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The UGM results represent a campus minority, but how can we challenge student apathy?
The general consensus appears to be that the recent UGM proved, once again, that democracy was alive and well at York. That once again the voice of the student was being heard, thanks to a voting turnout higher than any UGM in York memory. While we need not get into the reasons as to why the numbers voting were so much higher than the usual, because there's enough to be said on the Fletcher-Hackwood affair to fill the entire comment section, what does interest me is how low a high voting turnout is at York.
Around about ten percent of the students voted in the UGM. Ten percent isn't democracy. While the assumption seems to be that those too apathetic or hungover to make it to a computer to place their votes don't deserve a say, I certainly don't think that the results can be tenable when the numbers voting for them are so low. Take the most controversial motion; the vote of no confidence against Grace Fletcher-Hackwood, which was won by eight votes. Meaning that in total around about five percent of the student population believed that Fletcher-Hackwood ought to have been removed from her position. This is not to say that the decision was wrong, what it does mean is that ninety-five percent of the student population of York are not getting a say in what they want. I'm not saying that we force the silence majority into voting, but I do wish that the university as whole were willing to admit that there is a problem when it comes to claims of democracy within York.
Let's put this into context a little bit. More people voted on the motion for York Students to graduate in the Minster than voted in November to decide if York Union ought to remain affiliated with the NUS. That's right, 1855 people voted on the Minster motion, a motion which honestly will have no effect on where we graduate, as the Vice-Chancellor himself has stated that graduation will never take place in the Minster. While a mere 1389 voted on the issue of the NUS. That's 466 more people voting towards a motion that really isn't going to do a great deal to change anything than were voting for a motion that was probably going to change quite a lot indeed.
So why were people so impressed by the turnout for the UGM? Vanburgh chair Matt Oliver went as far to report it as "enormous" and Nouse's own online coverage called the turnout "unprecedented". But then again, the precedent for UGM turnout is that many motions can't pass, because the votes don't reach quoracy. You may be wondering exactly how low quoracy is in a university where you'd think there were a fair few politically minded people. Surely it has to be quite high for so many motions to not be able to meet it. But alas, no. In order for a motion to reach quoracy 2.25 percent of the student population need to vote on it. That's about 350 students who need to spend approximately two minutes voting. And who frequently don't.
It was obviously the controversial nature of certain motions that got people voting this time round, but the university shouldn't have to wait until a sabbatical officer hits someone for a host of other motions to pass. Even motions which are considered contentious don't always rally people to vote. Laura Payne's divisive motion to allow men to attend women's committee meetings had been proposed before. But you guessed it, not enough people voted for it to make quoracy the first time round.
But what can be done to improve voting turnout? Will this "unprecedented" turnout lead to improvements in the way democracy works within YUSU? I predict not. People voted this time round because the Fletcher-Hackwood debate was something that a lot of people felt very strongly about. It seems unlikely that any other UGM will have a similar voting turnout. But what can be done? Strangely enough I don't think that there is that much that can be done to change things. The cliches of apathetic students seems, in this case at least, to be ridiculously true.
It's partially a question of publicity. Currently things are left in the hands of those proposing the motion, whose publicity of their motion is very likely to be biased. It's true that if posters are plastered all across campus making ridiculous statements, that people might feel inclined to try and get their voice heard by voting. But is this really the way we want to go about it? This UGM was highly publicised, but not by YUSU. I don't remember seeing a single poster with the YUSU logo urging me to vote. Nor do I remember the fanfare when the results were announced. At least when the results for the NUS affiliation were announced Anne-Marie Canning went and stood on Vanburgh paradise. What happened when the results of this UGM were announced? They announced it on the website. The very same website that ninety percent of the students at York didn't log onto in the previous week to vote. Something there just doesn't seem right does it?
YUSU need to take some action to improve voting turnout. They can't just sit in their office and hope that Dan Taylor will publicise all their UGMs for them. Democracy needs people. And without people we'll be stuck with a student union that can't do very much at all. The voice of the students needs to be heard, even if it means that we have to inform the masses that they really ought to be shouting louder.