Tyranny of the minority?

Why vote? Why get involved? Why even bother? In the past few months, the topic of Union Democracy has become prominent across campus, from the controversial banning of Bacardi from SU outlets to the announcement of the nominations for this year’s officer elections a few days ago.
This has sparked off increased debate about the focus and relevance of democracy within the Students’ Union. A poll completed by the Boar concluded that the majority of students felt democracy was not representative of their views, and many also felt that the opportunities to get involved with issues affecting their Union are inaccessible and limited. Others feel that Union democracy is difficult to engage with, and not related to students’ views. With around 64 per cent of students on a recent poll voting that they do not think the recent policies passed by Union Council and at General Meetings are focusing on the right things, it’s clear it’s time for some change.

Students’ Union Democracy Officer Chris Luck and the Democracy Working Group are in the process of addressing these concerns with the ongoing Democracy Review, which aims to make democracy simple, accessible and relevant to all Warwick students. So far, the Working Group have conducted extensive research into all areas of Union Democracy, and their findings and recommendations are due to be released later this term. Indeed, as a direct result of the review, some policy has already passed through Union Council that will drastically reduce the number of part-time officer positions next year to a total of eight, reassigning roles to other positions, or getting rid of them altogether.

The next draft of proposals to this drastic reform of democracy feature a number of improvements which will aim to simplify the democratic process, make it more relevant to a larger proportion of students and make it easier to get involved in.
A crucial and perhaps obvious feature of these proposals is the introduction of online voting for some motions and policies, an option which has been frequently raised in relation to General Meetings. In a recent poll conducted by the Boar, approximately 91 per cent of those asked agreed with the need for e-voting. As the proposals suggest, online voting would benefit distance learners and those not able to traditionally engage with Union Democracy through Union Council and General Meetings.

This is clearly shown through evidence of the turnout of recent democratic meetings, such as one General Meeting where only 172 people attended, under the one per cent of the total Warwick population needed for it to reach quorum, a total of 208 people. It is highly unlikely to find a suitable time where enough members are willing to attend an often long and drawn out meeting which is regularly filled with debates irrelevant to them, or certain of passing unopposed. These problems can be partially solved with the introduction of an online voting system.
Critics of online voting highlight the lack of a proper forum to engage in debate, yet the proposals insist that this structure will remain in place, and a period of 48 hours afterwards will be provided to vote online on motions. However, considering the difficulties faced in reaching quorum in previous online referenda motions such as ‘No platform for racist or fascist speakers’ last year, 48 hours may not be an adequate amount of time for voters to make their decisions.

Another problem many have cited with Union Democracy is its lack of relevance with the everyday lives and issues of students. The controversial ban of Barcardi rum many deemed to account for a measly 3.5 per cent of all sales at the Union, and therefore was seen as having little importance. The ‘Water Without Politics’ policy, which resolved to put pressure on the University to switch from their current supplier Eden Springs, a supposedly ‘unethical’ water company, only affected 12 water coolers, all of which were situated in University conference facilities, and thus did not have a direct impact on students.

Luck’s Democracy Review has considered ways to tackle this problem with the introduction of a new agenda-setting system whereby students can propose an issue for others to vote on, in order to collectively decide whether it is a problem which the majority care about and should be discussed further. The top 5 proposals would be brought to a General Meeting, which will thus allow time for agenda setting and the relevant communication avenues to promote the event.
Whilst it is unclear how or what will motivate students to get involved in the ‘agenda setting’ of a democratic meeting, this should ensure that policy will be in the interests of more than a proposer and a seconder on any specific issue. It does not, however, take into account the interests of minority and underrepresented groups, which could get overlooked in the views of 22,000 students. The groups have considered plans to introduce regular meetings of minority and interest groups who will decide on relevant action to take on behalf of these students, which could sidestep this problem.

The lack of publicity and information has also been a key criticism of the lack of student involvement in the democratic process. An example of this remains the yearly Union Council elections, which despite more money being spent on advertising the process than ever before this year, only 1561 people voted, less than 7 per cent of the Warwick population. The proposals aim to tackle this, in part, by broadcasting the General Meeting online, and presenting information surrounding the debate at the point of voting. This ensures those who cannot attend the debate can still be informed about the issue in question, yet it can easily be overlooked or skipped in order to make a quick decision without full knowledge of the arguments involved.

The Democracy Group have also considered plans to scrap the current system of referenda, as online voting can be transferred to General Meetings, and motions can be easily discussed and debated there without the need for an overly bureaucratic referenda period.

Considering this shift of power to the process of online voting and General Meetings based on what students want to be changed, power is thus removed from Union Council as one of the main decision making bodies in the Union’s democratic process. It can only serve, therefore, to hinder this proposed process, as students can bypass the system in order to pass a policy to a group of elected representatives at a select meeting, rather than propose an issue to be voted in by all students through an agenda-setting system, and voted on by all students.
Consequently, the future of Union Council in this process appears uncertain, and it is clear the Working Group will need to take this into consideration.

After careful consideration regarding the best way to form Union Council, Luck’s Working Group favours the formation of the group based on certain interest groups at Warwick, for example, representatives from Sports and Societies Committees, who will be elected on behalf of their interest group. This, however, will take the vote right out of the students’ hand, giving them even less say over who will represent them at Union Council, a proposal surely to be opposed by many, even if it means that the group will overall be more representative of the average Warwick student. According to statistics from the Democracy Review Survey, almost 1 in 5 students still preferred to elect a representative to speak on their behalf, which under these new proposals could be scrapped.

The draft proposals also include recommendations to change the approach to the formation of policy and change within the Students’ Union. It is highlighted that the Union currently has many more policies than most other students’ unions, and at times becomes difficult to manage.
It is possible to initiate change within the SU without the need for policy, yet it is clear with over 96 policies that the majority of students at Warwick think that the only way to do so is by passing a policy through Union Council. Many policies would obviously be supported by students such as ‘Enhancing Education Quality’ and others take a highly significant and relevant issue which simply mandates a full time staff member to investigate, lobby or explore options on behalf of the students themselves.

The review considers changes to this system through lifting the many campaign policies into the remit of the Campaigns Committee, drawing up a ‘Banned List’ of companies students feel should be expelled from engaging with the Union and a list of ‘Union Regulations’, common sense rules that should be implemented, without the need for a policy to be passed through Council.
This not only will reduce the number of policies, but will make proposals clearer by sorting them according to their content, in turn making them more accessible to students. It will decrease the amount of policies going through Union Council, as many will be able to be more easily solved via including them under ‘Union Regulations’, bypassing the need for a policy altogether.

However, this further eliminates the need for Union Council. Though proposed banned companies will still have to go through a democratic body in order to be passed, it will then limit the scope of the implementation of these policies. This is especially relevant regarding campaigning; if the Campaigns Committee are to hold control of this and encourage debate on how policy may be implemented, there is a relatively small role for Union Council to play on advising this process.

Luck’s Democracy Review signals the start of momentous change in our current system of Union democracy. As in all plans, there are uncertainties and gaps, raising questions about the next stage, but the very presence of change through the review should not be underestimated. Whilst these proposals are still in the draft stages of review, it is clear that many ideas are logical and will be taking the Union a step in the right direction to becoming simpler, more accessible and more relevant to Warwick students.

Natasha Clark is Editor of the Boar.


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