Welsh Referendum ‘No’ campaign sparks outrage

Members of the 'Yes' campaign confront sabbatical officers in wake of result
Members of the 'Yes' campaign confront sabbatical officers in wake of result

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.

Steffan Bryn, Welsh language campaign officer and leader of the 'Yes' campaign
Steffan Bryn, Welsh language campaign officer and leader of the ‘Yes’ campaign

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.


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  • I personally voted yes, I believe that the handling of the No campaign was poor and think that the actual information in the article was interesting and clearly merited investigation.
    However the actual writing was just biased vitriol. I am aware the writer commented that to not show bias would be “toothless” reporting but that’s a nonsense. Reporting the facts for both sides, not matter your opinions would be a far more challenging task. Oh and if someone says something is confidential. that should be taken at face value. Its a shame to have wasted such interesting and importing subject matter.

  • As an outside reading this , it appears the current sabbatical officers have abused their positions to seek undue influence on the election result.

    The only positive from what appears to be a shameful stain on Cardiff University SU is the lessons still to be learnt from Scotland.
    ie Last autumn , people in political power made threats and promises to influence the Scottish referendum. The defeated ’45’ came out stronger and more united and have since brought about a massive shift in public support.

    I was the SU President of Bangor in mid 90s who set up the sabbatical role of UMCB President (a similar role that was proposed in Cardiff).
    It has enhanced Bangor as a result and resulted in a more inclusive, more culturally aware SU. The role also bring new connections, funding and influence in media/politics to a SU.
    Its a shame that Cardiff didn’t have the opportunity for a fair and democratic vote.

  • Back when we had the AV referendum for the nation, the political parties rallied around their chosen side. Naturally, Nick Clegg didn’t have access to the Conservative party’s mailing list. Similar scenario for the Scottish independence referendum. That’s just how it works. Steffan could have been much more vocal and maybe gone around campus (I didn’t see anyone from either side actually campaigning and talking to people, Steffan could have done so and had that advantage as the Sabbs have less free time).

    The fact is, we already have the part time role which is representation. What exactly is a full time Welsh officer going to do full time? There are only a handful of things that can really be done (and the university and union are already working towards these) without moving towards Welsh having dominance over English, which would be a disaster for the intake. I fully support ideas such as the ability for students to get exam papers in Welsh etc but this is such a minor task and once achieved it’s not like other issues will suddenly pop up. It is also important to note that Welsh speakers in Cardiff are in the minority, while at Aberystwyth and Bangor the opposite is the significant case.

    Also, you adding up the £20000 and the £26000 is stupid. They aren’t saying that both those figures combined will be gone from the budget. For example, Barney stated that the budget of £20000 is threatened. That does not mean the whole thing, just some of it. Being picky about what figure will be taken is not a valid argument for this, even if it was only £1000, the point is that the money will come from somewhere and there is no need to do so. They haven’t costed up where the money will come from though, so they can’t say for sure how much will up from each budget. This isn’t scaremongering, you don’t have to be a genius to realise that the money will come from somewhere, be it reduced budget or increased prices, they are simply saying that it would be a possibility if this motion passed.

    Personally, I don’t really see the need for the full time Postgraduate & Heath Park officers, as they each represent a fraction of students, but I get that they have significantly different issues (finance for former, placements for latter) that might not be known to VP Welfare or Education. However, everyone is aware of any issues that Welsh has, and considering all the names on buildings and signs are bi-lingual, there is already a huge amount there so very few issues to cover.

    I am not anti-Welsh or anything, like I said I agree maybe more can be done to improve the services, but I feel in a lot of the debate with friends I have on the Yes side, it seemed to look like a “Welsh speakers vs Non-welsh speakers”, which is what the Yes campaign tried to make it, when the No campaign were going for “Is it necessary to spend this”. My friends also raised that currently the Welsh issues are not being dealt with. If this is the case then I doubt a single officer would have any effect, they would merely be shot down by the others. Again, this is about what kind of impact creating the post would actually have.

    Also what you haven’t seemed to talk about is whether even if it was biased, there would be little influence. We aren’t all sheep (no pun intended), and are capable of reading both sides of the argument presented and making our own informed decision.

    Finally, a couple of notes about your blog post on this issue:
    -Byelaws is the correct spelling, a quick Google would have told you that
    -Barney gave you a perfectly fair, straightforward answer stating that he wants to influence the result for the reasons he gave, notably that he is elected to represent the interests of societies and let them know that there would be the possibility of budget cuts and that they can prevent that. Then you referred to this as stupidity which I feel was insulting, and picked on that one phrase about influence and put it into your article without context.
    -You say it’s not bias, but, come on. It definitely is. You admit that you are peers with prominent members of the Yes campaign and not the No, and while you may not be loyal to them or anything, it would probably influence your opinion when writing this.

  • Absolutely disgusting conduct by the Union and the Sabbs. Thank god for Michael O’Connell-Davidson.
    Shame on you, Sabbs.

  • I do not believe there was a need for a vote, the post should have been automatically created. I think it is disgusting that a major Welsh university situated in the nation’s capital does not have Welsh representation. But then again I am not surprised, South Wales has always been considered “Little England” with the attitude “to hell with the rest of the country”. I am proud that Aberystwyth university upholds its Welsh roots. Cardiff University you are a disgrace, if you were an animal you would have been destroyed.