The end of the neoliberal consensus and the emergence of a new value-based politics has defined the last couple of years. From Brexit, Le Pen and Trump on the right, to Corbyn and Sanders on the left, the new engagement of those who would not otherwise participate has been pronounced. Why is it then that student politics has not seen a similar mobilisation? The recent YUSU elections saw the lowest turnout for seven years – 25% – and was indicative of a national trend of growing apathy with student politics.
Although it is easy to pin this apathy on lazy millennials, the issue does not stem from a lack of demand from within the student body, but from a paucity in the supply of alternative ideas from candidates. We already have such charged and adversarial debate on social media and in student publications surrounding a range of issues such as freedom of speech, identity politics, and a potential withdrawal from the NUS; yet the failure of candidates to mirror these debates on a YUSU level has caused engagement to suffer.
In the old landscape of valence politics, the advocacy of safe, uncontroversial policies was good enough to gain support since it encapsulated all of the relevant spheres of debate of the day. Candidates with similar values would compete based on competence and delivery, not needing to consider more divisive issues due to their low salience. Post-2016, how can candidates campaigning on a platform of a more efficient bus service successfully compete for attention with the much more polarised and relevant dichotomies of nationalism vs internationalism, self-interest vs collectivism, or populism vs elitism? Happy-clappy campaigning will only take you so far.
There is no good structural reason why our complacent YUSU politics has not been challenged other than precedent. Although the University and YUSU have taken criticism for their stifling of debate – York only received an “Amber” rating according to the Free Speech University Rankings – there is more than enough vocal opposition to compensate.
Further, the Single Transferable Vote system ought to be conducive to the success of outsider candidates as it eliminates the worry of a wasted vote for voters who are considering taking the road less travelled. At the very least, it should allow for alternative ideas to seep into the student consciousness and enhance debate, even if a middle-ground candidate is eventually elected after mass deliberation.
Although the emergence of radical new candidates would certainly rejuvenate YUSU elections, there are now, more than ever, some hard truths that face student politics. 2016 revealed to us that the nature of political engagement has changed, with divisive politics bombarding us through every media outlet to a level that student politics simply cannot compete with. As mainstream politics increasingly tries to reach out to us, we cannot be surprised that people are increasingly unwilling to reach out to politics, especially at a grassroots level. The old days of union meetings and Conservative clubs have been replaced by one-way garish political advertising thrust upon us in the comfort of our own homes. The activist dimension is fading and has not been helped by the narrative since the 1980s that unions do not have a place in political decision-making.
Despite the barriers, we can still do better. Currently, we settle for candidates that converge on safe, if uninspiring, positions. The result is that YUSU elections become low-turnout popularity contests, which is understandable given that personality is the only thing that differentiates the candidates, though not desirable. There are no structural barriers preventing us from breaking out from this dynamic. If we want change, we need cultural shift, not in terms of mobilising interest – as there is already plenty – but in terms of increasing the willingness of those with alternative views to actively get involved with the system itself and stand for election.