This was originally published in The Student on 18th September
Election season is upon us. It feels like no time at all since I was putting up posters, making lecture announcements and knocking on doors – but already we’re here again. By this point I know some people will already be screaming at the page: “our beautiful campus will be sullied by these ugly posters”, “our lectures are going to be interrupted by aspiring politicians talking about their half-baked ideas” and “for two weeks I won’t be able to get away from it all!”.
But I’m dead excited. For the first time in three years I won’t be running but I’m still really looking forward to it. This is because elections are the one time when absolutely everyone is reminded of the beating democratic heart that fills the campus with visions of progress and fairness.
All too often elections can be shallow popularity contests where the winner is the person with the most posters, most Facebook friends, or the most attractive photo. But in my time at Edinburgh I have seen our elections move much further towards being genuine debates between different ideas. And I should know because I have often been on the losing side. In one election campaign I said that we need a Post Office on campus (we don’t), in another I claimed that as your National Union of Students delegate I could make your drinks cheaper (I couldn’t), and in a third I claimed that a student television station would be of huge help to societies (it wouldn’t). Needless to say, I didn’t do very well in any of those elections. But when I said that student unions should be democratic and political, and that they should stand up to the government to defend, extend and promote the rights of students, it clearly chimed with a few people. And when I said that education should be free, that the university needs to become less corporate and commercial, and that students should be part of decision-making at all levels, then quite a few people must have agreed because I was duly elected President.
Of course, these debates shouldn’t be confined to election time alone, but it is important that you know who will be speaking for you. In these elections we will decide who represents us to the National Union of Students, so who we end up with will have a big effect in shaping the national direction of the student movement. We’ll also elect our Trading Committee – the body with democratic oversight of our commercial services: bars, catering, entertainments and shops. And we’ll vote for a whole host of representatives for our three Councils: Academic, Welfare and External Affairs. These include a postgraduate place for each school, undergraduate reps for the schools which didn’t fill their places in March, and a reserved place for first years on each of the Councils.
You don’t have to be an elected representative to effect change in the university, community, or wider world. Over Freshers Week we launched a campaign to defend international students across the UK, and to demand a fairer deal for international students in Edinburgh. Amazingly, in just three days we managed to collect over 1,000 signatures on our petition. This was only possible though elected reps and non-elected students working together, and going out and speaking to everyone who would listen. So if you want to make changes you can get involved in EUSA’s democratic structures without running in an election first, but if you want a bit more responsibility then the elections are an option too.
Across Europe and the rest of the world there is a worrying decline in democratic accountability. Italy is being run by a government of unelected technocrats, Greece is facing devastating austerity measures despite its people consistently voting against them, and in the USA the explosion of corporate money in campaign finance through the rise of Super PACS is undermining their proud democratic tradition. EUSA’s democracy obviously isn’t on the same scale as these examples but the central question is the same: “Who makes decisions on our behalf, and do we choose them?”.
At EUSA we do choose our representatives, and wherever possible students are directly involved in decision-making, acting on their own behalf. This is an amazing thing. So if you’re interested in effecting change then do get involved. And if you’re not interested then next time you see a crap-looking poster with a rubbish policy stamped over it, be grateful that there’s an election standing in their way to power.
James McAsh can be found at @eusapres, www.facebook.com/eusapresident and firstname.lastname@example.org
Information about EUSA democracy and the upcoming elections can be found at http://www.eusa.ed.ac.uk/democracy-and-campaigns/