Oxford Union buidling opposite chamber
Opinion

Will the Union ever change?

‘Hi, sorry for the hack message, was just wondering if you had heard about…’ Messages along the lines of this one are the scourge of an Oxford student’s term, and every term the same Oxfesses are written about how irritating they are. The people sending them dislike sending them, reducing friendships to a mere transactional arrangement, and the people who receive them find the endless pleas for votes incredibly annoying. Facebook is the ultimate tool of the hack – in the run-up to elections, they message hundreds of people, switching between laptops and phones to stop Facebook suspending their account for unusual activity. The past few years have seen a real development in hack messaging: the number of overly-friendly text copypastas and vote me memes getting around has skyrocketed.

Conventional wisdom has always been that hack messages are a necessary evil, but they have typically been seen as one of the less problematic aspects of student elections. In the process of getting themselves elected, hacks will manoeuvre, lie, exploit and backstab: for years this behaviour has not been addressed, despite hundreds of manifesto promises to improve this regular feature of Union elections. There is no real incentive, once candidates are elected, to follow through on the change they promise.

The scandal in the past few days, which saw an entire Union slate dissolve, centred around some hack messages and the slow, hesitant response of the slate’s officers (those running for higher positions).  A candidate for Standing Committee sent messages that referred to the present riots and protests surrounding racial discrimination and the murder of George Floyd to garner votes. The officers on the slate were made aware of these messages on Monday, but did not publicly respond until Wednesday, and only then because a student at Christ Church published the messages online.

What started with inappropriate hack messages soon highlighted wider issues. The officers’ response was slow and the draft of the apology from the candidate was criticised for focusing more on their own reputation and justifying the content of the messages than for actually apologising for the racist content. It seemed that the slate was focusing more on trying to contain the damage than to address the upsetting nature of the messages themselves. This electioneering only served to worsen the upset, as students who received the messages did not feel that their concerns were being addressed; the consequences for the slate were therefore far more severe.  

Every term, candidates run on manifestos promising to bring change and progress to the Union and other recent scandals only serve to highlight its desperate need for reform. Access has become a key issue since President Brendan McGrath stood down last Michaelmas after a blind student, Ebenezer Azamati, was violently removed from the chamber. Despite these promises, scandals continue to plague the Union; why is it that these commitments to change have failed to materialise?

The candidates themselves often spend the week leading up to the elections barely eating and sleeping and the amount of stress that they often feel put under is enormous. If they win, then there is hardly a moment to draw breath before the next cycle begins. If they lose, then their career in the Union is over. This isn’t healthy for anyone and is clearly not conducive to change; so why is it that is has been allowed to continue for so long?

One of the clear reasons is that there just isn’t time for those who are elected to make change. Terms in Oxford are short and intensive; widespread reform of the kind that the Union needs would take a much longer time to implement. The people who do get elected are often then focused on getting elected to higher office. The hacks who are moving up the ranks, with grand ambitions of being able to write ‘President of the Oxford Union’ on their CV, do not want to jeopardise this future by upsetting the status quo. Strict rules about interaction with the press means that the people currently serving often find themselves unable to speak out about the issues they would like to tackle.

The question of why someone would want to be involved in an institution that seems so inherently toxic is a good one: not only do a lot of students involved want to better their CVs and future prospects, but it is also an exciting and addictive lifestyle. The Union provides access to a wide and relatively diverse community, and running for election is exhilarating – a chance to win status in a hallowed institution. Many treat it as practice for the political careers that they want to have in the future, but it shouldn’t be treated as a game. The actions of hacks have real world consequences – the ‘Oxford Bubble’ is not that insulating.

A lot of people go into student politics with pure motivations – their friends do it, they want to improve access, they enjoy debating and meeting new people. The Union is filled with decent people who also run for positions – it is very rarely the people that make the environment toxic. The problem is that the traditions and bad practices are not challenged and just get passed on to the new recruits.

Last night, the Union’s Standing Committee made a statement committing itself to an anti-racist stance, reminding us of Malcolm X’s words when he spoke there in 1964. The President has been mandated to create a non-political committee to focus on long-term reform by the end of Trinity term, and has advertised office hours to give members better access to complaint procedures. Disciplinary procedures will be reformed, with these measures promised to be only the start of bigger reform. The trouble is, the officers currently in charge cannot bind the actions of their predecessors; there is no guarantee that these will be carried out.

Despite these promised changes, it seems unlikely that the latest scandal will have any real impact on the Union long-term: although there may be fewer hack messages this time around, by the time elections swing round in Michaelmas, it’s almost certain that things will be back to normal. In spite of how a single scandal can now bring down an entire slate in less than twelve hours, one thing remains clear; unless the Union changes its term structure dramatically, it will remain resistant to any meaningful change.