The first time I went to Union Council1 I witnessed a debate about e-voting. For over three-quarters of an hour the Union’s great and good argued the finer points of voting in LUSU elections online rather than in person at college polling stations. The debate covered such topics as security, technological failures, the election buzz at the polling station on voting day and whether candidates are likely to psychologically intimidate voters if they think they can get away with it.
In the end, Council voted in its favour. Paper votes and ballot boxes would be no more.
I was hooked.
I was also confused, mystified and at times utterly lost by the process I was witnessing. I had no idea whether I was expected to take part in any votes, what people meant when they stuck their hand in the air and demanded “Point of Information, Chair2!” or, on occasion, the conclusion of the debate I’d sat through.
Two years as a news writer for SCAN has given me repeated3 exposure to Union Council. I’ve learned where to sit4. I have a pretty good idea who’s who and what they’re doing there5. I’m still not sure of the difference between a point of information and a point of order6, or why either gets used, but most of the time I can manage not to look completely out of my depth, as I did the first time when I hovered uncertainly at the back for ten minutes because I had no idea what the hell I was doing there.
I’ve learned that for every meeting with a thrilling dispute there’ll be at least three that are as dull as ditchwater and over in half an hour. But sometimes you get lucky and there’s a controversial proposal, like e-voting or the Non-Sabb Review7, and the debate rages on.
I’ve also learned that any meeting of Union Council is vastly improved by the consumption of sugar. It keeps you awake when things are dull and adds to the thrill on the odd occasion they’re not.
During the Lib Dem Party Conference, I listened to a programme on the radio where members of the public were invited to quiz MPs on issues they felt strongly about. Several people stood up and demanded to know how the MPs slept at night after selling themselves down the river to join the Conservative coalition, whilst one questioner, just before the end, was so vocal in his outrage at the Government’s failings that the MP he was questioning was reduced to squeaking “The Labour Party did it! The Labour Party did it!” in response.
I would love to see that happen at Union Council. Alas, it hasn’t yet.
I don’t know what will be coming up8 in Union Council this year. But I do know that I shall be sat there, pen in hand, to witness it. And to keep my fingers crossed that I’ll be there the day officers are asked how they sleep at night after selling themselves down the river.
- 1In technical terms, Union Council is the chief policy-making body of the Students’ Union. In a rather more evocative description and the words of one current Sabbatical Officer, “it’s like Parliament.” This is where the decisions are made; this is where the Union’s direction is set.
- 2The Union Council Chair is there to ensure debate is fair, to keep the peace and to stop us all sitting there until midnight. Having many years’ involvement with GirlGuiding UK, I was used to meetings that warbled on for hours about matters completely unrelated to the topic under discussion. On occasion Union Council can warble on for hours, but I never fail to be amazed at the Chair’s ability to keep everyone’s mind on track.
- 3Three times a term it comes together, in the Management School Lecture Theatre Two, presided over by the Chair.
- 4To avoid confusion, the back row of seats is reserved for observers (generally there are not many of us)
- 5The decision-makers and direction-setters are the six Full-Time (or Sabbatical) Officers, around thirty Cross-Campus (or Part-Time) Officers, Presidents and Vice-Presidents of college JCRs and heads of Council’s sub-committees such as RAG and LU Cinema.
- 6They are terms of parliamentary debate used with great fluency by Union Council members to point out to other members that they have broken the rules of procedure. I think.
- 7The most exciting piece of theatre I have ever seen, which took place in November 2009 in front of at least thirty observers and created the current system of Cross-Campus Officers.
- 8I have been told that a review is taking place that will make all these things clear to first-time observers and prevent them from appearing quite as uninitiated as I did.