Scene: County South Lecture Theatre, Thursday 28 February, 7pm onwards, set out cabaret style.
Audience: probably just short of 100 people, though this fluctuated a lot.
Lighting: usually this was on ‘low’, except for the several moments when (we think some of the audience were leaning on the light switches) things changed to ‘unbearably full on’ or ‘off’.
Rules: candidates would get two minutes to speak, followed by questions from the audience, when they’d have just 30 seconds to answer each query. Finally, the ‘debate’, where they’d get to ask each other questions.
After the inevitable delay, things started at 7:25pm, with the undercard. As well as electing the six full-time officers, the students’ union will also be holding by-elections next week for four part-time officer positions: Black and Minority Ethnic, LGBTQ+, Students with Disabilities and International Students. The most notable part of these husts for part-time roles, especially given some of the positions up for grabs, was the subject not mentioned – last term’s snowsports society affair. The subject would be raised more than once before the end of the night.
First up for the full-time officer positions were the candidates for Vice-President Activities – the post responsible for overseeing student sports and societies. Traditionally a hotly contested role, this year only two candidates – Ben Evans and Cameron Jones – duked it out.
Evans gave a lucid, no-nonsense speech clearly outlining his experience and his ambitions. Having played for men’s rugby, and served on both the Roses Committee and County JCR Exec, Ben pledged to support mental health initiatives within sports, and identified numerous ways of improving intercollegiate sporting competitions such as the Carter Shield. He also identified timetabling issues which prohibited PostGrads from becoming involved in sports, and pledged an online calendar for sports practices and games.
Next was Cameron Jones – the Swimming Captain – whose emphasis was on recruiting more ‘top-level’ athletes for various sports societies, which he aimed to do by taking advantage of the recent addition of Sports Science to Lancaster’s degree offerings.
Hands shot up. A question was asked about gender-neutral changing rooms for trans students at the sports centre. Jones recognised how difficult it’d be to implement this, given that the sports centre is not run by LUSU. Evans was similarly sceptical but noted that the impending extension of the Sports Centre might provide an opportunity to lobby for such changes. Two perfectly grounded, realistic responses, which nonetheless led to a smattering of students taking to Twitter to denounce both candidates for hate speech.
Both candidates were asked how they planned to improve engagement with under-represented sports – Evans favoured more comms limelight and highlighting the achievements of under-represented groups, such as women’s rugby opening this year’s Roses. Jones favoured tailored campaigns to recruit for under-represented sports, citing #ThisGirlCan – a campaign to promote women’s sports – as an example. The candidates also quizzed each other – Jones asked Evans how he planned to achieve the Bingo-Card ‘Wednesday Afternoons’ being free for all, while Evans asked Jones if his ‘elite athletes outreach’ policy was potentially alienated to people who were already members of various sports teams.
It was refreshing to hear from two evenly matched candidates who were knowledgeable of developments within the university, and how they could be taken advantage of to improve sports provision. However, NO MENTION OF SNOW SPORTS!
Vice-President Campaigns and Communications was next – a contentious one, given that the Students’ Union had tried to referendum the post out of existence only a couple of months ago. Presumably, then, we could expect tubthumping, prominent campaigners to show us why the role was vital. Err.
Terry Tucker, a Bailrigg FM presenter, was up first. The role of Campaigns & Communications Vice-President requires the postholder to oversee the operations of the student media – Bailrigg FM, SCAN, LA1 TV – and Tucker was able to demonstrate that he had been involved in them all for a long time (some more than others). Moving on to campaigns, he proposed campaigns to eliminate stigma and shame among the 35% of students with mental health problems, as well as to take on rent increases – both of which he feels are linked.
Lewis Marriott pledged transparency. So often a buzzword, transparency has been a real problem for LUSU in recent years, as their decision-making has grown more and more opaque since it abolished most of its democratic structures in 2016.
Citing his Social and Events experience on The County College’s JCR Executive, Marriott gave bog standard pledges to use big screens and promotional drives to promote student media. Tucker, meanwhile, favoured greater training for student media members from media professions. In his opinion, improving the skill set of members would lead to more awards for SCAN, Bailrigg FM, and LA1TV, ergo more prestige.
Neither candidate held back when invited to quiz each other. Tucker asked Marriott why he had only just got involved in student media, who responded that it just wasn’t well promoted enough. Marriott asked Tucker what he had achieved as Disabilities Officer to justify mentioning it – ‘within weeks I revived Students with Disabilities Forum, achieved quoracy, finally updated its terms of reference, and built solid foundations for future officers’ came the firm response.
Campaigns and Comms is a diverse role which attracts diverse manifestos – in this case, it is very much a marketing bod against a student media guy.
One of the candidates for Vice-President Education having (seemingly) withdrawn, three remained. One, Bogdan Angheluta, had excellent powers of oratory, including expert hand gestures, but his platform seemed a little thin to your subtext drones, consisting basically of ‘if it can be done in the Management School, it can be done anywhere.’ The other two, Valentina Piredda and Bee Morgan, had less rhetoric, but stronger policies. Neither hesitated to point out when they thought something wasn’t achievable and – therefore! – not in their manifestos. Valentina, the current Mature Students’ Officer, emphasised her knowledge of postgraduate and part-time students’ concerns, while Bee, a Natural Scientist, stressed her success in improving departmental representation for combined honours students.
The issue of lecture capture – and whether it should be compulsory – showcased the candidates’ different approaches. ‘I’m realistic,’ said Bee, noting that recording all lectures isn’t possible and pointing out that Lancaster’s current system of lecture capture isn’t that great anyway, often failing to capture either the lecture materials – especially if written on a whiteboard – or the lecturer (see subtext 141). Valentina supported making the practice more widespread but didn’t promise anything more. Bogdan insisted that it was possible to make capture compulsory, and cited the example of two lecturers – in the Management School, of course – who initially said ‘no’ but later changed their mind. So there.
Laurie Butler, one of the candidates for Vice-President Welfare & Community, easily wins the ‘innovation in poster design’ award here. No grinning visage. No colour. Minimalist style, e.g. just a big ‘equals’ sign to show his commitment to equality. The effect was akin to a poster advertising a new piece of radical theatre, rather than the usual ‘vote for me!’ style – indeed, the first time your reviewers saw Laurie’s posters, they made a mental note to check out the latest programme for the Nuffield Theatre. subtext fears this might be his downfall, however, since having large ‘vote for me!’ posters is generally a vital part of a candidate’s campaign.
Laurie’s hustings was, similarly, very different from that of his opponents, Sruthi Chilukoti and Grishma Bijukumar. Sruthi and Grishma’s speeches emphasised their strong welfare campaigns experience at Lancaster, while staying away from anything too contentious – Sruthi was particularly interested in training and support for societies’ welfare officers, while Grishma emphasised sexual health and bystander training. Laurie’s speech, while a lot less polished, and frequently veering closer to education campaigns rather than welfare, was explicitly political, supporting ‘participatory budgeting’ (students having a say in how the union’s money is spent), opposing the effects of Brexit, and campaigning to end the university’s investments in fossil fuels.
The most notable question concerned the snowsports society affair and its impact on our students. Grishma and Sruthi emphasised how important it was to listen to the students who’d been affected, while Laurie gave a passionate denunciation of the far right on campus: ‘we’ve fought you before, we’ll fight you again, and we’ll win!’
Hands down, Vice-President Union Development was the most entertaining hustings of the night, as two competent former JCR presidents, John Clayton and Richard Smith*, took on Hannah Prydderch, also a former JCR president, who introduced herself as ‘the Welsh one’ and proceeded to wipe the floor with both John and Richard. All three spoke of the need for JCR training and how to engage more students in union democracy, but Hannah did so with better slogans and more memorable promises. Hannah’s policies struck a progressive tone – notably, while John was equivocal on the union’s affiliation to the National Union of Students (NUS), and Richard openly endorsed a referendum on disaffiliation from the NUS, Hannah not only supported continued NUS affiliation but pointed out one of its key benefits – ‘making your drinks cheaper at sugar!’
And we haven’t mentioned Meegan Clark yet. Where to begin?
Meegan’s definitely a maverick. She has a distinctive style, coming out from behind the lectern and acting like she’s at an open mic night. During the ‘debate’ stage, where the candidates ask each other questions, she would have given The Sweeney a run for their money when it came to interview style. And if those pen pushers in University House give her any grief…
But when it comes to her policies, well, we tried our best, but there was nothing there. In a rather surreal stream of consciousness peppered with insults, just one sensible point stood out – no, it wasn’t a good idea to extend the election campaign period, given the amount of candidates’ time it took up and the fact that most candidates also had part-time jobs.
And so came the main event. In recent years, the race for President has been a drab affair. The former JCR President and the populist insurgents work to find out who can most convincingly promise to listen to students hardest… and whoever has the largest college wins.
County Democracy and Finance Officer* George Nuttall wanted to re-inspire faith in the union, introduce drug testing kits, address the black attainment gap, and introduce separate full time officers for sports and societies. Furness President Will Groarke wanted to improve visibility, crack down on neglectful landlords, and work on better bus pass deals for PG students. Two perfectly workmanlike candidates, we thought. And then Danny Mirza, a colourful character from Grad college, got up to speak.
There was little in the way of content in Mirza’s speech, but it was hard not to get swept up in his ‘Dr Nick from The Simpsons’ style, replete with singing and dancing. There was talk of grad jobs and buddy schemes. Your correspondents wondered if he could pull off an upset if he really worked the kitchens…
…until the candidates started questioning each other. In a lengthy diatribe that no doubt soured the room against him, Mirza attacked both candidates for having policies covering the remits of other officers – ignoring the policies that clearly didn’t, and seemingly advocating for the abolition of the post. Both candidates defended themselves well against this, skilfully swinging the room back in their favour and bringing Mirza’s waffle into sharp relief.
Questions from the floor were drab. A question about Israeli and Palestinian tensions was not well addressed by any of the candidates (the phrase ‘I will go and speak to the Jews’ found its way into one of Mirza’s answers…). All of the candidates stressed their fearlessness in confronting senior management – Danny is a Senator, George a University Councillor.
All in all, a traditional showing, with two strong collegiate candidates and an eccentric.
The event closed at 11pm. subtext would like to wish all the candidates well – for them the next two weeks will possibly be the most intense experience of their lives.
Contributed by Ronnie Rowlands and James Groves
* NOTE: Errors in the email version (we originally listed Richard Smith as Richard Clark, and George Nuttall as County President, rather than Democracy and Finance Officer) have been corrected in the web version.