It isn’t the SU’s place to hold moralising referendums

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.

Priya Thethi

Image courtesy of Keith Ivey via Flickr.

Follow Impact on Facebook and Twitter

2 Comments on this post.
  • Matt Styles
    3 October 2014 at 17:53
    Leave a Reply

    Do you seriously not think that the students’ union, representing the ~34,000 students at the University, should have a position on whether academic staff should boycott marking their work in their fight for fair pay?

    Do you really not think it is important for the University to have a solid environmental agenda?

    There has never been a policy submitted about whether the SU supports ‘abortion’; there was a policy which reaffirmed its position of offering students unconditional welfare support, unless you think that’s irrelevant also?

    The SU is a political organisation, which exists to defend, extend, and protect the rights of students, as well as providing services/activities and supporting student-run campaigns.

    When has Coca-Cola been boycotted? Surely not recently, otherwise they really need to update the Meal Deal in the SU Shop and the postmix taps in Mooch/The Den!

    No More Page 3 (not stocking 10 copies of The Sun) didn’t go to referendum because it had overwhelming support from the panelists at Council; if something had been contentious then it would have, by the nature of Council’s format, gone to referendum.

    The new Council structure was not voted in by referendum; funnily enough such a complex issue was nowhere near engaging and accessible enough to reach quorum.

    There is no “University-mandated position on the Sun newspaper” because a) the policy doesn’t stop any member from buying The Sun, reading it on campus, leaving it lying around, or whatever; it simply resolved not to stock something which even students weren’t buying; and b) the University is not the Students’ Union, which I feel summarises the credibility of and attention to detail in this article entirely.

  • Duncan Davis
    3 October 2014 at 17:57
    Leave a Reply

    The Students’ Union is a democratic political body. It’s a UNION and like all other unions has policies on a wide range of issues. But it’s not like it’s being unrepresentative here. These referenda will only cause the additions to the policy if a majority vote in favour and at least 10% of students vote. That means students – which the union represents – have to strongly support the ideas for them to pass.

  • Leave a Reply