I was lucky enough to be elected Education Officer of LUU in 2014, so I have some experience of the Leadership Race and the never-ending chase for society endorsements. They can be difficult to get, but in my mind this is the best indicator that they work. Endorsements have to be earned by being the best candidate.
The effect of endorsements is questionable – when I ran, I knew that one of the most important parts of my campaign was securing the endorsement of the Islamic Society. Throughout voting week, I met a considerable number of ISoc members who told me they’d voted for me off the back of this endorsement. At the same time one candidate I ran against managed to accrue a similar number of endorsements to me, including societies with large memberships like History Society and FoBSoc. So whilst endorsements can be a great way of getting your name out there – they are certainly not the only way to do that.
There is a tendency during LeadLUU for the wannabe politicos of Leeds to treat it like a big time political race where endorsements mean a great deal. Former Welfare Rep Lawrence Thompson called endorsements “fundamentally unfair” because they are often a result of the committee’s decision making processes, and not a result of the preference of society members. This certainly is true in some instances, like the POLIS Society this semester, but getting rid of endorsements altogether is the wrong way to make the process fairer. Rather than making it easier for candidates to secure votes, it would just force the cronyism that can pervade the endorsement process underground. Whilst also robbing less well networked candidates of the opportunity to spread their message to students they might not otherwise encounter.
The POLIS Society are a great example of the potential for endorsements that is currently wasted. This year POLIS endorsed six Exec Candidates and a Candidate for Gryphon Editor without holding a hustings or advertising to candidates that their endorsement was there to be won. In this case, rather than making all Leadership Race candidates accountable to POLIS Students by holding a hustings with their membership, the committee lost their opportunity to engage their members in the race. Instead dealing out a meaningless endorsement. This is clearly not transparent and benefitted those candidates with pre-existing connections, proving that the system needs to be changed. Positive change can ensure endorsements fulfil the purpose they are intended for – to indicate to those voting which candidates would be best for them.
If endorsements are used properly, they can level the playing field by making it about what they should be – indicating to students who Societies think the best candidates are based on their ideas and their character. That this does not happen across the board currently is unacceptable; but the answer is not to outlaw endorsements altogether, but to make them fairer and more transparent so that everyone has a chance of winning them.
Nobody is truly sure if society endorsements can actually swing an election, but in the way they are currently decided, whether or not they should is something we should consider.
LUU likes societies to give endorsements, and you can see why. A constant reminder on your social media feeds from societies you may be a part of is likely to increase the chance you may vote. Societies also already play a role in deciding policy at LUU by having their views expressed on ideas that pass through forum by their activities reps. Societies already form part of the fabric of LUU democracy so in theory there is little to disagree with. However, when put into practice endorsements can end up making you feel like the whole thing is a bit of a stitch up. Just like a real election.
Societies hold hustings to decide which candidates to endorse in each field of the race. Hustings are meant to be events for members of the society to quiz candidates and determine who will be best for the students of that society. In reality it all too often amounts to a strange show trial where you repeat the same script you’ve read twenty times that week to the committee of a society who decided who they’d endorse in January. Or in the case of my own experience with RAG, the largest and therefore considered most influential society on campus last year (this year they’re remaining neutral), a one minute pitch to a single member of the committee.
All too often societies will choose which candidate to endorse based on three things: Are they already a member of this society? Do they do this course? Do they have more mates on the committee than anyone else they’re up against? Take for example the curious decision of one society to announce last Monday which candidates they endorsed without having met them, and prior to all candidates manifestos being officially released.
Now, candidates who have been integral parts of societies shouldn’t be dismissed as opportunists. The dedication they’ve shown to their societies are admirable, and the experience would serve them well in an exec role. But what’s taken shape is a feeling amongst certain societies in LUU that it is their right to exert an undue amount of influence over a democratic process intended to engage 30,000 students. Take a delve into #leadluu twitter and you’ll find that members of certain societies will quite proudly announce how they “win their elections”. Meaning that candidates that their society has produced or endorsed will win, because they’re backing them. It’s dangerous to a democratic process because it threatens to exclude candidates who have not spent years in the LUU bubble. It’s almost as though they’ve formed an establishment within the microcosm of LUU.
As these elections are decided by a campus wide vote, the influence of society endorsement could be overplayed. But my worry is that candidates who represent groups not often heard in the debates we have in the Union are overlooked simply due to a lack of connections.
Toke’s victory in last year’s race for Union Affairs was remarkable because it eskewed traditional wisdom. Toke came from outside of the establishment of LUU socities. A proto-Sanders. But my concern is that he is an exception that proves the rule.
As much as it seems I’ve argued there is something rotten in the state of Leeds, I have no doubt that whoever wins these elections will do so for all the right reasons. Great policies, and a great campaign.