Reflections on an historic Union Council decision

Earlier today we heard that Isaac Newton Acquah has been reinstated as Communications Officer after his dismissal by Union Council on March 15th. Because of the appeal process the _Boar_ was unable to publish any comment or analysis of the matter. As a Union body, the _Boar_’s opinion would legally have represented his employer’s opinion, and this would have interfered with the appeal process. As a result this piece could not have been published until now.

Some of the assumed facts in this article have been disputed recently. The appeal for example found Isaac guilty of breaching Referenda regulation 10.20, but not regulations 10.10 or 10.12. Nonetheless, it might be of some interest to read now how things seemed the night after the now-infamous dismissal. As a result I have decided not to edit anything.

Where do we go from here? The (justified) concerns that many people have raised regarding the accountability and transparency of various Union bodies are what we ought to focus on going into term three. Suggestions on how to reform our Union Council have already been brought to public debate, and we must follow these through -to rest on our laurels after Isaac’s popular reinstatement and leave an (arguably) broken system intact would cheapen the arguments of a powerful ‘bring back Isaac’ lobby; to do nothing about the structures which so many have voiced dissatisfaction about will lead us to only one conclusion -that Isaac’s defense was so vocal and powerful merely because he is likable and popular. Only time will tell. Let us hope this whole controversy brings a healthier democratic system.

CB 31/03/10

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Please note that the following article represents only my own opinion and interpretation of the events of March 15th’s Union Council, at which Isaac Newton Acquah was dismissed from his job as Communication’s Officer. Given the already fervent outcry that has sprung up among students against the dismissal, I feel it is important to offer some insight into the mood of the room, from my perspective, and provide some context for the decision, so that we might better understand where this vote of no confidence came from and whether or not it was justified.

CB 17/03/10

Yesterday, for the first time in Warwick’s Students’ Union’s history, a sabbatical officer was given a vote of no confidence by Union Council. Although the overwhelming feeling has been one of hollowness ever since, and no doubt by now a growing mood of anger and confusion at the decision is starting to emerge, perhaps this decision was, no matter how bitter, a necessary one.

Isaac Newton Acquah, the dismissed Communications Officer for the SU, was officially sanctioned by Union Council by a vote of 21 in favour, 17 against, and no abstentions. The 38 ballots cast put the decision above quorum (36). For a decision of such precedent-setting monument, the presence of 40 or so members of council, assembled democracy committee members, a smattering of concerned students, and two _Boar_ journalists hardly seems appropriate. It is, after all, a decision that will have huge ramifications not only within our own institution, but also in students’ unions around the country. Indeed, the deadly silence that enveloped the room upon the announcement of the results spoke more in acknowledgement of the decision’s weight than the impassioned arguments of both advocates and opposition.

How, then, did this come about? As someone familiar with, if not a frequent participant in Union politics, it is all to easy to fall into the trap of assuming the wider student body is aware of the goings-on of council, and the hard work or occasional misdemeanours of our sabbatical officers.

What prompted the call for Isaac’s dismissal was his involvement in the recent referenda. As Communications Officer, he was charged with sending out the all-member email each week, with a list of upcoming events, opportunities and other news relating to the Union. Further to his remit as Communications Officer, Isaac –along presumably with anyone interested in the legitimacy and democratic health of the Union- was responsible for increasing general awareness and participation in the referenda –the highest decision-making body of the Union. However, in the email sent out on Tuesday 9th March, at around 5pm, the language used to explain certain referenda motions was extremely partisan. The first paragraph was particularly dubious. It reads:

‘Referenda week is upon us and we are going to have some big issues up for you to decide upon. None is bigger than the policy to “**secure our Union’s independence**”. Others include removing the sponsorship ban, so any club and society can choose for themselves which companies they can get money from. Read up on all the motions including cases for and against them @ www.warwicksu.com/referenda. Voting is open now!’

This was deemed to be in breach of referenda regulations by Elections Group, who sent out a clarifying email (again to all members) the following day, at around 8pm. This email emphasised that arguments had been submitted both for and against the majority of motions, and that any bias, or confusion following from the preceding email should be disregarded.

However, this infraction was not an isolated incident. As the Resolution of No Confidence noted, a similar line appeared in the introductory section of the 46th issue of the _Bubble_. Further to this, the invite message sent on behalf of the Facebook group “Referenda 2010”, set up by the Communications Officer in his official capacity, contained the line: “You can ensure that society/sports clubs get the sponsorship money they need! You can make sure the SU changes the way it’s run to better suit you!”

These statements, sent in Isaac’s official capacity contravened the following referenda regulations:

– Referendum regulation 10.20: “existing officers may not use the facilities provided by their office for campaigning in any referenda.”
– Referendum regulation 10.10: “referendum groups will not:
– a.) Claim the support of any Union club or society;
– b.) Claim the support of the Elections Group;
– c.) Claim the support of any Union body;
– d.) Claim the support of any other organisation unless the Elections Group deem this claim to be valid;
– Referendum regulation 10.12: “Referenda Groups may reply to the sender of any email in connection with their campaign, but may not send unsolicited emails”.

What he wrote in the _Bubble_, email and Facebook group may not be considered that heinous, and it should be noted that neither the motion’s proposers or advocates suggested for a second that the Communications Officer had _deliberately_ abused his position. Nonetheless, the impact on a largely uncaring student body –let us not kid ourselves, despite the best efforts of many, student ‘political’ engagement is confined to a shameful minority- of a message urging its 20,000 or so members to vote ‘so any club and society can choose for themselves which companies they can get money from’ is hardly insignificant.

The fact that this misstep was in the very first paragraph is important too. Consider for example the ‘inverted pyramid’ of nearly all news writing. If you read the accompanying news piece on this very story, you will see it in practice. Many people’s minds tend to drift off or lose interest at some intermediate point whilst reading an article. All the important information in a story will be contained in the first paragraph: the ‘who, what, when, where and why’ of basically any article. Less new information is provided the further into an article you read. The same practice may not apply in Union emails, but the often indifferent readers remain the same; most will not bother to read much beyond the first key points. Highlighting a constitutionally unacceptable statement in bold font in that very first paragraph is an effective way of influencing an apolitical student population that may not read much beyond the opening gambit.

During the council debate Isaac himself noted that there was no cynicism involved in the email, and that his responsibility to get as many students voting as possible was what led him to phrase it as such. The logic seems fair enough: lots of students are involved in sports clubs and societies, a motion regarding their financial position is being voted upon, therefore by appealing to students on these sectarian grounds is the best way of ensuring people get involved in the democratic process. The compulsion must be damned near irresistible, especially when hostile student journalists are chomping at the bit, ready to savage the Union for its failures should there be a stagnation or reduction in voter turnout. So what he did was definitely understandable, and for its part, Elections Group imposed a £4 fine, later accompanied by a further fine following complaints. Yet we can understand actions without excusing them. As for the fine, it takes very little imagination to put on your ‘consequentialist hat’ and see the sanction as amounting to little more than vote-buying, for the disgustingly cheap price of £8. But that’s a separate matter.

The chief contention of last night’s Union Council was the matter of Isaac Newton Acquah, and whether to send him away with a “renewed resolve”, or more seriously, in order to “clear his desk”, as the SU President, Andrew Bradley laconically summarised.

Isaac was quick to admit having made a “lapse of judgement”, which he had quickly attempted to redress. On the inappropriateness of the resolution, he reasoned that “If I was consistently making mistakes of this nature then I would say, yes, a vote of no confidence is justified…but not [for] a lapse of judgement.”

The personal implications of passing the resolution would of course be significant. When no-confidencing someone amounts to their being fired the stakes are necessarily high –to use a glib cliché. The impact this will have on Isaac’s future career cannot be measured in the immediate fallout of the vote, particularly before any appeal process has been undergone. But to be fired out of incompetence –cynicism and deliberate abuse of position weren’t accusations seriously entertained by anyone- is hardly a boon to anyone’s career prospects.

Perhaps this is the most difficult thing about a vote of no confidence. A dichotomy of loyalty is imposed upon Council: to pick either constitutional integrity in the face of an unacceptable affront, or to be lenient and allow another chance to the transgressor, and indeed, the personal friend of many in Council? And of course, this resolution was intensely personal in character, even though this was not the intention of anyone in the room. It was no personal attack, but the implications –to flog a dead horse- are manifestly personal. Little can be done to change this fact.

The expectation might be that empathy with the accused –who was after all sat in the room, ‘holding his hands up’ to his mistakes, and suggesting civilly that this motion is a disproportionate reaction- would win out over some lofty adherence to stone cold bureaucracy, as impersonal as it is boring. 21 votes to 17 suggest otherwise. I would venture this could be for a few different reasons.

Firstly, and from my own political standpoint, rather importantly, it could be the fact that behind that very same Union bureaucracy sheltered a referendum motion that dictates whether or not societies will be able to decide their own sponsorship without interference from the Union. This devolution of responsibility to the lowest level (subsidiarity) was of course wrapped up in language designed to emphasise the autonomy and agency (key democratic credentials) of society-level sponsorship sourcing, on the contrary to the presumption of a Union that would impose certain ethical constraints in the form of company boycotts. £24,000 of society debt says the Boar understands the constraints an ethical policy can entail. Nonetheless, such rhetoric of ‘freedom’ is vacuous. It privileges the ‘freedom’ of bourgeois society/sports club interests to pursue funding from the worst exponents of corporate villainy over and above the more important freedom of the poorest, and least represented (especially here at Warwick) people in the world, whose lives are detrimentally affected by many of these companies. Without going any further into the debates surrounding the matter, suffice it to say that a hugely important policy was at stake, with very real political and social implications that, in the case of Isaac, could not be completely obscured by the façade of clinical Union ‘procedure’. For this reason then, perhaps people voted against Isaac.

More likely though I feel is the broader context in which the no confidence was played out. Isaac faced a censure (the next down in the scale of officer sanctions) by Council earlier in term, which although failed, still raised valid concerns about his conduct. In particular he had previously been criticised for his part in failing to hold a Love Music Hate Racism event, as he was mandated to do, until after the attempted censure. When the event eventually took place it coincided with the Union’s Pop night, and as some felt, at too short notice.

Additionally, the Union’s Curiositea venue was supposed to offer a Fairtrade option, in line with the prescribed Union policy that requires it to do so when financially viable. In this case, the ‘Tea Pigs’ brand (a non Fairtrade tea) had been suggested as it fitted with the venue’s image. However, as the Fairtrade commitment policy had been passed at referenda it came down to presidential interpretation. Andrew Bradley said that on principle, Council should not change a referendum policy, and the change “wasn’t in the spirit of the original policy”. The Fairtrade option was, it ought to be noted, financially viable, however Isaac decided to disregard the Council ruling, and opted for the Tea Pigs tea instead. Neither of these two cases would merit a vote of no confidence, to be sure. Perhaps this is why the censure was called instead. Whilst the motion failed, the rationale behind it arguably remains sound.

Of course, whilst it is easy to feel unsympathetic towards the 21 Councillors who voted in favour of last night’s no confidence, it must be noted that whilst there are problems with student democracy, and representative democracy in general, Union Council is a democratically elected representative body of Warwick students. It is both entitled to, and _mandated_ to ensure the constitution is upheld. Isaac’s actions, whilst not malicious, unequivocally contravened that constitution. We can debate whether or not the motion should have passed, but it was the correct action to take.

The motion’s proposer, Kat Hobbs, ended by reinforcing the duality imposed by the situation, in saying that, “if we can breach the constitution and it doesn’t matter, I don’t just have no confidence in a single officer, I have no confidence in the constitution”.

The consequences of last night’s events will soon be felt; they will be far reaching, and as one Council wit quipped, striking the fear of God into sabbatical officers incumbent and incoming alike. A bombshell of this nature will no doubt resound throughout this publication’s pages for some time to come, and throughout the country’s universities.

As for my own opinion, I don’t feel it is controversial to say that what Isaac did was wrong, and the vote of no confidence was wholly justified. Incompetence, no matter how we dress it up semantically is as much cause for no confidence as malicious intent.

Nonetheless, the absence of any celebration in the aftermath of the vote, no matter how muted, really strikes a chord. In the end, the intensely personal nature of politics was brought home to us. Even to refer to Isaac as ‘Mr Acquah’ here feels like a cold distancing mechanism from what are frankly upsetting, (even if justified and necessary) consequences to a referenda debacle. And yet politics is of course personal, in a very literal sense. Every decision is political, and politics affects people –the firing of our Communications Officer shows as much. Proponents of a non-political Union that allows societies to do as they wish would do well to understand this –even if the political connotations are usually, and most acutely felt in parts of the world that our hollowed out, de-politicised Union is ignorant of.

In the upcoming weeks the appeal process under employment law will doubtless be watched closely by everyone. Regardless of the eventual outcome, history has been made. It’s just a shame that this time history had to be made at all.

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