Analysis: The feeling of cliqueiness is obvious, how to fix it isn’t

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Notoriety is key. It may not be better to be hated than to be loved, but without doubt it’s better to be hated than to suffer the sting of indifference.

It is clear that this maxim holds true in the case of LUSU’s Full Time Officer elections. There is a very strong link between past JCR officers and successful FTO candidates, which boils down to one simple fact: on a JCR, people know who you are.

The public face of JCRs has been rather a topic of contention lately, with a succession of comment pieces in SCAN arguing whether they ought to be seen by students as some kind of exclusively powerful in-crowd. Such was the strength of feeling inspired by these articles that, to date, six out of eight JCR Presidents I contacted for their thoughts has replied to me – an unprecedented level of response in my two and a half years of student journalism.

Perhaps a more relevant question, though, is why JCRs are seen this way. It’s not just a couple of SCAN commentators who feel like this; 73% of students we asked felt that JCRs were synonymous with cliques.

By the very nature of a JCR this is to a certain extent inevitable. JCRs need to work together and be seen together; if they don’t their ability to make things happen for students would be severely compromised.

But the furore raises the wider issue of communication between students, JCRs and LUSU. If so many students believe that JCRs are nothing but cliques, does this put them off getting involved? The evidence seems to suggest it does.

Although some of the statistics from our survey were striking – 82% of students questioned don’t know what an FTO position constitutes, 74% don’t care who’ll win them in the up and coming elections – none were particularly surprising. Equally unsurprising were the findings of a recent research survey carried out by LUSU as part of its new Strategic Plan: it is seen by uninvolved students as internally-centric and although it talks a lot within a small group of people the facts don’t disperse to the wider student body.

For proof of this we need look no further than the JCR and LUSU websites. Although elections took place in December 2010, half of the JCR websites have yet to be updated with details of the 2011 Execs, and as for LUSU, it is so difficult to find any useful information on there that just thinking about it makes me want to weep.
And it’s more than just a lack of communication, it’s a failure to engage.

When an organisation like LUSU, representing over ten thousand students, can organise a General Meeting and get only 74 to turn up, as happened on Tuesday Week Five, it’s clear there’s some kind of failure somewhere.

It may be that General Meetings tend to concern themselves with issues that most students simply do not care about. The last one covered – or would have, if it had attracted the 200 people necessary to vote anything through – a debate on casting a Vote of No Confidence in NUS President Aaron Porter. The effect of such a vote on the lives of students at Lancaster would be infinitesimal. (Which perhaps raises certain questions about the efficacy of the NUS, but that’s another story.)

It may also be that our collegiate system condemns LUSU to its position at the back of most people’s minds. For the majority of students faced with a problem, their JCR is the first point of call. The college is there to provide accommodation, entertainment, advice and free condoms. The JCR is more easily identifiable, more easily located than the LUSU officers hidden away in their bunker.

There’s a reason that turnout in JCR elections is consistently higher than Cross Campus Officer elections despite both taking place at the same time: JCRs may come across as close-knit cliques and they might put people off wanting to get involved but there will be far more students who recognise a member of their JCR than recognise a LUSU Cross Campus or Full Time Officer.

I don’t know the solution to the problem. JCR-attained notoriety might help you win an election, but whether it helps you engage with the vast majority of students you represent once you’ve won it is debatable.

Student politicians are always going to be faced with student apathy; just as there are students who go out and make the effort to become involved there are those who, whatever steps are taken, will not care. But in the middle there’s a grey area of students who might be interested if LUSU only managed to reach out to them in the right way.

How to do it? That is the question LUSU must answer.

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