Style over Substance? Looking at the True Face of Election Campaigns

With an election turnout of 20% in last year’s SU elections, if the campaign trail is nothing more than a vacuous popularity contest, it isn’t a very popular one. The fact that turnout at Nottingham represents some of the more robust levels of student voting in the country shows how dysfunctional the world of student politics has become. And so we see in the self-perpetuating vortex of student apathy, a juncture where disillusionment intersects with antipathy, and where students can feel not only that the elections are irrelevant to them, but that they are open to manipulation by those with ambiguous pledges and winning smiles.

Is this fair? The posters, slogans, banners, leaflets and costumes that become part of the furniture on campus during election period are indispensable to candidates. Style and branding are understandably important in mounting a successful campaign. If candidates haven’t considered the punning potential of their names, they probably aren’t taking the race seriously.

A balance has to be struck. Candidates who have a limited understanding of the role to which they aspire but can mobilise an army of an election team, often through connections to larger and more popular societies, pose a number of problems, not only to their rivals, but to how democracy is perceived at the university. In an election where swathes of voters will fill out their ballot papers motivated by boredom, and allocate their vote for the most superficial reasons, the increasing importance of style over substance is evidenced in the circumstances surrounding Sam O’Flaherty’s pulling out from the presidential race, just as in previous years unthinking self-promotion has brought about the ejection of other candidates.

Beyond the integrity of democracy at the university, the success of over-stylised candidates can have a clear and immediate effect to the detriment of the Union, insofar as it deprives students of better representation. While in some cases, the impact of higher profile candidates can reinvigorate campaigns and force other candidates to up their game, there is danger that some nominees,for whom running marks the culminating point in years of service to the University, can see their efforts frustrated. Just as there are candidates whose campaigns might be built upon foundations of posters and spandex, there are also those who exhibit a wealth of experience, an intimate understanding of their position and a passion for the work – irrespective of your opinion on Students’ Union politicos. It is important to point out that no one is entitled to a position, but should campaigning not test the relative strengths and weaknesses of candidates, rather than providing a soap-box for the loudest nominee?

How the issue can even begin to be resolved is not clear, (democracy is in its crudest sense a popularity contest, and clearly not everyone can win), but the issue is not an important dilemma for whoever takes on the role of Democracy and Communications Officer, but for the Union as a whole. Condemning candidates to campaign in sack cloth, to shave their hair, and to present all election material in standardised grey pamphlets might briefly raise interest in the elections and offer an immediate solution, but is probably not all that satisfactory in the long term. Some election hopefuls may already feel like they are lurching through an adystopian experiment. So let’s all enjoy the free sweets while we can.

Callum Paton

ElectionsElections IssuesLead articles
11 Comments on this post.
  • Rob
    8 March 2011 at 01:16
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    Have you seen any politics, or disagreements that matter between candidates? Think not, more just nonsense management words like ‘better’ and ‘representation’ with no actual clear strategy of how to make those vacant words come true.

  • Lewis Jones
    8 March 2011 at 02:27
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    @Rob: maybe you haven’t watched the CQTs or have not been well enough informed but where possible many candidates have outlined relatively specific policies. Your stance doesn’t carry a great deal of ‘substance’ and lacks sufficient evidence, perhaps a brief glance at the candidate’s word restricted manifesto might nod to your opinion, but for the most part your view has not only over-simplified a number of policies but it has also misrepresented the candidates who have attempted to provide transparent, clear strategies in order to achieve their policies.

    • Rob
      9 March 2011 at 01:08
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      I watched the SB candidates question time. Tell me, has turnout or student participation in the SU risen over the last 5 years with candidates who use the same buzzwords?
      Does anyone actually know a defendable explanation as to why there hasnt been a proportionate selection of candidates running for the Exec? Does anyone actually have an outlined srategy? Has anyone actually ever been able to improve feedback?

      • Michael de V
        9 March 2011 at 20:44
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        Feedback has improved in some departments, American Studies for example. Now what the Education Network needs to do is strive to communicate this between departments.

        Aside from this, what do campaigns show? The ability of candidates to engage with students and get them involved with the Union. It also is high-pressured and exhausting. Those that are best able to cope with this and are best able to engage with students tend to win. And those that are able to engage with students will make for the best Officers.

        So of course policies and experience (substance) is of the utmost importance, but the campaign and enthusiasm (style) is also a key factor too.

    • Rob
      9 March 2011 at 01:10
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      Oh and Just look at all of the candidates, there is no ‘politics’ is there? No one is running on an active anti-cuts postion, barring one presidential candidate. You couldnt tell the difference between them on politics, because there is none.

      • Frank
        9 March 2011 at 01:25
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        @Rob which president candidate is running on an anti-cuts position?

        • Rob
          9 March 2011 at 18:18
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          Ngoc Tran. Not too sure about her involvement in anti-cuts activism. But appears to be the only one arguing the fight hasnt been lost and doesnt use technocrat language

  • Max N
    8 March 2011 at 03:16
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    @ Callum Paton; ‘the increasing importance of style over substance is evidenced in the circumstances surrounding Sam O’Flaherty’s pulling out from the presidential race.’

    Apologies if I’ve completely misunderstood this but are you actually saying that SamO possessed real political substance? If anything he was surely a classic example of the very ‘style over substance’ you have insisted upon throughout the article. A very flashy video, a cute campaign with a wishy washy slogan- ‘believe in better’ (classic example of stylistic, political jargon)- as well as policies that were unachievable, immeasurable and generic.

    Fairer exam timetables… possibly the most blatant example of a ‘vote-winning’ policy with no particular relevance or necessity. Why abolish Saturday exams? So everyone can go to Ocean on the last Friday? Get real. Its only made worse by the fact that you’d either have to cram exams into a shorter space of time or lengthen the exam period, neither of which are feasible or beneficial.

    Better graduate jobs… similarly outlandish and unlikely to materialise. We hear it every year from the Presidential candidates. Furthermore, the policy seems to disregard the fact that Nottingham University students are amongst the most employable in the country. We have an outstanding Centre for Career Development and a number of employability events and careers fairs throughout the year. This is not to say I disagree with someone who can get me or any of my fellow students a better job. What I would question however, is how he expects to spontaneously create these better graduate jobs, especially in this financial climate. To me, its another shameless example of style over substance.

    As for ‘AU & Societies; I’ll ensure you receive adequate funding and extra space, enabling you to grow to your maximum potential’, it just becomes laughable. Another policy designed to reach the 10,000+ students involved in societies and AU clubs without really committing to anything within his control.

    On a final note if SamO had gone onto win, after clearly breaking a series of election rules, the Union would not only have facilitated an entirely undemocratic election, but would have also pandered to the popularity contest stereotype that so often detracts from the student body’s enthusiasm to get involved in the democratic processes of our Students’ Union.

    For the sake of your journalistic integrity, I sincerely hope I’ve simply misunderstood your point.

  • Frank
    8 March 2011 at 08:30
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    Max, have a cup of tea and a biscuit then read the sentence again. You will might find that you have missed the point.
    Note the difference between:
    What was written and you have quoted:
    ‘the increasing importance of style over substance is evidenced in the circumstances surrounding Sam O’Flaherty’s pulling out from the presidential race.’
    What you appear to think what written:
    ‘the increasing importance of style over substance is evidenced in Sam O’Flaherty’s pulling out from the presidential race.’

  • Max N
    8 March 2011 at 10:31
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    @Frank; if you could elaborate on your point or explain how that makes a notable difference to anything. I’d still argue the implications of the sentence are misleading. Sounds like the writer has just added an extra couple of words to make the statement slightly less direct.

  • Frank
    8 March 2011 at 11:01
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    It makes a huge difference. If the writter had written just about SamO’s departure, then you may have been able to argue as you have. The ‘extra words’ do not make the sentence less direct, they are there to instruct the reader of what exactly the “evidence” is of the increasing importance of style over substance. The evidence is the “Circumstances surrounding” his departure. If you click on the hyperlink in the sentence you will see that SamO dropped out after having Elections Committee talk to him of grievancies against him that they had received. The grievances were concerning some of the stylistic elements of his campaign that you wrote about in your original post, rather than any policies that he may have had.

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