Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Herald Awards Pieces no.2 - Comment Piece on Student Politics

While this piece, another of the three successfully entered at this year's Herald Awards, is very university-centric, it's worth including for completeness.

The Case for Apathy
Student, 02.03.08
Spring, when the cut and thrust of student politics is in full swing, the printers make a pretty profit from all the flyers littering George Square, and the vast majority of students pay no attention whatsoever.
The fact is that student politics, particularly the ridiculous version seen at the EUSA elections, is all too often irrelevant, repetitive, and just plain dull. Student politicians have had no real effect on the national political landscape in the last twenty years, and increasingly are failing to make an impact on their own campuses.
The process has become devalued due to this lack of influence, the fact that most involved are there for personal gain in terms of their own future employability, and the lack of impact that EUSA has on students’ everyday lives.
This year, one enterprising student has gone so far as too put his EUSA vote up for auction on Ebay. The seller asks for a “miscellaneous T-shirted individual” to “do the dirty deed” by meeting outside the library for a surreptitious bribe. There are no bids so far. Perhaps the leafleteers are missing a trick – given how few students actually bother to vote, the 50p asking price for user felixtrench’s support could be a bargain.
Due to the low turnout, (a total of 4750 votes in last year’s presidential election – about one in five of the electorate), the results of the elections typically come down to the candidate best able to mobilise their friends and the members of whichever political grouping they hail from.
This ends up with the EUSA leadership becoming those best able to preach to the converted, whether these be Labour, Conservative or People & Planet – none too surprisingly, the political homes of the three frontrunners in this year’s presidential contest.
The EUSA elections have become little more than a process to allocate CV-boosting job titles to the leading party political acolytes, who win or lose largely on the strength of their facebook networks. Like it or not, the single strongest force in this election is not a controversial cause, a divisive policy or even a charismatic EUSA take on Barack Obama with accompanying screaming hordes in Potterrow, but the deafening silence from the student body.
It doesn’t take much effort to work out why. Just one look at the completely uninspiring choice should be enough. The manifestoes contain policies that are a mix of small tinkerings with the status quo, promises that are outside the remit of the job on offer and vague pronouncements of things nobody could disagree with.
The depressingly dull and indistinct set are only the most visible symptom of a deeper malaise at EUSA. One look at the list of candidates shows the shockingly high number of positions with a sole candidate returned unopposed, or in a good number of cases, no candidates whatsoever. Further proof, if any was needed, that student politics is not about serving the voters in the daily grind, but getting a flashy CV to impress party headquarters.
At this point, you are perhaps expecting me to call for greater student involvement, so that we as the electorate are given candidates that truly reflect our views. But I won’t. Quite frankly, it is perfectly fine to be apathetic about the apathy. The simple fact is that student politics will never regain the prominence it once had. Let the trainee politicians fight amongst themselves, since the results will be broadly similar anyway.
By and large, engagement in politics is a good thing, making any process more democratic. But when the body involved has as little influence on everyday life as EUSA does, the argument for greater student involvement falls. EUSA’s main role seems to be to attend meetings and conferences to pass on policy shaped by the university’s political pressure groups, with little discernable effect. How many times in the next few years will a sabbatical [note: elected EUSA representative] be sent to ask the university if, pretty please, they wouldn’t mind cutting all ties to the Royal Bank of Scotland?
The association’s other aspects, as academic representative and bar owner, can even be seen as arguments against the current democratic system. Surely, class reps are more useful than an elected system with one sole candidate standing to represent the field of history, classics and archaeology, despite six seats being available. The £100,000 annual loss made by EUSA on entertainments speaks volumes about the short-termism inherent in the system, with each candidate out to make a quick, gimmicky splash, with no need to consider the long term.
In short, the current system is devalued, dull and often useless, but worth tolerating, since someone has to manage things, such as they are. It might as well be someone keen. But that’s still no reason to feel you have to vote.
In case, like most Edinburgh students, you don’t know the presidential candidates, here is a brief summary in the handbags-at-ten-paces style of EUSA-less. If this isn’t enough to drive you to apathy, then you are truly a hopeless idealist.
First prize for banality must surely go to Nick Ward, for “Think forward, vote for Ward.” This is, quite frankly, the archetypal vapid political slogan. Every time this writer sees it, he is reminded of the following parody of a speech from The Simpsons: “We must move forward not backward, upward not forward, and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom!” Actually, that might well have been a more inspiring choice for the flyers.
The alternatives? Harry Cole, a man who began his campaign back in November with a bitchy blog, and recently shot himself in the foot monumentally by owning up to it. He favours “real action” instead of “gesture environmentalism”. This action amounts to some energy-saving light bulbs and a recycling bin outside Potterrow for flyers. If this is real action, the gestures of the past must really have been lightweight.
Adam Ramsay, a man who never knowingly misses a photo opportunity, has chosen to paint himself as the Messiah in his Bible-length manifesto, claiming responsibility for everything and anything up to scrapping the graduate endowment, which until now this author thought was something to do with Alex Salmond. He also claims to have had “near-death encounters with a bear, lightning, a rattlesnake and a waterfall.” Whether or not he is the Terminator is unknown, but his promised price cuts would seem to be enough to allow each student to host their own version of The Apprentice.
And Gabe Arafa? A man so dedicated to serving Edinburgh students that he seemingly forgot to run until the last minute.
March 5th-6th 2008. Don’t make your vote count.

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