Diary Of A Third Year: 'Student elections are a mixture of the sincere and the silly'
Thursday 04 March 2010
Most politicians would think twice before agreeing to a picture of themselves shirtless and dressed as a cat on their campaign posters. But then they're not running to become president of a student union. Welcome to the weird world of student politics.
It's a curious business, a bizarre mixture of the sincere and the silly. Most presidential candidates have wholesome but vague aims. They want to make the union "equal and democratic" and enhance students' "physical and mental well-being". Others just want the union to buy a pet rhino.
Specific policies are rare among contenders. In fact the rhino policy is practically the only one at my university. The reason is simple: students don't care. The majority of students making their way through the election pickets in the union building just want to avoid getting a placard on the face. Candidates can promise world peace and free kittens (as someone has done this year) and still be ignored.
Last year, despite the fact that you could vote online, barely one-quarter of the student body bothered to do so – and that was a record turnout. Those that do tend to vote for the person with the snappiest slogan. Policy is an unnecessary hindrance and potential banana skin when all you need to get elected is a visible campaign and a good pun.
The campaigns are slick operations. Well, they're as slick as they can be with a £40 budget cap. The election takes place in a flurry of cardboard and homemade t-shirts and badges. Guitars are strummed and silly songs are sung. Facebook becomes a political battleground, as the handful that care argue noisily with one another. Sometimes it gets nasty, at Sheffield University negative campaigning is especially prominent this year.
The viciousness of some of the campaigns, however, masks the fundamental similarities between each candidate. The days of radical student politics are dead. Today candidates are careful about what they say, just like real politicians in Westminster. The last thing they want is for Google to throw up an unfortunate remark they made on the election trail when an employer searches for their names. This creates a dull consensus based around meaningless buzzwords, like "choice", "approachability" and "flexibility".
As well as having similar policies, candidates have similar backgrounds. Most have studied politics or history. There isn't an engineer or science student in sight. This could be down to the fact that arts students have the right skills and inclinations for a career in politics. Or it could just be that they have less chance of getting a job in the real world – and being paid £17,000 a year to stay in the university bubble as union president is a good deal.
Come Election Day students are thus left with the choice of half a dozen similar people, with similar policies. The only difference between them is the slogans. Do I "Count on Carly" or shall I follow Charlotte Tobin's advice and "Don't live a little...live Lottie"?
I'd rather just have a rhino.
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