Sunday, March 18, 2007

What's next for Students 1st?

Now I have had a few days to collect my thoughts on how Students 1st performed in the elections I thought it was time to comment on how we did, and how we can move Students 1st and more importantly the University of Manchester Students' Union (UMSU) forward.

The first thing is to point out just how well we did compared to both Book and Beer (basically, Labour Students and the Jewish Society) and the Lib Dems did last year. I was not nearly as involved this time last year as I was this year; last year I did some basic campaigning and leafleting and encouraged people to vote; this year I was involved right from the start, helping arrange many of our candidates. I think one thing we did right this year was put forwards candidates for both appropriate positions and positions they stood a respectable chance of winning. Last year we stood candidates for the top exec positions (Gen Sec, Academic Affairs, etc.) and while we did not perform disastrously we did not have the grassroots support which Socialist Workers' Student Society (SWSS) had in coalition with the Islamic Society. If our candidates had stood for council positions then perhaps we would have more than just one Lib Dem on council this year (unfortunately someone who was away for a year in industry). It is all very well standing paper candidates but if it takes votes away from solid candidates who may not be Lib Dems, then it is not worth doing.

I have so far argued that working together with people not of the same political persuasion is a good idea because it pools talent and resources. The results this year show how effective it has been. Even as the group which put forward the most candidates out of the three political parties (7, compared to Labour's 5 and the Tories' 3), without working together how we did it is absolutely certain we (both Lib Dems and Students 1st) would have gained much fewer seats, especially if we had stood against each other. But on the other hand there is a sacrifice to be made when working with the other parties - one of divided political views. Much was made of the unholy "Labour-Tory alliance" by SWSS in particular (the Lib Dems left out for reasons unknown but easily guessed at) but despite our differences I think all of us have made friends in the other parties, and some may even have gained some respect for some other political views. Divided in our goals we were not. On the other hand, we never claimed to be a homogeneous grouping which is both our greatest strength and our weakest flaw. We have diversity and talent but we also have disagreement and I think the "taint of the Tories" and the repeated right-wing labelling of our candidates has hit its mark and upset a few people - especially since the Tories were a definite minority in our coalition.

One thing which we are definitely doing next year - and a mistake for us not to do this year - is standing candidates for the National Union of Students (NUS) conference. I will be the first to admit that this was probably my fault. Yes, NUS is currently a financial black hole but the chance Manchester will disaffiliate is practically zero - out of the three parties, SWSS, the Union of Jewish Students (UJS), and the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) only the Tories would support that campaign; us Lib Dems would probably not care either way and the others would actively oppose it. I've changed my mind on this issue; NUS is worth getting involved with and sorting out because it has huge potential. The problem with NUS is one which can be solved by Lib Dems taking an active role which I think gradually we will start doing. I cannot see us standing as part of Students 1st in the NUS delegate elections and due to their proximity to our Union elections there would be tensions between us - we would be competing against each other one week but the next we would be working together - a situation which is better to avoid.

Students 1st has done remarkably well for starting out of a pressure campaign on the editor of Student Direct. I think we were lucky that the December general meeting did not get quorum considering the ill-considered and rushed ultra vires motion proposed under the Students 1st banner. It was and is a terrible idea which had the potential to sabotage both our coalition and our prospects from the start. The NUS elections turned out to be an accidental shot across the bow to SWSS because of how well Labour and UJS did in them compared to the SWSS/FOSIS candidates. It raised the game and perhaps if they had not done so well, we could have picked up more exec positions (but on the other hand, we would not have been so encouraged and less likely to put all the effort in we did).

I am proud of what we achieved and I think with the positions we have on council we can hold our new mixed executive properly to account. We most importantly have the key position of Student Direct editor which I have no doubt will be used to carefully scrutinise the direction the Union takes and the effect this has on the student populace. I look forward to seeing how we have done in the remaining positions to be counted.

If I had to choose the top issue which I think the Union should be considering over the coming year, I think it is a clear choice. Participation in the voting fell compared to last year with around 2000 students voting. Out of 36 000 this is appalling. Faced with the ban on internet campaigning, restrictive electoral regulations, general lack of publicity of both the elections and their importance, the ridiculously high number of positions up for elections and the inefficiency of the voting system it is hardly surprising that students do not wish to take part. Even those that do saw the queues and decided their time was better spent elsewhere. I have made the point repeatedly over the election period that putting a banner up outside the union, and badgering people to take flyers probably puts people off more than it encourages people to vote.

Other than fulfilling my constitutional role in representing life sciences students, I aim to spend the majority of my time on the executive and council working with the Academic Affairs officer on education issues, and encouraging participation (especially from life sciences students, who rarely get involved in politics despite the huge importance of discoveries in the field towards modern society such as GM, cloning, and drug research to name just three).

In conclusion, I think Students 1st has been a success. Now we have to step up to the challenge and ensuring the reactionary voices in SWSS cannot block our campaign to improve participation and fight for the average student rather than the politicised minority. The Union this year has been a casebook definition of why scrutiny is required. Next year will be a reversal of that and if we are dedicated as we have been so far we can really make the Union a respected organisation once again.

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