long one. As mentioned before, he is the first President to have sat for two terms, and only the second Lancaster Full Time Officer to do so (the first went from the old position of Education and Welfare Officer to President). Given the “very deliberate long term plan” involved in the restructuring of the Union, how long was it before Payne considered running for a second term? “It was close to the nominations periods and I got the feeling that there wasn’t anyone else coming forward who was passionate enough, and there’s a judgement to be made there over whether someone else has the passion that you have, whether they have the vision that you have,” he said.
“There’s always a question that sits at the back of your mind when you’re in a position like this one, and I don’t think you’ll find many positions where you’re elected and your there for a year. A year is a sort amount of time at a university and the academic year is a short amount of time I there was an awful lot to be done.”
Payne was aware that a second election was effectively a referendum on his first year in office, and believes that it’s the fear of rejection by the student electorate which is part of the reason why more Full Time Officers haven’t stood for re-election before. “There is a difficulty, you’ve held a senior post within the organisation, you’re an institutionalised person if you like and I would imagine there’s a fear – it certainly ran through my mind – ‘what’s happens if I lose?’ […] The students decided in the end, and I’m proud of the decision I made and I wish I could continue because I think there is more I could give.”
The second year presented Payne with the opportunity for another Lancaster first: an officer standing for a Full Time Executive position within the National Union of Students. Driven on by the Fairer Fees and Funding campaign, Lancaster in Payne’s second year gained a reputation on the national union circuit. The NUS even used Lancaster’s campaign slogan for its own national drive to encourage students to vote strategically in the General Election (for candidates who backed a pledged to vote against a rise in tuition fees).
The position Payne went for was the Vice President (Higher Education). He came last out of six candidates, with even candidates from the political fringes (in NUS terms Conservatives and Socialists) faring better. The winner was a member of the National Union’s National Executive Committee, Usman Ali. This fact alone meant the odds were stacked against Payne, so what made him go for it in the first place?
“Out of no different view than the one here,” he says with a hint of idealism. “I got to know the NUS well after two years as a president and I think there are problems with it, very real problems with it and I wanted to change it. I’m a firm believer that if you want to change something you have to throw your hat into the ring and you have to put yourself out there and take the risk.”
Does he regret not winning the position? Yes, but he has a sense of why it happened.
“I think there’s a model that the NUS has historically had that someone has to pay their way by being an unpaid Part Time Officer. And I wasn’t going to do that. I wasn’t going to sign up to some basket weaving course, as people have done, to pretend I’m still a student to be a Part Time Executive Officer and then move to a Full Time position. I think that’s false, and it’s not what I wanted to do. So it was VP (Higher Education) or not for me, and as the elections goes it wasn’t, and you move on.”
He admits that LUSU could be accused of something similar: there is a model people are expected to form to before taking on a Full Time Officer role. But in his own view he transcended that model. Getting his “hands dirty” at Lancaster didn’t help his chances (remember that ‘Time To Get Angry’ Board?). “I think I took decisions that weren’t popular decisions, and weren’t populist decisions that will have given me a reputation around the country.”
What comes out from Payne most during the course of the interview is his unwillingness to speculate on how his actions will and have been judged. There is a great sense that “other people would have to judge” about this or that. Most people have already made their judgements, both personal and professional, and those judgements vary greatly. They’re likely to continue varying as the impacts of Payne’s years in office outlive the life of his presidency. But how has it all impacted on him?
“I don’t think I’ve been any different as a person. I think I’ve been as approachable as I always have been. People are what matter to me in life. Fighting on behalf of people is what gets me up in the morning and what keeps me going and I just hope that the students think I have done that to the best of my ability.
“In some respects I probably have been a slightly different President [this year compared to last] but I think fundamentally the same Michael Payne sits here who sat here two years ago and five years ago.”