The ‘No’ Campaign in the Welsh Full-Time Officer referendum relied on significant exaggeration and “scaremongering” statements, a Gair Rhydd investigation can reveal.
During the week-long referendum, officers including the SU President, VP Education and VP Societies sought to push forward the ‘No’ campaign, claiming that creating an eighth sabbatical position would cut sports and societies budgets by up to £46,000. In addition, President Elliot Howells said that a new officer would cost “in excess of £30,000” when wages, training, and benefits such as the company pension were factored in.
However, Gair Rhydd can confirm that this figure was significantly inflated, after the SU president told the newspaper “confidently” that “on average, an Officer doesn’t cost the organisation any more than £26k a year.” Neither he, nor any members of the No campaign, could provide a specific breakdown of what these costs would be, despite consistently warning of the threat to the union budget.
Howells said that “the information certainly does exist, but it exists in various budget pots and to bring all of that together would just take some work.”
Gair Rhydd can confirm that the 26k figure includes benefits not afforded to student staff, such as a leased iPhone and laptop, as well as company pension contributions. Other costs, such as “branded clothing for events”, were included in various estimates provided to Gair Rhydd. We can also confirm that sabbatical officers received a pay rise this year, as did all career staff.
However, while Sabbatical officers receive the same benefits as career staff, they are not counted as such for the purposes of the Students’ Union Staff-Student Protocol, which would prohibit them from “seek[ing] to influence the democratic processes of the Union”.
Barney Willis sent an email to society committee members on the 24th, before voting had opened, in which he included a “brief note on how [the referendum] could impact societies,” urging them to vote. He threatened that it would lead to cuts to the £20,500 societies budget, but did not specify the extent to which the budget would realistically be reduced. The email received a negative response, with various Yes campaign members and undecided voters describing it as a “threat”.
Gair Rhydd asked the VP Societies what his intention was, and put forward allegations that the message was intended to be a threat designed to influence voters to cast a ballot for No. Barney responded, saying that he was expressing his view “to assist others in making their decision and influence the result of the referendum for the reasons […] stated.”
Rhys sent out a number of emails. One to student reps set out the No Campaign and urged them to vote yes. Another, described by recipients and observers as “scaremongering,” was sent to sports clubs, and began with “Your club’s budget could be in danger…”.
It went on to suggest that the officer position would be entirely funded by cuts from the Athletic Union: “£26k of the AU budget or your club’s equipment cost is a high price to pay for a political statement, regardless of whether we are in the capital city or not”. These claims do not appear to be substantiated, and, when combined with Barney’s unspecified cuts to the Guild of Societies budget, add up to projected cuts exceeding £46,500.
Whilst sabbatical officers sent ‘mass emails’ to students listing the potential cuts, leader of the ‘Yes’ campaign Steffan Bryn was refused the same platform, denying the Welsh language officer the ability to respond to these claims or set out the “Yes” campaign case for a Welsh Language Officer.
Documents seen by Gair Rhydd confirm that Steffan Bryn was not allowed the opportunity to use the same platform as full-time officers on the grounds that officers simply “communicated using their regular channels”. But inconsistencies remain: VP Education Rhys Jenkins set out the No Campaign case in the AU Newsletter, something that he does not use regularly.
Elliot Howells claimed that he “would not expect” Steffan Bryn to allow the ‘No’ campaign to send out mass mail using lists that only he had access to, such as Y Gym Gym’s mailing list. However, Steffan is not on the Y Gym Gym committee, and so cannot send mail using this list without someone else’s permission.
While the ‘Yes’ campaign relied on face-to-face canvassing, there appears to have been no physical campaign undertaken by the ‘No’ camp at all, leading some to question whether or not the No campaign ever really existed, or whether or not it was simply a Students’ Union front. Indeed, the ‘No’ campaign took a bizarre turn when it was revealed that campaign leader Rhys Jenkins had taken annual leave, and was not present for a large part of the referendum.
Campaigners who requested referendum regulations did not receive a response from the Students’ Union. ‘Yes’ campaigner Daniel Roberts stated he waited three days for relevant documentation, but did not receive anything. Without this, Roberts was prevented from launching a complaint regarding the behaviour of the full-time officers, as it was not clear to him whether the allegations ‘carried any weight’.
Gair Rhydd has reviewed the Students’ Union constitution (which is comprised of various documents) and can find little governing the way referenda should be conducted. While Students’ Unions typically apply the same rules as elections, this is not true for Cardiff University Students’ Union. As such, with regards to our above findings, no rules have been broken. A ‘Yes’ campaign member, speaking to Gair Rhydd, accused the Students’ Union of “making it up as they went”.
We can confirm that, as per Students’ Union policy, somebody working in Y Plas would be prohibited from discussing an election while on duty. This publication is also expected to remain impartial during elections. However, sabbatical officers are not denied the platform and can intervene as they see fit while undertaking their salaried work. Steve Wilford, director of Membership Services, told Gair Rhydd that with regards to previous elections, they have simply “chosen to abstain.”
Yes leader Steffan Bryn later accused the ‘No’ campaign of using “scaremongering tactics from the heart of the Union”, and accused the Union of failing to meets its aims of “representing and supporting students”. Many have joined him in saying this, particularly on social media. Harry Thompson, a Cardiff student, said that he voted yes partly because that the campaign had “more convincing arguments,” but also because he “dislik[ed] the dodgy was the SU ‘establishment’ has fought for No.”
When asked to comment on the allegations and criticism the No campaign had received, Rhys responded that they had done nothing wrong. He explained that he and his colleagues “undergo several months of training and as a result become knowledgeable in the Union, how it’s run, and how to effectively achieve change.”
“We have done what sabbs do all over the country. It was entirely appropriate we did and potentially have been neglectful had we not.”
Elliot Howells, who leads the officer team as part of his role as SU President, supported this defence
But these explanations are unlikely to satisfy even No voters. Students have labelled the actions of the sabbatical officers a ‘misuse of power’, regardless of any policy breaches. Journalism student Lewis Hopkins, a No voter, was dismayed: “[they] should have to stay neutral through official channels.”
Morgan Owen, a ‘Yes’ campaigner, expressed his disappointment in the Students’ Union: “They preach democracy and have tried to shoot this grass-roots movement down from step one.”
“It is absolutely fucked up. We on the yes side are genuinely worried that the Union’s undemocratic, autocratic and outrageous intervention could skew the result”, he said, prior to print. The result, now revealed, was a ‘No’.
Critiquing the ‘No’ campaign, Owen went on to describe the promises made to improve language facilities as “insulting”.
“I have noticed in my time at the University that the Union have been extremely dismissive of my first language, and I simply cannot trust them when they say they will find other ways to improve provision.”
Law student Dewi Jones also condemned the ‘No’ campaign, claiming to be ‘ashamed’ of the behaviour of the ‘No campaign’ and the elected Union members.
“Rather than engaging in a positive debate as to why they disagreed with a Full time Welsh Language officer, they almost immediately resorted to undermining the Yes campaign in a rude and condescending manner.”
Steffan Bryn, speaking to Gair Rhydd, said: “Cardiff University Students’ Union needs a democratic revolution.”
This inability to provide the costs of full-time officers was later condemned by the leader of the ‘Yes’ campaign. He expressed concerns about how opaque the Union’s finances were: “How much do senior Union staff earn? Why aren’t we allowed to know? These questions that should concern all students.”
The result – where ‘No’ secured victory by a thin margin – was received poorly by the Welsh language community, in part because of the way ‘No’ had undertaken their campaign. Those in attendance when the results were announced claimed that ‘No’ was just an “anti-Welsh” campaign. The ‘No’ campaign was also accused of ‘feeding prejudice’ against the Welsh language, and encouraging a superficial, almost racist understanding of the Welsh language and culture.