Leadership Elections 2017: Kent Union’s Culture Crisis
If accountability is not at the heart of a democratic organisation then it is not unreasonable to suggest that that organisation is not really democratic at all and well, if that organisation’s democratic mandate is severely limited, it is almost undeniable that there is a democratic deficit within that organisation and that there is a deep-rooted problem with the culture of that organisation.
I don’t mean to demean or belittle the achievements of the newly elected Kent Union Sabbatical Officers, or undermine the great work that has been done by the Presidents and Vice Presidents of the past. They have achieved great things and at times, during my studies at UKC, criticism of the Union has been opportunistic, unwarranted and overplayed. But recently, and this is not in reference to the Black History Month controversy, a culture has emerged within Kent Union that extends further than the daily inconveniences caused by the Union and the presents itself in the form of a mentality that neglects the needs of the student body.
I don’t have issues with individuals within the Union and all who work at Kent Union do a great job but they’re working within an institution that has lost sight of its true purpose no matter how hard they work. This article must be prefixed by the fact that I, in no way, align myself with previous Leadership Election candidates, from this year and last year, who’s campaigns were vulgar, crude and verged on anarchistic. What is clear though, is that this year’s Leadership Election highlights an obvious problem within Kent Union that needs to be rectified.
First of all, those who represent us in the Union were this year elected by a total of only 3,376 votes. That’s over 1,100 less votes than last year and 700 less votes than the year before that. Meanwhile, the current total number of UKC students stands at 20,125. That is simply not good enough. The problem of voter turnout gets worse when you realise that those votes were cast over an excessive 173 hour voting period compared to CCCU’s 80 hour voting period which this year saw an election turnout record with 2,307 ballots cast. It’s easy to say that lazy, disengaged students are at fault here. But the real question is where does this apathy for the Union truly stem from?
And the answer is; it’s the culture that has grown within Kent Union.
This apathy for Kent Union elections undermines the very electoral system put in place to try and make our Sabbatical Officers more representative of our views. So few votes are being cast that the ranking system that we use to elect the Officers of our Union, which is meant to ensure that all Officers have over 50% of the support of the student body, has become redundant. When our Sabbs aren’t elected by over half of us, they effectively are, and see themselves as, unaccountable to us. They become more like employees of a large organisation, in part due to their £18,000 a year salary, and less like representatives of our interests.
Year on year we see grand promises go awry and minor issues that students desperately want resolved remain neglected because they’re simply not spectacular enough to put in a campaign manifesto. Improving Kent Union’s website, placing microwaves on campus, improving our sports facilities and putting on a wider range of events for students could all be done within the first few months of the Sabbs taking office. Instead this year, the pledges hit a new low. During an interview, on the very night of his election, the new VP Education, Stuart Lidbetter, said that he may not be able to fulfil all that he promised to us students in his manifesto.
The needs of our societies and sports clubs are ignored because Kent Union has become out of touch with what we really want but, more worryingly than that, they have simply grown unaccountable and deaf to what needs to be done apart from once every year in March when a few of us vote for who we want to front this organisation for the next coming year.
A sitting College President went on record to say that this year in particular the Kent Union Sabbatical Officers have abandoned support for the College Committees and neglected their duties to students. Instead they have chosen to pursue vanity projects, pet projects and the project of securing their own re-election. It’s all very well and good being in the ‘Top 100 Best Not-for-Profit Organisations to Work for in the UK’ but what good is that when sports clubs can’t get new equipment, our own shop has prices that are unaffordable to students and there is a surprising lack of pragmatism when it comes to small changes that would make a big difference to the daily lives of all students.
Kent Union was set up by students, for students and yet in 2017 we have an organisation which prioritises its own interests and outward appearance over those who the Union is truly meant to be there for. It is no surprise that Kent Union is suffering from a democratic deficit when it is incapable of engaging with student’s and fulfilling our wishes. The bureaucracy is crippling and when some of us chose to give up our time to run sports clubs, student media and even when we help out on Welcome Weekend, we are branded as ‘Kent Union Volunteers’ as if we are only temporarily part of their elite organisation.
The Kent Union Sabbs and the wider organisation are meant to be the ones volunteering for us. Despite an increasingly glaring lack of democracy and accountability, Kent Union is not theirs but rather all of ours. There may currently be so few votes cast in the Leadership Elections that they believe they are unaccountable but this culture that has grown simply cannot continue in spite of the fact that the one time a year when students are given a voice in Kent Union affairs has passed.