Image credit: The Yorker

We need a free press and fair rules in our elections

Image credit: The Yorker
The winning candidate for the Full-Time Officer positions in the 2016 YUSU elections and URY presenters. Image credit: Bethany Lang, edited by The Yorker

The recipe for a healthy democracy begins with its voters: the more informed they are of candidates’ policies, plans and previous habits, the better decisions they make. Adding to this should be good journalism, to ensure the proceedings are reported accurately and to make sure the electorate is aware of additional details not detectable at first sight.

We’d do well to abide by such a recipe, but unfortunately we sacrifice it for a cheaper alternative. Unbeknownst to the average student voter, each year YUSU implements some well-sculpted regulations that mean that, over the election period, student media is gagged and free speech within our democracy is sacrificed. If we want a real democratic process, we need to realise this and call for change.

For example, candidates are not permitted to be critical of each other: following the most recent election’s rules, candidates are not permitted to “campaign negatively against other candidates.” (Bear in mind that these rules were forced past the very body designed to hold the union accountable, even after rejection.)

Here is one of two dangerously ambiguous terms: negatively. What does it mean to campaign negatively? Does that mean coming up with catchy slogans about why your opponents are stupid? Or does it mean subjecting a policy to rigorous scrutiny and demonstrating that it is unfeasible?

Clearly, nobody wants a poisonous atmosphere of accusations and smearing – we’ve had quite enough of that worldwide in 2016. What’s more, York has shown itself to be a hotbed of online discussion over political events, from International Men’s Day to the Tommy Robinson affair, and not everyone behaves themselves in the best of ways. Who wants to be the victim of a character assassination as soon as they raise their head above the parapet?

Unfortunately, this is a simple hazard of the job that any participant in the democratic contest should know. If those who stand for election would prefer for their mistakes and corruption to be safely hidden by censoring the press, they do not deserve our votes. We as voters deserve to know the truth about the people who could be in top roles within our union for a year. Is it the sign of a credible democracy that scrutinising policy is negative campaigning and should be avoided? I should think not.

You’d hope that the press could challenge candidates instead, but newspapers affiliated with the student union are not permitted to be critical of candidates in their coverage. Whether they like it or not, student hacks must paint a positive picture of each candidate. No negative commentaries will be printed.

I have heard from several Nouse editors who find this deeply frustrating and you should too. By preventing campus media from reporting negatively on candidates, the students’ union shields every election hopeful from any possibility that the facts that challenge their capacity to run might catch up with them. When would you rather know about candidates who have made inappropriate remarks about foreigners or drunkenly attempted to enter students’ accommodation in the early hours of the morning – now, or after you voted them in?

If there’s no opportunity for us to criticise our candidates, how are we supposed to decide who is best besides appealing to general popularity? Our annual ceremony becomes a pathetic popularity contest, where a top role on a Vanbrugh or Derwent JCRC is more or less a winning ticket for a Sabbatical hopeful.

Additionally, candidates can’t mention individual staff members by name, for the sake of a second perilously vague concept, welfare. What does it mean to challenge someone’s welfare? Subjecting them to hate mail, vandalising their property, making them feel unsafe and so on is surely a threat to someone’s welfare. But what about reporting conflicts of interest? Careless mistakes that have led to, for example, two union trustees elected when only one place was on offer?

If you think that exposing these are violations of welfare too, you have a very broad understanding of welfare – too broad, in fact. For the sake of “welfare,” YUSU staff can escape justice for their mistakes. In a system where a staff member can misread our constitution and use powers not granted to them, but enjoy immunity from being held to account by student media, is this really for the best? How can candidates make clear what they want to change when they can barely elaborate on such things if the fault lies with a nameless figure in the background?

Change is needed, and it’s needed now. Last year’s hustings brought dullness to a whole new level when questions from the floor received dismal stock answers and the debate was stopped at every opportunity. Any pertinent questions from the audience or Twitter conversations were patently ignored and the chairwoman treated the students like misbehaving schoolchildren, telling noisy students to leave and threatening to close the bar if we didn’t pay attention. If we care about democracy, information and honesty, we can’t let this happen again.

Clamping down on negative comments between candidates might keep things civil, but polite conversation doesn’t help the average student voter decide why he should vote for one candidate or not vote for another. Our elections need a press that is free to scrutinise candidates and their policies; compelling the media to ignore any suggestions of impropriety makes the entire process a fantasy.

Rationing the information the electorate has for the sake of making a democratic venture easy and stress-free shows how feeble our system has become.

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Jack Harvey

Jack Harvey

Alumni & Public Relations Officer at The Yorker
Comment and Politics Editor 2015/2016, Editor 2016/2017, Alumni & Public Relations Officer 2017/2018. History and Philosophy graduate, studying for MA in Philosophy at University of York.