Direct Democracy is often held up as the pinnacle of representative decision-making. If we live in a society where everybody’s voice counts, then we’re meant to have it truly made.
The University of Nottingham’s Student Union (UoN SU) seems to have taken this on board, holding referendums on issues as diverse as the University’s environmental policy, whether there should be marking boycotts, and… abortion?
If it strikes you as odd that a University which doesn’t offer on-site on-demand abortion procedures feels the need to have a policy on the matter, you’re not alone. The referendum, announced in February 2013, caused uproar amongst students who felt that it was excessively political, especially given that the subject of the vote was largely irrelevant to the actions of the University itself.
Is it really the role of the SU to hold itself as representative on excessively political, moral and divisive issues?
As the referendum for whether the SU should support marking boycotts looms, it’s worth asking the question again: Is it really the role of the SU to hold itself as representative on excessively political, moral and divisive issues? Arguably, an issue’s divisiveness shouldn’t be a worry with referendums, where one student gets one vote. However, it still puts students in the uncomfortable position of being presented as a hive mind on subjects which may represent a moral grey area.
Coming across as a hive mind is especially worrying when you didn’t actually vote. In a society which has shown itself to be frustratingly apathetic towards political issues, students are the most apathetic of all, especially when it comes to student issues. In the absence of an SU-led awareness campaign on the topic to be voted on, referendums are often hijacked by the niche group most concerned, who will drum up support amongst themselves and then form the majority of the voter turnout.
Despite this, referendums are seen as giving all the power to all the people, and as a result, once an issue is voted in it becomes entrenched. It will take nothing short of another referendum to reverse it. This is problematic where social context changes – is boycotting Coca-Cola for corporatism, as the SU has done, still relevant when numerous other corporations endorsed by the University still maintain their below-board business practices?
Students took umbrage over the fact that such a politicised decision had been made not through direct democracy, but by a council.
Regardless of the problems posed by referendums, the biggest political furore the SU has seen was over the recent boycott of the Sun’s page 3. Students took umbrage over the fact that such a politicised decision had been made not through direct democracy, but by a council. Ironically, this decision-making format had been voted in previously – through a referendum.
It seems clear that where an issue seems to be excessively political, rather than being concerned with issues more pressing to the University’s operations (energy policy, how to deal with striking lecturers), the students would like to have a say on it. Being told that you now have a University-mandated stance on the Sun newspaper can hardly be pleasing for members of a contrarian student population.
The core issue, however, is this: the SU shouldn’t need to have official opinions on moral issues at all. It shouldn’t need to give students a say on sensitive topics, only to then pick a “winner” and call the debate settled forevermore. If the SU wants to be truly democratic, it should foster an environment where open and ongoing discussion is encouraged, where opinions don’t become entrenched in the face of a dynamic social context, and where those who disagree aren’t made to feel marginalised.
Image courtesy of Keith Ivey via Flickr.