CUSU’s elections procedures are an impediment to democracyLouis Ashworth

A referendum on disaffiliation from the NUS will be held from Tuesday to Friday this week. The timing right in the middle of exams is far from ideal, making it difficult to engage revising students.  The success of the Disabled Students’ Officer Referendum is deceptive: historically, CUSU referenda have been an uphill battle against a prohibitively-challenging quorum.

To put it in perspective, if the outcome of the referendum is roughly 50:50, more people will need to vote than did in the CUSU Presidential election to have a result in this referendum. It seems CUSU is in favour of reducing the quorum significantly in the near future to make it less difficult for referenda to pass, but for the time being the 10 per cent quorum applies. 

However, this is not the only quorum-related issue: unusually the quorum is not defined solely in terms of participation. Instead, the onus to meet quoracy lies solely with one side. CUSU’s Elections Committee claims that the question to be put to referendum has been phrased according to the original Motion which was passed at CUSU Council. Yet this is not the case: the content of the Motion must be found in the Resolve rather than in the title, which is simply a short-hand reference.

The Resolve makes the neutral statement ‘CUSU resolves to take immediate steps to prepare for a referendum on CUSU’s affiliation to the National Students’ Union’ but the referendum question is ‘Should CUSU disaffiliate from the National Union of Students?’. It seems a question has been arbitrarily chosen, without consulting those who proposed the motion. The current question advantages the Remain campaign because the quorum requirement favours the supposed status quo.

Given the Motion’s ambiguity, it is necessary to justify the wording of the question differently. There are several reasons why the choice made is counterintuitive, and restrictive for grassroots student action. The vast majority of NUS referenda across the country ask for “continued affiliation”, which seems the most obvious wording, rather than “disaffiliation”. Cambridge’s unusual choice has even confused some NUS politicians who have used the hashtag #YES2NUS in Cambridge, only to later realise that, here, “Yes” means disaffiliation.

If the quorum is to favour the default position, the question should actually be one of affiliation. This is because CUSU is required (under the 1994 Education Act) to seek its members’ consent to re-affiliate to the NUS each year by putting the issue to a vote in CUSU Council. If the margin of two-thirds voting in favour is missed, but a simple majority is still achieved, a referendum on re-affiliation must be held. If a simple majority of CUSU Council votes against re-affiliation, CUSU does not re-affiliate and no referendum is held. It is therefore evident that the status quo is disaffiliation, with re-affiliation being dependent on a two-third majority in CUSU Council or a referendum if that proportion is not met.

 What most students don't know is that this has not occurred for at least the last few years. Technically, then, CUSU should not even be affiliated to the NUS right now. With this in mind, the upcoming referendum must be considered a severely-delayed fulfilment of CUSU’s duty to seek consent for re-affiliation and should be phrased accordingly. It is no secret that CUSU whole-heartedly supports affiliation to the NUS.  As the second ‘Resolves’ was amended out of the original Motion calling for the referendum, the Sabbatical Officers are allowed to campaign, and we have heard their views during the debate last week and in student media.  This means there is another problem with the quorum favouring the Remain campaign.

There is no incentive for CUSU, the organisation with the greatest resources for encouraging students to vote, to advertise the referendum at all. Fewer votes overall are likely only to mean that the Leave campaign has less chance of fulfilling the steep quorum requirement. Of course, nobody wants to jump into accusations of foul play on CUSU’s part. However, three out of four members of the Elections Committee are CUSU Sabbatical Officers, and such a close tie between the two groups demands a special degree of transparency to dispel any doubts of bias.  That the Facebook Event Page is so poorly advertised and has the wrong date (something which apparently cannot be helped) does not instil huge amounts of faith that this is being handled well.

Having realised that the Elections Committee’s decision to phrase the question in a way that favours the Stay side is at the very least highly questionable, a formal appeal was sent to the Returning Officer, asking for the quorum to be dropped if not reversed. Of course, we understood that it might not be practical to reverse the wording of the question so late during campaigning, so we would have been content if the quorum was dropped completely.  We have just received a reply informing us that the final decision of Elections Committee is that nothing will be done.  Our only option would be to take this up with the Junior Proctors, a process that would take too long.

In light of this, as there is probably nothing that can be done now to make the referendum fairer, we can only hope that enough students will turn out for the result of our appeal not to matter and a decisive result to be achieved. Against all odds, let’s try and make sure that the outcome of this referendum truly reflects student opinion.