This election should serve as a sort of rough guide on how to fail boringly in the run for Union presidencyLouis Ashworth / Varsity

James Appiah III won Union presidency for Easter 2023 by quite a lot in the end. The dividing lines of this election were quite clear: internal vs external, clique vs anti-clique. The latter on both counts won. Ellie Breeze and her squadron ran a polished campaign, perhaps too polished, too focused on insiders, too bourgeois in character, but sure of comfortable victory. It had the backing of the Union establishment, including ex President James Vitali and a great number of ambitious up-and-comers like Max Ghose and Ed Hilditch. Sam Carling and Joshan Parmar ran similarly traditional campaigns, and it seemed all too easy until Appiah threw his hat in the race and, with the help of the most effective Union campaigner around, Sal Widdicombe, ran a blistering campaign, merciless in its shameless use of anything to grasp any vote. If you throw everything at the wall, something will stick – even if it resembled something like organised chaos, it was anything but.

Political campaigning in an institution such as the Union is fundamentally a networked phenomenon: it is about connecting to people, and their mutual friends, and so forth. In a word, it’s about “hacking”. Appiah’s campaign was utterly cynical and clear-eyed in utilising this fact, exposing a gulf in political self-awareness between his team and the others. Short, rhyming slogans (“happier with Appiah”) and popular-cum-mad proposals (a partisan Union boxing match) paired with reaching the right people won the day. Above all, Widdicombe’s ability to campaign successfully is a reflection of charisma, a sure vote-winner if you have the right candidate.

This is in direct contrast to the formal solemnities of endorsement pages, with curly fonts, colour schemes, and set texts from best friends, partly done out of sympathy, mostly done out of vanity. It seemed that, apart from the freshers, the “clique” that ran the Breeze campaign were alienating. In trying to appeal to left-liberal instincts of students despite a Tory background, they appeared out of touch. There was a certain air, even a breeze, of entitlement about the whole thing. Political beliefs meant little and were feigned: there appeared a gaping hole in the campaign’s integrity when, at the hustings, Breeze stated “No, party politics should not play a role in the Union”, perhaps pre-empting the fact that her being on Rishi Sunak’s campaign would be leaked. The truth in politics can indeed be rather inconvenient, especially when it finds ways of escaping out into the open.

In reality, there was little coherence in the Appiah campaign – which is why he won. Of all the candidates Sam Carling had the most reasonable and practicable policies to my mind. But he was the first of the candidates to be eliminated; had he exploited Breeze’s CUCA connexion he may have been more successful in winning the anti-Union vote. As it was, despite the almost maniacal efforts of some on his team, his refusal to hack message meant slaughter at the ballot box.

It is almost like a micro version of the Brexit referendum

Indeed, coherence, as evidenced by this election, doesn’t always matter in politics. As much as some would like, voters are not rational agents; incoherence has a strange positive appeal, as does self-destruction – every political actor should acquaint themselves with Dostoyevsky’s underground man to understand this. What was said matters far less than what was implied by Appiah’s candidacy: a middle finger to the establishment in the Union who think they can run the place. Whether the boxing match materialises or not doesn’t really matter. The meaning of all this was to send a message that said “no more” to the current clique in the Union – stamped, from Appiah with love. It was a case of using networks of voters far more effectively.

This election should serve as a sort of rough guide on how to fail boringly in the run for Union presidency. Messaging should be sharp and biting, not drawn-out statements that are nothing but forgettable. It should be humorous and have wit: no one wants to vote for a dud candidate. Social media is crucial, and the first thing about social media is that it is made for the fleeting glimpse, not constipated platitudes as friends try to say in every way possible: “Please, I just really want you to vote for my mate.” The video in political campaigning is also becoming more important, whether it’s a song or talking incoherently interspersed with walking in the quads of your college, they are powerful vehicles for political advertisement. (Taken to its extreme, this is “lo-fi boriswave to relax/get brexit done to”.)

It is a testament at once to our generation’s total lack of what was once called a “political education” or a reading of history that some of the campaigns were so bad, and that there are clearly some who understand electoral behaviour. It is almost like a micro version of the Brexit referendum, except the stakes were slightly lower. There is a certain irony that the generation raised with social media doesn’t really know how to use it, at least when conducting the art of persuasion.


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Crucial, as Sal Widdicombe put it to me, was the fact that Appiah had “[built his] campaign on real relationships and not shallow “hacking”…Elections are symbiotic. The candidate must provide.” The implication here is ultimately that the Appiah campaign were the better hacks. Their hacking was not merely “shallow” but it was hacking done properly. In other words: the populist message was necessary; the relentless hacking sufficient. This is indeed the ethos of how Dominic Cummings argues political campaigns should be run. As David Runciman showed in a piece for The Guardian, it is about who outlasts the other and who is more relentless in their pursuit of winning votes.

Thus the people of the Union have spoken, surely enough against the Union establishment as it currently stands. And it was the understanding that organised chaos wins in political campaigns, sweeping Appiah to victory. However unsavoury some find it, the only novelty here is Union campaigning being taken to its most awful, highly effective extreme.