Posted inOpinion

The Union As It Is: Keep Scrutinising, Don’t Look Down

After the usual whirl of accusations, soppy messages and begging smiles, a new dawn has broken—as all dawns seem to do. In the early hours of Sunday, Ahmad Nawaz and his slate were announced to have swept the Union elections. The #Empower slate plans to ‘empower liberation groups’, organise a series of speakers for Disability History Month, have a ‘Queer Icons panel’ and run weekly pub quizzes—which all sounds good, I guess.

My main concern, and perhaps this is crass or lowbrow of me, is that they get speakers I’ve actually heard of. The term card for this term (after they finally released it) was lamentable. There was a conspicuous lack of proper big hitters. And the truth is that I didn’t pay the famously exorbitant Union membership fee to be educated. I can watch interesting talks by interesting people on YouTube. In fact, I can watch interesting talks by interesting people at the Oxford Union on YouTube. For me, the value of being in the room with these people, rather than watching through a screen, is the being in the room. There’s that electricity in the air because it’s Jeremy Corbyn or Jordan Peterson or A$AP Rocky and they’re there, and they’re in the room, and everyone else in the room knows it.

In fact, this is definitely crass, but I doubt I’m alone. The Union, as much as it is a historic ‘institution’, is a service provider, and so is (or at least should be) beholden to such demands. Those who win elections find themselves saddled with this responsibility. The reward for successful candidates after the frenzied hacking of seventh week, is the immediate prospect of ‘vac days’—work during the vac. The function of the Union depends heavily on this unpaid labour of ambitious 19 year-olds during their vacations. Lots of the work is mundane, as email after email is sent to potential speakers. Amid the dreariness, it’s tempting to dramatise it somewhat.

In that vein, complaining starts. Everyone thinks that everyone else isn’t working hard enough. There’s talk of different presidents’ terms being carried by this officer or that officer. Indeed, individual laziness seems predictable. The incentives in place are suboptimal. People don’t win Union elections because they worked really hard in the vac.

This is a rule, and as with all rules, there may be exceptions. There was at least one candidate in the MT21 elections who was, in fact, known as an exceptionally hard-worker and got an exceptionally high number of votes for their position to show for it. Of course, it’s not that simple. It was an election where slate politics got… sticky. And there’s no need for us to delve into the treacherous and unwelcoming waters of Union election dissection. For the most part, my rule extensively holds. I refuse to believe otherwise. Winning Union elections is about good narratives and shamelessness. Very few voting decisions are based on actual things achieved.

This does not mean that they don’t pretend otherwise. Union candidates have to write an official manifesto with the achievements they want to advertise in the campaign. Each manifesto goes through a process called ‘scrutiny’, in which the returning officers interrogate each detail. Irritants from all sides lob objection after objection at their opponents’ manifestos. Molly Mantle spent 8 hours in the scrutiny room defending her manifesto for the presidency, learning many things. It turns out there is an important difference, for example, between having ‘organised’ an event and having ‘arranged’ it.

An impressively nuts objection in scrutiny for the latest elections challenged the claim that Rachel Ojo would, if elected, be the ‘first black female Union President’—a claim that, unless the definition of ‘black’ is changed to include Benazir Bhutto or something, is not exactly debatable. Normally, the specifics of scrutiny are kept private but Ojo’s comrades considerately didn’t want us to be kept out of the loop on this one and came swiftly on to Facebook to tell us how completely outraged and disgusted they were.

Now, the key thing that everyone senior includes in their manifestos is the speakers they have ‘confirmed’. By the bylaws of scrutiny, one has only secured a confirmation when a date and time has been agreed. It is thus standard during vac days that young seccies doing well in their exchanges with big name speakers will find senior hacks jumping in on their email chains. They just want to lift the seccie’s load. In the end, only one person gets to say they ‘confirmed’ each speaker.

This all supposedly matters because if somebody campaigns on anything other than what they have written in their manifesto, they get sent to tribunal—tribbed. This is part of the Union’s general culture of officiousness, aided by its magnificently bloated constitution. The constitution also provides for a Disciplinary Committee (DC) and Special Disciplinary Committee (SDC), of which there is inevitable overuse. There was a bit of a fuss recently, for instance, when an attempt was made to SDC someone for not writing minutes in a couple of meetings. Even for Union faux outrage, most thought this a stretch of what could be considered worthy of ‘special’ disciplining.

In reality, scrutiny and the tribbing that backs it up don’t matter. As you may remember, people don’t win elections because they worked hard in the vac. The charade around it is partly a result of tradition, as is most of the constitution-cum-world’s-best-paperweight, passed down from the Johnson&Gove era and before. But it’s also part of the mythologising that must be done to keep things from falling apart.

The Union, a business worth lots of money, with lots of members, is run primarily by unpaid people with still-developing prefrontal cortices. As is true with the Law Society. As is true (although less the ‘lots of money’ claim) with college JCRs, and student newspapers, etc. A city full of overworked people taking on extra work. Best not to stop and think about it too much; to allow for the rituals that keep the pretence of sensibleness going. That all these societies, even though most don’t have the perks of the Union, manage to find people willing to run them each year is a marvel to live off, appreciate, and question later. Don’t tell Wile E Coyote to look down.

Of course, with the Union, the work is not just the vac days. Term time work is full on. Seccies are ‘chair-pushers’, greeted for their first role in the Union with a series of menial tasks that keep things rolling on. The supposed upside of this is that it gives them ‘facetime’ with Union members, which should increase the scope for hacking later in term. It’s not a great tradeoff.

Nevertheless, life is not easier higher up the ranks. If you are so lucky to become an officer, you have to keep up running events and attending meetings while, in tandem, crafting your bid for the presidency later in term (so many coffees), without the presidential benefit of rustication from your degree.

It’s all-consuming. It’s like devoting yourself to a sports team or some other fun hobby, but the other hobbyists don’t trust you, you don’t trust them, and every few months you have to sacrifice your dignity to keep it all going. You do it for many reasons. But one of them is that the total absorption is self-perpetuating. It becomes your life so that, if you’re not careful, there’s no life to retreat to. The psychic cost of this, although highly variable, can be significant, especially with the internal culture the way it is. How this operates and whether it is solvable is a question for next time.

Read Part 1, The Union As It Is: Starting Out, here.