Cambridge students voted in three new NUS delegates this weekElement5 Digital

On Monday, CUSU announced the results of the NUS delegate elections, finally deciding the complete list of delegates Cambridge will send to the National Union of Students (NUS) conference in March.

The three newly elected delegates Sally Patterson, Stella Swain, and Howard Chae, will join CUSU president Edward Parker Humphreys, an ex officio NUS delegate, and ex-Access and Funding Officer Shadab Ahmed, who was elected last term, to attend the conference.

The vote gathered controversy, however, when one candidate, Peter McLaughlin, received the most first preference votes - 124 - but was not elected as a delegate due to CUSU’s complex election procedures.

Varsity has spoken to both CUSU’s election committee, and McLaughlin to clarify confusion and criticism surrounding this week’s elections.

What is the NUS? And what are the conferences?

The National Union of Students is an organisation which aims to “promote, defend and extend the rights of students.”

563 student unions from UK universities are currently affiliated to the NUS, and it has an full-time team of one President and 5 Vice-Presidents, who carry out campaigns much like CUSU over the course of a year, but on a larger scale.

The NUS holds two annual conferences. The number of delegates sent by each affiliated student union is determined in proportion to the size of the university.

Cambridge can send up to six delegates to the National Conference every March, during which students debate and decide on the overall direction of NUS UK for the next year.

The conference is split into five ‘zones’: Further Education, Higher Education, Society & Citizenship, Union Development, and Welfare. Delegates discuss motions on these topics and elect a Vice-President for each ‘zone’, who acts and campaigns for a year based on this mandate.

In late May, the NUS also holds the Liberation Conference, to which student unions again send delegates on a proportional basis to student population size. Cambridge again sends up to six delegates. Delegates debate on issues facing black, disabled, LGBT+, trans and women students, and elect six full-time officers - with two for the LGBT+ campaign - to lead on these issues for a year.

What happened during the NUS elections?

All NUS delegates were meant to be appointed from elections in Michaelmas. However, only one candidate, Shadab Ahmed, received a greater number of votes than the ‘Re-Open Nominations’ ballot option, leaving four spaces open, and forcing a re-run this term.

Both Swain and Patterson ran in the Michaelmas contest, while Chae and McLaughlin did not. In this Lent election, seven candidates ran for the position of delegate, compared to five who ran in Michaelmas, and 11 who ran in both 2017 and 2018.

CUSU’s Standing Orders require a Single Transferrable Vote (STV) voting system, meaning each of the 495 students who voted for NUS delegates ranked one candidate as their first preference, and chose back-up preferences.

To be elected, each candidate needs to reach a quota - a minimum number of votes - which in this case was 98.8. In the first round, McLaughlin and Chae both surpassed the quota, receiving 124 and 102 first preference votes, respectively.

Ordinarily, the bottom-most candidate is eliminated, and in the spirit of ensuring those who put that candidate as their first preference do not see their votes wasted, their second preference votes are allocated to the remaining candidates.

This process of elimination is repeated with the lowest-voted candidate in the subsequent rounds until the number of candidates reaching the quota with the second-preference votes is equal to the number of seats to be elected.

However, NUS rules also require CUSU to field a gender-balanced delegation with no more than three men. Only one male delegate could be elected this time as Parker Humphreys and Ahmed have already been confirmed to represent the University.

Therefore, as the two highest polling female candidates, Patterson and Swain were automatically elected, with 84 and 53 votes respectively, without reaching the quota.

Patterson, Swain, the remaining candidates, and RON were therefore ‘withdrawn’ from the process, and the committee then chose to do a run-off, holding it as if Chae and McLaughlin had been the only candidates.

Of those voters who had put a withdrawn candidate as their first preference, whoever out of McLaughlin or Chae was higher in their back-up preferences was allocated these votes, with Chae eventually winning in this way.

CUSU also elected its Liberation delegates this week. Abdullah Hared was elected as the delegate for the BME campaign with 105 votes, Alessandro Ceccarelli as delegate for the LGBT+ liberation campaign with 136 votes, and Ali Hyde as delegate for the Trans campaign, with 96 votes.

“Behind closed doors”?

The election results sparked controversy this week because the two conflicting mandates - CUSU’s standing orders requiring STV and NUS rules on gender balanced delegations - left the election committee in uncharted waters.

Speaking to Varsity, the committee explained their decision to hold a run-off based on a STV procedure.

“The fairest way of deciding this was via a run-off vote between the two candidates which incorporated all voters’ preferences, rather than limiting it solely to first preferences, in line with CUSU’s policy of using STV for elections,” they claimed.

But McLaughlin emphasised whether or not the decision was fair, “one single committee having the power over the outcome of an election is fundamentally undemocratic,” branding this “outrageous.”

“This was an entirely behind-closed doors judgement call,” he added. “I can’t accuse them of ideological bias, but the mere fact that there was no in-built system against ideological biases is totally unacceptable and totally undemocratic.”

He further stressed that “really there are more options than the two that they listed.”

The election committee defended its decision by claiming “these were the two immediately obvious methods of counting, and the Elections Committee chose the one that aligns with CUSU rules for elections.”

They further argued “the CUSU Standing Orders empower the Returning Officer to make judicial decisions regarding all election matters.”

But McLaughlin highlighted an ambiguity in CUSU’s Standing Orders on NUS elections, which he asserted may in fact mean the election had not been run correctly.

According to the relevant order, “initially a count will be run with only those candidates who self-define as women”, which McLaughlin argues may imply running the election just with female candidates first, and then male candidates in a second round, rather than with all candidates from the outset.


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McLaughlin added the committee had also ignored multiple emails from him and friends asking to provide the minutes of the meeting where the decision was made, and decried “that there even was a decision wasn’t even announced until [he] queried it - it was just mentioned that ‘a run-off had happened’.”

But the election committee hit back, stating “minutes for Elections Committee meetings are [normally] published online” and would appear there soon, given they had also not been approved into circulation until Wednesday.

“EC has a clear accountability structure, through the candidate appeal mechanism, which has been outlined to Peter, and we have yet to receive any appeals to EC decisions,” they added.

But McLaughlin was unconvinced, and claimed the irony of the election was that he “was running on a platform of ‘Let’s change NUS’... to give a voice to people who wanted to see genuine change at the national and university level.”

“It’s kind of indicative these people voted for increased democratisation and increased voice and it’s the very lack of democracy they were complaining about that has now meant that they don’t have a voice.”