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Loughborough University, the University of Liverpool, the University of Manchester and the University of York all represent very different types of Students’ Unions to Lancaster’s and hence have very different styles of elections.
At Loughborough the Students’ Union is the heart of the University and elections take on an American style, with a high media presence capturing candidates on the campaign trail. Last year one candidate used a flash mob as an innovative way of capturing students’ attention.
“Candidates are known for spending over £600 on their campaign,” said Lucy Hopkins, Loughborough Students’ Union President.
There is a huge amount of information available to candidates on running campaigns, from where to buy sweets to choosing a successful theme. Hustings involves two minute speeches from candidates followed by interactive tasks set by the current officer. With 54% of undergraduate students voting it is clear that methods of engagement are working. 33% of undergraduates voted in Lancaster’s 2010 elections, compared to a national average of 12.8%
York University elections appear to be even more entertaining, with several joke candidates running for each position. Three years ago the student body elected a pirate as their SU President. Mad Cpt’n Tom ran with little experience and without ever being part of student politics. He wasn’t intending to win, or even be a serious competitor, yet he defeated two other candidates with his manifesto that included “pointing a cannon at the Vice Chancellor’s house” and “cutting classes for all”.
As one student remarked: “Student politics in York is powerlessness; the Students’ Union has no power to influence the University, so we may as well vote for silly things.”
Outside of the comical stunts, the structure of the University is remarkably similar to Lancaster in its collegiate set-up and Full Time Officer (FTO) positions. Like Lancaster, candidates often rely on their JCR experience. A perception of a JCR clique is also evident. “We all helped each other campaign and our friendships have improved drastically as we are always together, so I understand where the clique idea comes from,” said Chris Edwards, Events Officer at Halifax College and YUSU Events Officer candidate.
In comparison, FTO elections at Liverpool are more elusive. There are only four positions: Union President, Deputy President and two Vice Presidents. All candidates run for Union President and the candidate with the most votes is offered the Presidential position, the second most popular candidate Deputy President and so on. There are no set remits for these positions although the President and Deputy tend to cover more academic issues, whilst the Vice Presidents cover welfare and sustainability.
There appears to be less student engagement at Liverpool since only 19% of students voted in the last election. Campaign rules are more lax, yet unclear. With no specific campaign period or information on how best to campaign elections create less of an impact.
Students do not have to have previous experience of being involved with their Union, however “there are of course a lot of involved students, [such as] active course reps or society leaders,” said Josh Wright, Liverpool Guild of Students President.
These universities do not appear to be particularly politically engaged, focusing more on the issues that matter to the students rather than aligning themselves to a political party. “Loughborough is not really a political Students’ Union,” said Hopkins. “I do believe that if someone came in very party political they would not get elected.”
This is in stark contrast to Manchester, where elections are taken very seriously and are predominantly political. Without a collegiate structure candidates are drawn from a wider range of backgrounds but are often affiliated with a political party. Current Campaigns Officer Amanda Walters was Chair of the Amnesty Society and a Council Member before being elected, acknowledged that “elections are political; Labour Students tend to form a slate, as does the Left.”
As with JCR experience at Lancaster, factionalism within the Union can act as a barrier to student involvement and the Union is still regarded as cliquey.
According to Robbie Pickles, LUSU President, in the past “the elections [at Lancaster] were very much run where every candidate was either a Labour Club candidate or not. And you used to go to Union Council and the factions would sit at opposite ends of the room and argue.
“It’s always helpful to have other groups of people coming in, because the more scrutiny on the Union the better,” he added.
LUSU could learn much from other unions, but inevitably the type of university will affect the structure and tone of the SU. Campus universities like Loughborough make the Students’ Union more important as students rely on them to provide entertainment therefore elections are more significant. Liverpool’s Students’ Union is arguably less important due to the city’s better nightlife. Similarly Manchester can afford for its elections to be political as the Union does not have to focus on entertainment.