If you’re a member of a LUSU circle, low levels of student engagement and general apathy towards LUSU’s often hidden group of political influencers is a common topic. Students either do not know what goes on inside LUSU, or they do not care, or they tend to think of it as a poorly-functioning, self-serving bureaucracy that does not represent students. These feelings have become increasingly common, including among officers who have encountered frustration in dealing with LUSU, even when sitting on Council.
In response to these claims, LUSU has embarked this year on a process of consultation and experimentation known as the ‘Democratic Review’. Almost two-thousand students replied to a survey, scores participated in focus groups, and a constitutional review committee formulated a new constitution, designed – so we are told – to empower students to make changes they want, rather than relying on student officers.
This new constitution, the subject of Week 3’s AGM, abolishes Union Council, with officers instead sitting on Union Executive, which will arbitrate whether policy proposals are constitutional and financially possible. Yet there is no detail on whether this will be an open forum, or if students will be allowed access to the information it discusses and the decisions it makes.
The major feature of deciding Union policy will be a new system of juries, featuring 18 randomly-picked students who vote on any proposed policy rather than the current system where policy is voted on by the voting members of LUSU Council – who number around 40. Undoubtedly more efficient – if they can agree. But is culling the number of democratically-elected officers in favour of random selection a more democratic way of gathering student opinions? Those who have looked through the constitutional proposals might also note that £4,500 has been set aside to pay for the jury system, including currently-undefined ‘incentives’ for participants. Would it be fair to say that LUSU would rather pay random students to do their work for them than relying on elected officers who want to put the effort in?
It is also questionable whether this new system will be more efficient. The main roadblocks to LUSU’s policies have been related to student disengagement. Consistently, LUSU is hamstrung by poor communication and unclear authority on policy issues. While the new website this summer may alleviate these problems, it’s not clear by how much, or whether they can be fixed through a jury system – instead, it seems like LUSU is content to delegate the blame when policy proposals cause uproars. Keen participants may remember that the BDS referendum faced problems not because of controversy, but because so many students felt uneducated by LUSU, resulting in an ‘Abstain’ victory. Where are the proposals to address these problems?
There is no mention of reforming the mysterious bureaucracy in a building in Bowland which tends to be unaccountable and unknown, especially when a large proportion of students, by the Democratic Review’s own admission, don’t know where the Students’ Union building is. Proposals for increasing FTO accountability to students remain unclear, even though they are the main paid positions in the Union, and have the power to be the most visible and effective. If you don’t go to Council, you’ve likely never seen the Information and Questions documents the FTOs produce every few weeks.
Furthermore, some have critiqued these proposals for not moving power down to students, but up to the FTOs. The Trustee Board, an even more mysterious body who have full power over LUSU’s policy and finances if they deem a policy to be illegal or harmful, is going to now be mainly unelected – taking power from the hands of students and putting it in the hands of the ‘Appointments Committee’. This seems like an attempt to consolidate, rather than delegate power. While the Democratic Review mentioned that students felt uncomfortable running for elections, this Committee could arguably prevent there being a wide consultation on trustees and remove student input. The Review also mentioned that students preferred consensual decision-making and open meetings – so why is Council being abolished in favour of closed meetings?
With the advent of proxy-voting, it is now easy for a student to cast a vote without hearing a single argument in favour or against the new constitution. Instead, they are being asked to sign their name down and take it on good faith that reforms that benefit them will be carried out. Given the current struggles of LUSU to speak quickly on vital issues like government reforms and student housing costs, or to get students to listen and engage, I’m not sure I have that faith.
But I’m not sure students care either, because they were never engaged in the first place. Until LUSU engages a wide range of students, any democracy – however well-intentioned – will be doomed to fall flat.
LUSU’s Annual General Meeting will be held on Thursday 5th May 2016 at 6pm in George Fox Lecture Theatre 1.