Political scientist Wallace Stanley Sayre once said that 'academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low'.
This bitterness has never been clearer than in this year’s Warwick Student Union elections, when its defending president Nick Swain was hit with scandal across the national news in the middle of his campaign for re-election. The appearance of a video that shows Swain unhooking a girl’s bra during a ski tour in 2011 went viral, and since then the response has been a wave of outrage and bewilderment in balanced mixture throughout the student body.
Many demanded for a formal apology for what they said was the offence Swain’s actions had caused, whilst many others became frustrated by how the scandal had engulfed any talk of improving the Student Union.
Meanwhile the girl seen in the video sent the following to the student newspaper: “I wish to confirm that I was not offended or objectified, any attempt to portray this as such has been misconstrued and not representative of his character.”
As the results were announced last Friday, the formerly beloved SU president went from receiving the most votes in the election’s history last year, down to a meagre fourth place out of five, losing out to the current Welfare and Campaigns officer Ben Sundell. It is unclear how well Swain would have done if the scandal had never happened, but needless to say concerns about his manifesto played second fiddle to the sensationalism around the fate of his reputation.
The dramatic events culminated this week with the revelation of the person responsible for editing the video, which was uploaded just days before the elections began. Warwick graduate David Reed took credit for editing the infamous video of Swain in a confession to the student tabloid the Warwick Tab, which then exposed his involvement.
In a fiery message to the Tab over how much publicity the video ended up receiving, Reed argues that he posted the video with 'no alternative agenda than to get someone to apologise for being sexist', although he showed active support of rival candidate Ben Frew over Facebook and Twitter during the SU campaigns. Frew has denied any personal connection with the video.
If taken as a smear campaign, the scandal was very successful in detracting the focus of the politics away from the issues in favour of the excitement of the scandal. The Union’s candidate Question Time was hijacked by questions about the allegations, and throughout the campaigning mounting press coverage of the scandal took precedent over any talk of policies and manifestos.
In the end, Swain held his head high and humble. In an emotional and lengthy post on Facebook after the event, Swain thanks family and friends in what he called 'the hardest fortnight of my life so far', which has gained over 1,800 likes. Swain commented after Sundell’s victory that he was 'relieved, given everything that's happened. The right man has won tonight'. Nevertheless, the remainder of Swain’s term as president will be haunted by the exposure his past events on ski tour.
Student politics should in theory be more pure in form than its government counterpart, relying on a democratic process that elects representatives from genuinely the same background, who have faced the same experiences and problems that come with university life. But like all of politics, the opportunity for gossip over alleged illicit behaviour becomes more interesting to the voting public than the more banal, realistic steps that go into making a difference.
To me, Swain’s actions were unacceptable, but the magnitude of indifference and the pettiness around this scandal have highlighted something much more depressing about how students approach their union and the democracy behind it.
Duncan Hopwood is a student brand ambassador for the i, and a Warwick undergraduate. Follow him on Twitter here.