By Tom Morris
My first real interest in student politics began at the student media ball of 2015, where then Gair Rhydd editor Michael O’Connell Davidson heckled every sabbatical officer that took the stage: “20K!” It took me a while to realize he was referring to their salaries. (It wasn’t until later that I learned Mike was being paid as well, though not nearly as much).
During the autumn semester of 2015 I emailed Hannah Sterritt, then VP Societies, asking how she made her position. She recommended becoming Societies Editor on Gair Rhydd, and as I already intended to get a GR position it seemed like a good role to go for that might give me the experience needed. I watched the 2016 elections with some interest, but only later did I think that maybe I should have tried running, just to see what it’s like.
And believe me, now I know: no-one knows what it’s like to run unless you have done it yourself. I’ve made my short foray into student politics, been soundly bested, and am now retreating in order to do nothing more than provide hot takes on union goings on from this very paper’s pages once more.
This year, candidates had a lot of help. The SU election team (mainly called Steve) directed candidates towards strategies, voting statistics, and the ins and outs of the rules regarding budget, where to make noise, when to catch a bus to the Heath and so on.
Candidates got £30 each to spend on their run. This meant they could spend £30 on items they would not otherwise have bought and would not be using afterwards for the election process. Some things are exempt such as costumes, paint, and petrol; and the first 400 flyers are printed free. This means two things, first ensuring that the rich and privileged candidate cannot blast past the poorer students but also to help those who have no money to compete at all, as they know that £30 of their costs will be reimbursed.
Another rule is that candidates can’t bad mouth each other, can’t criticise each other’s manifestos, campaign styles, and so on. This means that you get ridiculous situations such as turning up to a lecture to find two or three other candidates of the same category as you about to lecture the class. In these situations I tried to remedy the situation by telling the class: “I’m sure you’re bored of us by now, so my main policy is to let you get back to your lecture. Remember to vote, and vote Tom!” This, of course, didn’t work. A good mix of annoyingly frequent interruptions and reminding people to vote for anyone, avoiding the trap of looking selfish, seems to work best.
Just because you can’t attack each other doesn’t mean you’re not a politician though. You’ve got to watch what you say; you’ve got a lot of people to impress that you might not normally see eye to eye with on a political or personal level.
About halfway through the week, then, it dawned on me: there is not really a need for the big palaver if all we’re really doing is choosing new representatives of the union to lead it next year. It is a weirdly torturous job interview, and it’s definitely not being a politician because of how you have to be civil with your rivals. I came to the conclusion that what we’re really doing when campaigning is advertising the services of Cardiff Students Union to the many students at Cardiff University.
It makes sense if you think, why are so many people, most of which are not usually involved with the SU, invited to make decisions about the activities the SU runs, which aren’t always just for Cardiff University students? For example, there are Cardiff Met and USW students who get involved, there are graduates/alumni who continue to turn up to societies they loved during their time at Cardiff, sometimes even siblings. None of these people can vote, yet all Cardiff students can. The fact that not many do is irrelevant- one in five is enough to keep the SU’s engagement figures perky.
Keeping that in mind, the election process encourages candidates to be as annoying as possible. You skip your own lectures in favour of others; maybe first years’ as they’re the most populated or maybe third years as they’re most likely to vote. There’s also the Facebook group spam. Get into as many groups and lectures that are not your own as possible. It’s some kind of weird turf war, where each school or society is a capture point around the campus. This also means that if you have, say, a group of people who’ll go round putting posters up for you, allowing you to focus on actually doing the shout-outs and connecting with people in cafes, and also a car to get between places quicker, you have a decent advantage.
The best spammer wins- so why don’t candidates put their case forward in Gair Rhydd? Well one answer is that as mentioned the elections serve as a way to advertise the Union to those who are not normally engaged with it- the same people who don’t read Gair Rhydd anyway. The real answer is that Gair Rhydd is, although editorially independent of SU HQ, a Union publication. Under the Education Act (an actual law!) any opportunity given to publicize your campaign through student media needs to be given to all candidates. This is why Xpress and CUTV had to interview all candidates and not just those who could make it to interviews. I intended to place an article in Comment about the future of student media and how I intended to improve the media office and students’ perception of student media as VP Societies. I could not do this however as it would not be as easy for other candidates to do and would be considered pre-campaigning.
Would I do it again? No, as I’ll either be graduated or busy with a Masters. I said in my GR interview that it would have been a good idea to run last year- I was of course referring to Aidan. Unfortunately it didn’t work out for him, and thinking about it now after finishing the week I don’t think I’d have done it twice-the exhaustion was hardly worth it, especially after realizing it’s basically just a “friendly” competition where you prove to the student populace how annoying you are. “May the best man win,” I jokingly told Temi at the start of the week. And the best man/woman does win- but not for the job they might originally have thought they were running for.