This SU election season, introspection is required

This piece was originally published in Trinity News on January 25th, and will probably not make much sense to you if you don’t go to Trinity College. Sorry about that.

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Photo by Lauren Boland for Trinity News

As election season barrels towards us, it’s perhaps a good time to look at the state of TCDSU since this time last year. It has been an eventful twelve months for the Union. Two of the first three Council meetings of the academic year failed to reach quorum, preventing any kind of decision making. Two weighty referenda were held, but neither reached a turnout of even 13%. Perhaps most strikingly, the Union was revealed to have haemorrhaged some €70,000 in the previous academic year, leading to questions and scrutiny from council over potential mismanagement, and the role of the University Times.

These facts paint a picture of a body with deep rooted problems of both internal organisation and student engagement. At a most basic level, the Union needs to be able to balance its own budget and organise Council in such a way that class reps are aware of it and able to attend. Without funds and the direction of Council, it has neither the ability or the mandate to do any of its important work.

Indeed, mandate represents arguably the Union’s biggest problem. Far more than just lacking quorum at meetings, it is unclear how much actual democratic backing any of its actions have, including those made by sabbatical officers and directed by referenda. After the Tobacco Free Trinity vote, the headline in this very newspaper was that “70.6% of students vote[ed] in favour” of the measure. In fact, the approximately 1022 people who voted positively represent less than 7% of the overall student body. At a local or national level that would be considered farcical, and a tiny fraction of the kind of turnout needed to actually inform policy.

Sabbatical elections are no different. The turnout at last year was lauded for increasing by a fifth over the year before, but this still represented less than a quarter of students bothering to take the two minutes necessary to vote. If TCDSU were a country, it would have the second lowest voter turnout in the entire world.

But the SU isn’t a country, it’s a representative organisation. This arguably puts a significantly higher onus on it to, as the name suggests, represent its members. Short of that, it has no reason to exist. I personally don’t want the Union to stop existing, but it is therefore its responsibility to find some way to address this crippling engagement problem. It would be disingenuous to suggest the problem lies with students, given they don’t actually choose to be members of the Union, and it definitionally exists to serve them. The very point of having a student union is for it to unify students.

At the point where it continues to fail in this regard, serious questions can be asked. How can the Union justify spending the amount of students’ money that it does, and in an apparently poorly managed way? In what way can representatives of the Union, when communicating with college and the wider political world, have any claim to being the rightful representatives of Trinity students? What legitimacy does the Union have in making campus policy, such as the smoking ban?

To be clear, again; my proposal is not that we abolish the Union or that it should stop trying to do any representative work. I think it is vital to be able bargain collectively with college authorities, and to make our voices heard on the national stage. I just don’t think we can meaningfully do these things, or even straight-facedly claim to be doing them, without a solid democratic basis to the way in which the Union is run. And the hallmark of a properly run democracy is not just that you go with whatever decision or candidate happens to get the most votes on a particular day, it’s about a more general level of representation and engagement with a population. That is something we lack right now.

I lay no claim to being a political expert or to having any kind of easy answer to hand for the Union’s woes. But it is undeniable that those woes exist; that previous officers of the organisation categorically failed in some of their duties to the student body, and that a staggering majority of said student body has absolutely no interest in engaging with the Union at all. And given the existence of these woes and their extent, it is absolutely essential that all relevant candidates in the upcoming election have at least some kind of plan to address them.

This is not something that has existed at previous elections. Lip service has been paid to “unlocking the SU” and various small measures have been proposed to ensure individual officers communicate more with students. But given the problem continues to exist and has arguably gotten worse, and given the deep-rooted nature of student apathy towards the SU, it is clear these have not worked.

There will be many other issues rightly competing for attention at hustings and in manifestos this year. The country remains in the throes of a housing crisis which particularly affects students, higher education is significantly underfunded, and students report serious difficulties with the rollout of the Trinity Education Project. It should go without saying that it is vital the Union devote significant time and energy to these problems. But that does not represent an excuse to ignore the Union’s own internal strife. Far from it; it is more important than ever to have a body capable of adequately representing student concerns on these issues, and which has the money and organisational capacity to take action.

It seems likely to me that deep structural change and soul-searching will be needed to address this persistent issue. I don’t immediately have the answer, and I doubt any individual person does. But the first step is to at least acknowledge that there is something wrong, something not being done, some way in which the Union hasn’t lived up to its responsibility to students before now. Only then can we begin to have any sort of conversation about how to fix it. I dearly hope this year’s candidates will do that.

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