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What actually happened to the ‘Big Ask’?

On Tuesday, 14th February, the outcomes of the Big Ask were announced, but the results were far from a simple yes or no. Matthew Styles, a member of the Elections Committee, helps us clear up the confusion of the night and clarify what actually happened…

Last Tuesday, the SU held its first ever Emergency General Meeting with a view to update the Union’s governing documents to reflect what students voted for and against in The Big Ask. The original agenda contained five resolutions: To confirm the results of each referendum (1, 2, 3 and 4) and to approve the new Articles of Association.

If any of the referenda were inquorate, it was expected that the first four resolutions, if passed, would approve the view that students voted for or against the referendum motion, regardless of turnout. The fifth agenda item would make changes to the Articles based on students’ views. If a referendum was quorate and students voted ‘yes’, or students voted ‘yes’ and at the meeting the result was confirmed by one of the first four motions, the necessary changes would be made to the Articles and the Big Red Book to implement this change.

The first four items require a simple majority (50%) vote to pass. The fifth item is a ‘Special Resolution’, because it makes changes to the Articles, and as such requires a four fifths majority to pass. Voting can take place in two ways – the first is by a show of hands, and proxy votes are not taken into consideration. The second is by a poll, similar to a secret ballot at Council, where votes are written down on paper and proxy votes are taken into consideration.

The first four resolutions passed by show of hands. The fifth item fell by a show of hands, a poll was requested, and the resolution subsequently passed. Last Tuesday, this agenda changed to: ‘note’ the results of referendum 1 and 2, and ‘approve’ the results of referenda 3, 4, 5 and the new Articles of Association.

‘Noting’ the results of referenda 1 and 2 does nothing – they could pass or fall and there would be no difference, as they simply acknowledge the referendum figure. The reason the first two resolutions were in the new agenda was because students who had filled out proxy forms had voted for resolution [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, any other]; removing agenda items would mean their votes would be used for completely different resolutions, so the agenda gaps needed to be filled.

The Exec met earlier to discuss the meeting and decided that because the Articles do not explicitly say that a General Meeting has the power to make changes to our Bye Laws (essentially the Big Red Book), that it would be best that the Articles could only be updated if approved in the last resolution. Changes to the Big Red Book would need to be made by SU Council in the normal way, which changes the process of potentially implementing these changes significantly.

Originally, the General Meeting had the power to immediately implement referenda if students voted for them. For example, if students had voted ‘yes’ to the new Exec structure and the General Meeting had updated both the Articles and the Big Red Book, then nominations would have opened last week for the five Exec positions. Instead, the Articles were updated, but the Big Red Book was not.

At the next SU Council session, Council will need to “ratify” the referenda, given that they were inquorate, and update the Big Red Book to reflect both the changes proposed in the referenda, and any specific details which need to be implemented for the changes to happen. If Council is inquorate, the decision on whether to implement the changes or not will have to wait until the next Council session, and so on. If Council votes against ‘ratifying’ the referenda, then we need to hold another General Meeting to revert the changes made to the Articles.

There were some key questions raised at the General Meeting. The first was, “Why not wait until Council approves the decision before holding the General Meeting?” Normally, the General Meeting would be held after Council had approved the changes, but this General Meeting had already been scheduled and a lot of work had gone into getting students to attend or vote by proxy. Additionally, a special resolution requires 21 days’ notice to be given for the General Meeting. If last week’s meeting went ahead, as soon as a quorate Council approved the changes (if they choose to do so), then the changes can be implemented straight away; if the meeting was put off, at least three weeks after a quorate Council would be the earliest opportunity to make the necessary changes.

Another question was why the meeting only noted the first two referenda. Part of the reason for not changing Council to Assembly if students wanted to last week was that Council needs to be held to make the necessary changes. If Assembly were part-implemented instead, it would be difficult to go forward and set up the new decision-making body had Council approved the referendum.

One notably great feature of a General Meeting is the ability for the chair to accept a vote by show of hands without the need to count – something which understandably takes up some time at Council. All in all, the meeting was rather eventful, and didn’t finish until nearly 9pm, mostly down to the number of questions which the students present had about the change in agenda, the resolutions being voted on, and whether it should have gone ahead or been postponed.

Matthew Styles

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7 Comments on this post.
  • egg
    23 February 2012 at 20:27
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    “The Exec met earlier to discuss the meeting and decided that because the Articles do not explicitly say that a General Meeting has the power to make changes to our Bye Laws (essentially the Big Red Book), that it would be best that the Articles could only be updated if approved in the last resolution…”

    It was not “The Exec” who made this decision. It was some members of Exec with advice from staff.

  • Concerned
    24 February 2012 at 10:26
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    One thing that should have been pointed out at the meeting – and wasn’t – was that it was absurd to be talking about Council ratifying the referenda at all. Having seen Council repeatedly rubbished last year as an ineffective and undemocratic body (often by its own members, I remember MDV was particularly passionate in his view that he didn’t represent anybody), in an attempt to justify lowing the quoracy for referenda, it’s obscene for Council to now be used to bulldoze the proposals through.

    The referenda were inquorate – it’s as simple as that. If you can’t get enough of the student body interested in a proposal to vote either for or against it – the assumption should be rejection, not acquiesence.

    It seems the latter has been assumed in this case, and I can’t believe not a single person wanted to put their hand up in the General Meeting and point out that the Emperor was bloody well naked. Or maybe I can, most of the people in there were SU Councillors, after all.

  • David
    25 February 2012 at 14:13
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    As a former member of council, and current member of steering committee responsible for organising SU Council (the latter meaning I currently have to ‘remain impartial on all matters outside the areas of legitimate concern of steering’), I feel a need to defend SU Councillors, as they are not a homogenous group who all automatically think and vote exactly the same way – if they were there would be no point in SU Council existing. Not even the Exec members, who work together on a daily basis as part of the same close team and who meet regularly to discuss various issues, feel the same way as each other about stuff.
    It should also certainly be pointed out that SU Council, just as the GM was, is open for ANY student of the University to come along and participate in, and if you, or anyone else reading, have particularly strong views on this, I’d encourage you/them to come along and share them on Thursday 8th March (7pm, Portland C11). Questions and comments, either in support or opposition, on any of the business of Council are always welcome, and you even get to hold the various Officers that represent you to account about what they’ve been doing in their roles by questioning them on submitted reports. What more could an engaged student need as an incentive?

  • Concerned
    25 February 2012 at 14:36
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    Well I’m glad to see somebody on Steering committee with a voice and some testicular fortitude. I can only ask where were you last year when Council’s own members were queueing up to talk about much of a waste of time it was?

    Council’s in dire need of reform, David. It’s not representative, because some students have more representation than others. It can’t hold the Exec to account, because it lacks legitimacy. And I promise you, that most students who attend (or watch it on NUTS) come out feeling that it’s cliquey and impenetrable. It’s fixable, but it requires a genuine attempt to make it more democratic and legitimate. Last year that was promised, but they arrived instead at the conclusion that it needed bypassing instead. It was a crying shame.

  • SU Councillor
    26 February 2012 at 06:14
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    David – are you seriously suggesting that Council works or is democratic? It is really just another layer of bureaucracy for people to get through and hasn’t been changed in 60 or so years. It needs reforming. The problem is that the proposed changes are probably worse than the status quo.

  • David
    27 February 2012 at 15:18
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    Concerned, last year I WAS one of those councillors! But I think how ‘good’ the current system is regarded as being will ebb and flow anyway – Council a few years ago seemed a lot more ‘dynamic’ as a meeting, but I’d say that a lot relies on the people actually at council (by which I mean EVERYONE involved, not just voting members), and that is obviously a population with a relatively rapid turnover in numbers. It’s not always going to work (or not) or feel the same way year on year, simply because the people involved change.

    But both you and SU Councillor talk of reform. I certainly wouldn’t argue that it isn’t needed, but I would definitely say that it’s easier said than done. Should the proposed changes pass, they might help, they might not – either way a lot of how the meetings themselves work (motions, reports, procedure, etc) will be inherited from SU Council as it stands, so it’s not going to be a magic bullet that makes everything perfect in all regards, or a poison chalice that ruins everything, either way. If they don’t pass then we need to work with what we have now until a better option is put forward. When we know what’s happening then Steering will be having discussions about changes we think may work, and bringing them to Council (I hope!), and I’d encourage anyone to do the same (or talk to us about ideas they have) but there’s nothing to say what will actually work without trying it and finding out.

    So I guess to you both (and I don’t ask this in a ‘put up or shut up’ way, the questions are meant in good spirit), what reforms do you think would work? How can Council (and all around it) be made less cliquey to those that feel it is that way? What could make it more democratic and representative? What would make it more legitimate?

  • Wen Jie – Ex DemComms
    28 February 2012 at 21:58
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    Pretty shocking that as the mandate for change you have a turnout the size of the NUS Elections… and less than 1 in every 18 students voting. There’s definitely something wrong with the proposals as people just aren’t excited about putting bureaucratic levels between decision making and submitting an idea.

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