The Cambridge Union: ‘not only saddening but frankly frightening’?Tobia Nava with permission for Varsity

At the start of this term, I wrote a “hot take” arguing that Lent is misery because it is just too far away from the fun of Freshers’ and the hedonism of May Week to be any good. After eight gruelling weeks and two insufferable elections, I’d like to revise my now-cooled take: the worst part of Lent is how hacky it is.

Despite involving very different kinds of student politician, elections at both the SU and Union take up a lot of space in the heads of student journalists and other losers who didn’t get invited to Sunday Lola’s. Our screens are electorally fly-tipped with lazy puns, clumsy mottos, and embarrassing slogans and hashtags. The mottos aren’t even the worst part – the obligatory Instagram posts of meaningless endorsements read like a rogues’ gallery of hacks artificially inflating their egos.

For most not directly involved, the worst aspect of this election season is when you open your phone to be greeted with a message request from an account imaginatively named “[Name]4[Role]” (indeed something that happened as I wrote this article). But, if you look deeper, election campaigns start to expose both the naively utopian and ultimately useless nature of SU politics, and the wannabe-Machiavellianism of the Union. Bridge Street seems to be a world where, instead of silly and embarrassing videos being the extent of the electoral fly-tipping, meddling with returning officers becomes fine so long as it secures you a victory.

“The tragedy of SU politics is its irrelevance”

At the SU, prospective sabbatical officers (sabbs for short) use their week-long campaigns to construct a screen of approachability and competence in an attempt to get more than 10.8% of the electorate to navigate the SU’s clunky (and leaky) website and send off their vote. However embarrassing their campaigns are, the candidates encounter the fundamental problem of SU politics – students simply don’t care. Despite their best efforts, sabbs are incapable of connecting with their potential voters, many of whom don’t even know that the SU exists despite its £1.2 million yearly expenditure. Even if students do know it’s there, they’re unwilling to engage – this year, hustings was practically an empty room after you took away candidates and Varsity reporters. After all, if one of the candidates couldn’t be bothered to even turn up, why should students?

Running an election campaign is practically impossible with prospective sabbatical officers having to put up a front of being some sort of technocratic leader so as not to tarnish their reputation, while also trying to connect with apathetic voters. The result is a soulless and over-professionalised campaign, starting videos with “I’m at [x] college” as if they’re a Tory levelling-up minister making the long trek from Westminster to the North when, in fact, they live five minutes down the road.

So the tragedy of SU politics is its irrelevance. Students simply couldn’t care less, despite the infantilising promise of a pizza party for the college with the highest voter turnout. They simply switch off their brain every time they see a message from the poor sods who will be forever remembered by their Facebook “SU” surname.

The Union elections however are where reservations about broadcasting oneself as a sensible and safe pair of hands go entirely out the window. Tactics range from the benign (making lazy parodies of perfume adverts), to the serious (publicly alleging that the culture of the society is deceitful and riven by backroom-dealings). Candidates will go to any length to secure a victory, even if it means defaming their colleagues.


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The real tragedy of the Union’s campaigning, though, lies in its human element. While hacks can (and often do) fantasise that they’re big-wig Westminster politicians, they’re simply not. Everyone up for election is a student just like me and you, and the bloody murder they’re willing to commit against one another in the debating chamber is not only saddening but frankly frightening. You can’t possibly imagine anything like it in a race to elect the next president of Northern Soc, so why do we think it’s normal (and perhaps even okay) for it to happen in what is simply another student society?

We’re confronted with the tragedy of this dual-world of Cambridge’s student politics – that the people who want to make change for students have got neither a mouth to speak with nor any anybody to listen, while the people who want to springboard their way to Westminster have got not just a mouth, but a megaphone as well.

And with very few signs that the election culture of cliques, calling each other freaks, and flapping beaks on David Quan’s podcast will change, we simply have to grin and bear it until the cycle repeats itself next term.