Take it or Leave it: The Hobson’s Choice Facing Nottingham Students

Thomas Hobson, a 16th stable owner, seems an unlikely person to figure in the Students’ Union Elections currently taking place. Yet it is his principle of offering his customers the choice of the nearest horse to the door, or none at all, that gives a curious sense of déjà vu to this year’s campaign. Eight positions on the Students’ Union council this have unopposed candidates running, including the Student Executive positions of Environment and Social Justice Officer and Education, while the position of Black & Minority Ethnic Officer attracted no candidates. Last year eight candidates ran unopposed, with all of them duly beating RON (Reopen Nominations) to earn their positions.

This year has seen a slight increase in multiple people running for Faculty Co-ordinator positions, while Representational Officers and many Executive Officer positions, including President, Activities and Democracy & Communications, have seen a drop in candidate numbers.

It would be unfair to attribute this lack of candidates to the current Executive, who, like the year before, have worked hard to publicise the elections beforehand and extended the candidate submission deadline in an attempt to encourage more people to put themselves forward as candidates.

Perhaps, then, student apathy over Union politics is to blame? It is well known that despite the University of Nottingham’s election turnout being very high compared to many other Universities, that students are largely unengaged and disinterested in the politics of their Union, with many either ignorant of the role that the Executive has in influencing student life or simply uninterested.

This could partly be attributed to the lack of choice in previous years – if there is only one candidate standing, then why bother voting at all? The danger with this train of thought becoming commonplace is that it can only lead to a downward spiral; the fewer candidates that stand for an election, the less engaged the student population feels. At the same time, however, if fewer people vote, then the elected positions are seen as less important and less relevant, therefore less potential candidates are willing to stand. This year, it is also notable that some potential candidates either withdrew their nominations or decided not to run as a result of perceiving that they were up against a ‘big name’ candidate.

Question marks still remain as to the utility of certain positions, such as Faculty Coordinators, while it is likely that the position of Environment and Social Justice will continue to be unpopular as long as it remains an unpaid and non-sabbatical position, as opposed to the other Union Executive positions. The Students’ Union’s ‘Big Review’, which looked into how students engage with the Union, gave this year’s Executive some solid ideas on how to approach their relationship with the Union as a whole, though it didn’t provide much insight into the how each Executive role is relevant to the student population and how students might be incentivised to run for these positions in greater numbers.

Hobson’s Choice is an issue that comes up every year, and one that doesn’t have an immediately obvious solution. The question that remains, however, is whether it is better to have more candidates standing for every position just for the sake of greater democratic choice, or whether it is better to have a limited number, all of whom are passionate about the role they wish to undertake.

Ben McCabe

ElectionsElections Issues
9 Comments on this post.
  • Matt
    2 March 2011 at 00:20
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    Sorry to be a pedantic Paul, but it should be ‘fewer potential candidates are willing to stand’ (in the antepenultimate paragraph).

    A good article though, and a problem that needs addressing.

  • Luke Place
    3 March 2011 at 01:38
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    The persistent failure of our Students Union to attract enough people into its elections reminds me of the persistent failure trying to lure people into “The Den”. The quality of what’s on offer is probably better than the perception, but you’re not going to attract enough new people simply by putting up posters and doing a bit of internet publicity.

    There need to be consistent routes into every officer role that generate inevitable interest and at present I’d say the faculty coordinators don’t tend to go for the President/Education Officer role in the numbers way you’d think they might, for whatever reason. Perhaps the abolition of this position next year will close the gap between school reps and the Education Officer.

  • David
    3 March 2011 at 17:06
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    @Luke – I know it’s not a particularly major point, but why would there be any thinking that faculty coordinators would go for president? Education officer I can understand, and indeed that’s happening this year, but not president.

    While I do think a larger number of candidates running for every position is an ideal situation to aspire to, I think the problem with the idea of ‘consistent’ routes into every role is that there would be a risk that they could come to be seen as the ONLY route into such a role, and given how limited certain opportinities within the SU are it could end up with a perceived ‘closed shop’ – to a greater degree than such a thing might already be seen to exist.

    In an odd way, despite there being unopposed positions, and numbers contesting others being down, one of the things that is nice about the current bunch of candidates is that despite me being involved with the SU for 3 years now, I don’t have a clue who most of them are!

    Perhaps one way to find out how to get more people to run in the future would be to ask those who are running in these elections (or have in the past, which also means you Luke!) why they decided to run. Tackling the disengaged is one thing, and arguably an impossible task, but encouraging those who are interested in some way to take steps they would consider if they thought about them is something seems a far more achievable aim to me.

  • Frank
    3 March 2011 at 18:15
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    I agree with David. Also, I think another reason against having consistent routes into roles is that the risk is run that people apply for position A only to get to position B, rather than because they think they would be the best person to do job A.

  • Luke Place
    4 March 2011 at 01:01
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    On the question of why I suggested Faculty Coordinator as a route towards President, I’d say that it’s a role that should (at least theoretically) involve team management, organisational skills and so on, which is kind of linked with the “line manager” role of President.

    I’d agree with your comments about making sure SU elections don’t become a “closed shop” but it seems like the current set of candidates are an example of a fairly wide array of “ordinary students” feeling happy to get run and a surprising unwilingness from people more involved in the SU.

    It’s difficult to say why this is, but perhaps people involved on the democracy/representation side of things (people on elections committee/steering, and faculty coordinators/school reps) aren’t feeling engaged and inspired enough to run, for whatever reason.

  • A Concerned Campaigner
    4 March 2011 at 19:00
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    This may not be a popular one with elections committee but as someone involved in managing campaigns two years running I think the rules are in need of serious overhaul. The individuality has been stifled from candidates by ever tighter rules about their behaviours. No normal political campaign would blanch at the public endorsement of societies or other bodies. Likewise nowhere else would the creativity of our candidates be actively fought as if using your ingenuity to gain better poster placement or using your contacts to good effect was a criminal act.

    I support the decision to limit the budget of campaigns, this prevents any candidate from feeling unable to financially commit. However, the desire to pretend that all candidates are equal is simply a lie and an unproductive one. I would like to see elections where candidates courted societies and other opinion-forming bodies for their endorsements. I would like to see elections where the people a candidate help them to win. I would like to see elections where we recognise that different campaigns require different strategies. In other words, I would like to see real elections with real tactics.

    The reason students are switched off by elections is because they become the same sort of mindless race where candidates stand around in ever dwindling permissible areas, pleading with small, dull flyers that their policies be heard. Hardly the kind of display that excites and average student!

  • Daniel Cooper
    4 March 2011 at 19:44
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    @A Concerned Campaigner

    The idea of socieities being courted is an awful idea. People would merely seek to court the biggest socieites (and SRS?) at the expense of engaging with students. What right does any society committee have to endorse someone on behalf of its members? Those with friends on influencial committees would be delighted by the prospect but it would give the impression of a cliquey inaccessible SU.

  • Anon
    5 March 2011 at 11:55
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    As opposed to what we have now Dan? The problem at the moment seems that the elections can be sanitised to the point of sterilisation – people are always going to have unequal chances of winning due to their links, their friends, their assets, the problem is that you will ‘never’ be able to fully equalise peoples’ chances (and you shouldn’t want to do that), so all you do is reduce it down to base electioneering, literally who has the most immediate friends who themselves have a lot of friends too.

    Does anybody really feel as if the level of discourse in su elections is at a high standard, talking about policies and ideas? Maybe it’s expecting too much.

  • A Concerned Campaigner
    6 March 2011 at 23:35
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    An interesting point Dan and I am not saying that there wouldn’t be an element of friendship involved but I have to agree with anon… this already occurs. The difference between having your influential friends in high places simply campaign to their friends on your behalf and having their explicit endorsement is tiny.

    Wouldn’t it be a fairer system to simply acknowledge that you will never have an even battle for any position not least because most of those standing for office do so because of their experience in a major society or srs? The fact is that in SU elections, as in real political elections, a persons influence should not be thought of as a negative feature but rather a mark of their ability to network effectively. Further, people on major committee’s are more disposed than most students to listen to the actual policies of candidates. If aspiring exec were given a platform to pitch their policies for endorsements, it would get them far greater exposure than the usual name-identification campaigns run at this university. You only have to look at the cheap gimmicks and branding candidates are forced to use to realise something is very wrong with the system. They should be allowed to use their intelligence and people-skills to get their policies across any way they can rather than looking pretty much the same as every other campaign just stealing a different brand for their banners.

    Elections are becoming more and more restrictive in this desperate, pointless quest for fairness. In actual fact all it accomplishes is ensuring that the only people who vote for you are those who you know…hardly non-cliquey

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