It’s a well known fact that if you’re one of the beautiful people, you’re more likely to be successful in the Union elections. But as well as having beauty be a requirement, there is also a culture of successful candidates being chosen from above.
To say that the Union (and by that I mean the staff and student trustees) have no say on who wins the elections would be to deny them credit for their hard work in obscuring the democratic process. While technically, yes, the student body does vote and elect the winners, who chooses to run and the nature of their campaigns is incredibly dependent on the advice they’ve been given, which makes a huge difference to who we elect.
Suitable candidates are often headhunted, vetted, and persuaded to run. Year on year, I’ve seen offhand comments from a Sabb at a bar night – “You’d be great at DPFS, you should run!” – that were not so offhand: they’d been discussed extensively in the Union offices before. Of course, it is sometimes just friendly encouragement to do something you’re obviously passionate about – they’re not all terrible people. But these conversations about the role and what’s best for it going forward can subtly brainwash candidates into trusting the current policies, not questioning and improving them as would be their role.
Chosen candidates might be told historically successful campaigning strategies, and informally prepped for the role through friendly chats – nothing technically against the rules, but not everyone is receiving this information, and it lends a huge advantage. Those who’ve won know that campaigning often comes down to a simple formula of who gets their name out there most and who does the most lecture shout-outs (name recognition and a trustworthy face is key), and being backed by someone in a position you respect does a lot to help you power through the exhausting weeks of campaigning.
The Union (and by that I mean the staff and student trustees) have been known to help their chosen candidates write manifesto points that they know are achievable and in line with their current aims: they fulfil their bigger picture. In other words, these candidates aren’t bringing anything new to the role in terms of ideas and student representation.
It’s in the Union’s interest to have docile, obedient officer trustees. They want sabbs who won’t make waves, who won’t push a strong agenda. They will work hard at the tasks they’re given, sure, but their manifesto points are just reiterations of what was in the works anyway. In other words, they keep their mouths shut and let the staff do their job: running this multimillion pound charity in the way that they see fit, away from the interference of annoying students who dare to have opinions on what it should be doing.
The students who do this best are the ones who are in it for the CV points – they care a bit, but not enough to protest too much at only being a figurehead. Undeniably, this is efficient. Nothing prevents an idea being realised like a clash between Union staff and an officer trustee, where butting of heads can lead to deep unpleasantness and a stalling of any progress whatsoever. From the perspective of those who have worked hard on policies, either for a year or longer, you don’t want someone with different ideas to come in and trash all your work. There’s nothing like the illusion of power to make people think that what they’re doing is the best, and it’s easy to lose track of that and become incredibly protective of your (sometimes misguided) policies.
In many ways, the current sabbs are the most qualified to choose their replacements. They know the ins and outs of the role, and they should be able to recognise what traits will make a good candidate. It’s great that the Union are thinking about the students in the many volunteering roles and considering how they could progress to bigger things. When the Union hits the mark, and wants to do things that really are best for Imperial students, this can be really good. Our Union staff have largely come to Imperial after working in student unions all over the country, and between them have a wealth of experience. Unfortunately, the nature of Imperial as an elite, science and engineering university means that the needs of our students are a bit different to those of students at other British universities, and too frequently the staff don’t tailor their ideas to this. They don’t always realise that what worked well in Leeds may not work at Imperial.
The policies and strategies are being guided by the staff at the Union and those who have spent a year in the belly of the beast and can’t remember the real struggles that affect students most. Bringing in more people who are on the same page can be a huge waste of money that’s supposed to be spent on representing the actual voice of students. It isn’t the students who stick to the Union agenda who make a big difference – it’s the ones who call for radical change.
Whatever the Leadership Elections are, they’re definitely not democratic, so let’s not pretend that they are.