Student politics is dying, and this election could be the final blow

You do not have to wait for the dust to settle to see the rubble of democracy on campus. Students have never been less engaged with the democratic process despite it never being more crucial that their voices are heard.

The highest profile vote on campus is the Sabbatical Officer elections. It is where we choose who will be representing us to the University and running many of the services we use. These five jobs are a big deal and those who are elected to them have the power to touch the lives of every Edinburgh student. Yet despite the power, influence and high profile nature of the role, turnout in Sabbatical Officer elections has been consistently farcical and an embarrassment.

Last year only 5,448 votes were cast for President, with Ellen MacRae being elected with only 1,784 first preference votes. There were over 44 thousand students at the university. Also last year, a Student Council online ballot about the sale of beef at Students’ Association venues attracted 5,857 votes after going viral on social media. There is no way to spin a beef ballot having better engagement than the Association’s Presidential Election as a positive sign.

You cannot even claim this as a victory for Student Council engagement. The previous online ballot had less than 200 votes, and this year’s Council meetings have seen a distressingly low online turnout.

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It should not take an issue going viral for us to be interested in student politics.

And unfortunately, things are only going to get worse this year. The 2018 election campaigning was disrupted by the Beast from the East, and as any fourth years will testify, the result was a largely ignored election. While the exact turnout is impossible to find on the Students’ Association website, the reality was that without the candidates campaigning, the election went largely unnoticed. The pandemic means campaigning will be similarly curtailed this year and so a drop in turnout should be expected.

Unfortunately, the Students’ Association are simply not doing enough to ensure that does not happen. As I can testify from researching for this article, the election information on the Students’ Association website is just not easy to navigate. If the Association were on top of things, the date of the election would be plastered anywhere they could find the space to put it. Yet it features shockingly little on their homepage or even on the election-dedicated webpage itself. They need to get their act together if they want to maintain the small smattering of interest they have been able to summon in the last couple of years.

This seems like a hopeless situation, but there is nothing that says it is doomed to be this way forever. Nominations are up 95 per cent, which shows the people who are paying attention are increasingly recognising the need to create change, but they need the turnout to match to really make a difference.

Without any turnout, the Sabbatical Officers have no authority to stand up for students. At a time when the University is disregarding its duty of care to students more frequently than you did pub quizzes for the first two weeks of lockdown, you want the people that represent you to be taken seriously. The University know that turnout is low and they view that as no one being interested in holding them to account. They take poor engagement in student democracy as a blank cheque to walk all over their students.

It feels like there isn’t much point in voting in the student elections. Why bother when the outlook is this bleak? But the only way to actually stop student democracy from dying on its arse for good is to vote, and to vote for a candidate that is willing to make a difference.

The University wants you to ignore the election. The Students’ Association are too comfortable and disinterested. There is only one thing you can do to make something happen: vote.

Image: Keith Ivey via Flickr

Image shows a voting poster on a brick wall