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Four sabbatical candidates in potential breach of EUSA campaigning rules

ByFiona Grew

Mar 2, 2016

Editor’s note: Update: 14:21: This article has been updated to include a statement from Theo Robertson-Bonds.

Four candidates for Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA) sabbatical positions may be in breach of campaign regulations after reportedly soliciting endorsements from an external society before the beginning of the campaigning period, The Student has learned.

Theo Robertson-Bonds, candidate for EUSA president; Harriet Protheroe-Davis, candidate for Vice President Academic Affairs (VPAA); Hannah Baker-Millington, candidate for Vice President Services (VPS); and Madeleine Payne, candidate for Vice President Societies & Activities (VPSA)  were reported to have asked for endorsements from the Edinburgh Student Left society (ESL), according to minutes and comments on the group’s Facebook page seen by The Student.

In a post on the group’s Facebook page, Edinburgh Student Left Forum, an administrator attached a document of minutes from the group’s Tuesday meeting with the caption: “These minutes are filled with lovely candidates for EUSA and ESL election to tag, so I will do that in the comments…”

The attached minutes convey a direct intention on the part of the group to endorse the candidates, as well as an assertion that the endorsements had been requested by the candidates themselves.

“We discussed the candidates standing for Sabb roles,” the minutes read. “There were no objections to ESL endorsing those who have asked to be endorsed: (independently, as a guide to the election for our members) Harriet for VPAA, Hannah for VPS, Maddie for VPSA.”

The three names were also mentioned and tagged in a comment below the original post, which repeated the language of the minutes indicating that the endorsements were requested by the candidates.

A separate comment posted several hours later added an endorsement for Robertson-Bonds, stipulating that it had also been requested by the candidate.  The comment read: “OK bit of an update! […] Ada J Wells and Theo Robertson-Bonds both have asked for ESL endorsement so add that to the list in ur mind :)”

The comment clarified that the list was not official, but added that “this is just a bit of a guide to the left candidates who would like our public support! (So that’s votes, campaigning, sharing with ur lefty/apolitical friends etc).”

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Regulation 1.2 of EUSA’s campaigning regulations, as published on their website, defines “campaigning” as “any means of public declaration or publicising of your candidacy in the current Elections.” The campaigning period does not begin until Thursday 3 March at 12 noon.

Regulation 4.1.7 also stipulates that candidates “may request a society to circulate an email message which can only be done with the express agreement of that society’s committee sent out by the Society, and not the candidate.”

However, it continues: “This may only be done in the campaigning period.”

Edinburgh Student Left is not an incorporated member of EUSA and the Facebook group is closed, with members only approved by invitation. The group boasts 185 members from many sectors of society, including a substantial amount running for representative positions.  An analysis by The Student found that 29 per cent of current candidates for non-school representative positions are members of the group, with 11 out of 17 races containing members.

Representatives from EUSA indicated that the actions may have contravened the rules.

Speaking to The Student on behalf of all EUSA sabbaticals and staff, Jonny-Ross Tatam, current EUSA President, indicated that the group’s endorsement announcements could constitute a breach of the “spirit” of the regulations.

‘We understand that some groups may have breached the spirit of the rules by recommending candidates to their members before the official campaigning period,” he said.  “We stress for all groups to not campaign before Thursday at noon, as we want this to be as fair election as possible’.”

The Student reached out to the four named sabbatical candidates for a response. Two of the sabbatical candidates denied they had sought any endorsement from the group, contradicting the account from the minutes.

“I didn’t sanction the endorsement and wasn’t involved in either the meeting or the posting of it,” Protheroe-Davis, candidate for VPAA, told The Student.

Pressed by The Student on why the minutes claimed she had sought endorsement, Protheroe-Davis repeated her assertion, saying: “I wasn’t involved in the meeting so couldn’t have sanctioned it.”

Payne, candidate for VPSA, also claimed non-involvement.

“I’ve never actually been to an Edinburgh Student Left Forum meeting,” she told The Student on Tuesday night. “I enquired (in a private message) about how the group was planning to decide any endorsements they chose to give, but I didn’t ask for one, and didn’t attend the meeting today.”

She added that “any contravention that may have occurred” happened “outside of my control”.

Robertson-Bonds said that he had given permission for endorsement only after they contacted him on Tuesday night, but with the understanding that it would not be publicised until the campaigning period began.  He told The Student that after publication, he reached out to an administrator of the page and asked for the post to be taken down.

“I was not in attendance at the ESLF meeting yesterday, nor have I had a conversation in person with any of the members about an endorsement,” he told The Student. “I was approached last night over Facebook about the possibility of an endorsement as they had not yet decided on anything for the Presidential candidates.

“I was asked if I would be happy for them to consider me for an endorsement following opening of campaigns. My understanding was that anything along these lines would be published after the opening of the campaign period, as I had not yet read the minutes in full.

“Upon becoming aware of the comment at about 11PM, I made efforts to contact [the administrator] and get the post removed. This was later done.

He concluded: “My actions were not a violation of the rules, nor were they a violation of the spirit of the rules. The fact that a group member made that post – without my verification or consent – was an administrative error on their part.”

Baker-Millington, candidate for VPS, had not responded at time of publication.

The four students, who are standing for paid sabbatical roles at the Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA), are all members of the Forum. Protheroe-Davis is the second of the two administrators of the group’s Facebook page.

Following investigation from The Student, the group took action to withdraw its statements. At midnight on Tuesday, an hour after the candidates were first contacted by The Student, the ESL page withdrew the post containing the endorsements and made the minutes private.  The minutes and Facebook endorsements had been posted for five hours before their removal.

In a subsequent post explaining the removal, an administrator for the group, Holly Summerson, defended the group’s actions as within the scope of the rules but said that the action was taken so as not to “jeopardise anyone’s campaigns”.

“Earlier I posted the minutes from today’s meeting, where one of the things we discussed was who we planned to support in the EUSA elections,” she said in the post. “As this is a private group it was just to give folk a chance to agree/disagree with giving our support to certain candidates.

“However since then, it’s come to my attention that this COULD be seen as campaigning before the official period (which starts on Thursday), and although we haven’t breached any rules, I have removed the post, as the last thing we want to do is jeopardise anyone’s campaigns!”

She continued: “I have removed the post and made the minutes private for now, because we of course don’t want this to be misunderstood!”

A comment below Summerson’s post, which was subsequently deleted, also alluded to concerns about the optics of the group’s actions.

“I can see how someone could argue it was campaigning,” the comment read, “when of course it was discussion and planning, but that’s probably for the best until thursday morning.  Good thinking.”

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Comment Response

It remained unclear whether an action for breach would be attempted to be brought against the candidates.  According to EUSA regulations, candidates may only be sanctioned following a written complaint within 24 hours of the incident occurring.

Complaints are fielded by the EUSA Assistant Returning Officer, a full-time staff member in the Association, who is required to issue a decision on the merit of the case within a day.  An appeal process can be made by both the complainant and the defendant depending on the response.

The penalties for breach of conduct range from verbal warnings, to confiscation of campaign materials, to full disqualification.
This is a developing news story.  Check back to this page for updates.

By Fiona Grew

Fiona Grew is a 4th year Philosophy & Theology student and Editor-in-Chief at The Student.  

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