Thursday, February 01, 2007

Tired Rantings

I have a problem with phoney democracy.

Now I know that sounds like the introduction to a rant by some barely literate middle class anarchist but bear with me, it's really not where I'm going with this.

At least as regards anarchism, I make no promises about my literacy.

The Annual General Meeting of the University of Kent Union was the other day, they were voting on a referendum on how the union should be run and on a proposed ban on the sale of coca cola on campus. I've been at university for nearly three years now and I have to admit that I've never bothered voting in a single one of their elections - don't get me wrong, I'm not apathetic about voting, I do all my local and general election voting like a responsible citizen and keep well informed on the issues and ideas of the debates - student democracy, however, is something that I've always been a little more cynical about

In 1997 it was the general election year, the year of the big labour landslide victory, lefties and moderates everywhere were soiling themselves with anticipation of the great new labour government who, according to all the predictions, were going to wipe the floor with the crumbling remains of the conservative party. I was eleven years old and doing my last term of primary school. I didn't really understand much of what was going on in the wide world, although I was vaguely aware of something - mostly just that my parents were cautiously excited about something and most political billboard ads are really dumb. My primary school, however, decided that they were going to hold a little mock election to see if they could enthuse the kids about the whole process. Now there wasn't going to be any powers for this School Prime Minister (not that I remember anyway - this whole thing had completely vanished from my memory until I was reminded of it by my mum about 8 years later) but nonetheless all the kids participating approached it with great sincerity, the bullies attempting to build a kind of cult of personality around themselves, the popular kids (insofar as that can be said of 11 year olds) wrote sincere and well thought out manifestos, and they all carefully rehearsed the speeches they were to give to the whole school before it was put to the vote.

Amongst all of this I was the kid who decided to form the 'Smarty Party!' When my turn came to present I danced on stage to Jollity Farm by the Bonzo Dog doo dah Band wearing a lurid tie dye shirt and silly wig, I made ridiculous promises involving a school cafeteria that served chocolate and cake (this was before Jamie Oliver) free computer games on the NHS and cool trainers as part of the uniform, I then cried 'join the smarty party' in my finest stupid voice, threw (empty) packets of smarties into the audience and left the stage, once again, dancing like a child possessed.

I won the election. By quite a long way.

My second brush with student elections came when I was in secondary school, a few years later. I was nominated as the class representative to some kind of bafflingly pointless student parliament. I had no say in this, I was chosen by my teacher in lieu of a vote because I was considered (on account of my comparative good behaviour and high test scores) to be one of the more sensible kids in the class. Nobody really cared in the slightest about this and, seeing as I was quite a long way from popular, my appeals for questions rarely got any response.

I sat through a couple of these meetings, reported the few sincere concerns and issues raised by my classmates and listened as they were ignored, poo-pooed and was generally humoured in a patronising sort of way. After a few weeks me and the other representative from my class took to sitting around talking in some obscure corner of the playing field until it was time to come back, then returning and delivering a completely fictional report of the agenda of the parliament. I don't know whether it was because my teacher didn't care or because she didn't notice, but I was never questioned on this, nor did the lack of active response on the issues raised by the class surprise anyone in the slightest. We still did go occasionally, when someone raised an issue that wasn't in some way related to toilet roll or football pitches, but the reports actually seemed less convincing when we were reporting the truth.

There was a change of headteacher after a few months of this and the whole idea went out with the old one.

During my time at sixth form there was no real problems with this sort of thing, if you had a problem you went and spoke to the people in charge. They’d probably ignore you but at least it was honest. You learned the real ways of power, like how to recruit members of staff to lobby on your behalf if you wanted anything taken seriously.

I won’t deny that, at least compared to the examples given so far, there is an increase in the influence of student democracy once you get to university level. The Student Union, however, is still not much more than a voluntary advisory body. A group who, most of the time, act as an irritating intermediary between the ordinary student and those who actually have any executive power.

The driving force behind university politics is ambition; the majority of students who take these positions are doing it because they think it’ll look good on their CVs' when they come to get work. This is an excellent motivating force at union election time - the candidates are motivated to hand out sweets, harass people relentlessly and make promises that they know that they have neither the power nor the influence to possibly carry out. Once the positions have been won and the new faces installed, however, the motivation evaporates. It makes little difference to the position holder whether or not he does a good job – he has the position and that’s what matters on his or her CV. Those who do actually care (there are probably some) are forced to either spend their entire time banging their heads against a metaphorical brick wall or directing their energies towards pointless posturing like, for example, attempting to ban coca cola on campus.

Democracy is something that educational bodies have always had a hard time with; on the one hand they want to teach their students that they should be politically active, aware and participate in the running of their area and country - on the other hand, they are still institutions whose authority over their students is absolute and accountable to powers other than those it governs. The result of this conflict is a kind of patronising pseudo-democracy, a nod to the general idea of self governance but with none of the actual powers: like the European Parliament only more so.