‘Hockey Nazis’ and Buzzwords: Report on the Full Time Officer Debates for the YUSU elections

The University of York. Image: The Yorker
The University of York. Image: The Yorker

On the 15th of February, as jovial noises filtered in from neighboring Courtyard, an increasingly empty Hendrix Hall witnessed an increasingly heated debate between all candidates for the five sabbatical officer positions in YUSU. Individual rounds took place for all five positions, followed by a series of questions by two York Union moderators and screened questions from the audience. The following is a debate-by-debate report of the major things that happened and what was said during the evening.

Community and Wellbeing Officer

The first debate was a three-way (non) battle between Stephen Boakes, Jess Sawford and the incumbent Steph Hayle. This debate saw a minor amount of disagreement, with the key message being the need to advertise and make ‘accessible’ (a key buzzword of the night) already existing services. Boakes, while citing the need for ‘real’ change and his own position “outside the YUSU bubble”, chose to cleave closely to existing YUSU policy, with the sole innovation being the need for a YUSU sponsored landlord review service. The trope of ‘transparency’ was especially prominent in Sawford’s answers but similarly failed to deliver a comprehensive and concrete plan for welfare policy in the Union. This meant that the victory in the debate easily went to the most confident, knowledgeable speaker, which was incumbent Steph Hayle. She did stress that much was still to be done and seemed to lecture all other candidates on the fact that all YUSU can really do is lobby the university and develop contacts. Obviously, her expertise and contacts come by virtue of her position but in the atmosphere of complete conflict avoidance this still meant she seemed by far the most competent candidate in the context of the debate. The question does of course remain open that if she has been in charge for a whole year, why are there still so many things to be done?

Student Activities Officer

The next debate had six separate candidates involved (Oscar Bentley, Sam Linley, Nick Lunn, Ollie Martin, Brian ‘Wally’ Terry, Matthew Wilkie), with the most interesting debates concerning free speech in student media and the idea of a “Refreshers fair”. The two candidates that undoubtedly stood head and shoulders above the rest were Nick Lunn and Oscar Bentley, both of whom had policies more elaborate and answers more confident than the rest of the pack. Lunn’s contrarian statements broke with the pro-free speech consensus, by stating that “some speech is violence” and that a Refreshers fair would be extremely hard work for societies. This represented some of the only debate the evening saw (before the Presidential debate). Bentley agreed on the point of Refreshers, but argued fervently for the need for student publications to be trusted by YUSU.  A rather unfortunate choice by candidate Terry was to go fully for his ‘Where’s Wally’ aesthetic while attempting to still run and answer questions like a serious candidate. All candidates seemed to stumble on the question of the political involvement of YUSU in issues like Brexit, with the especially humorous moment when a leader of the ‘No’ campaign in the recent referendum was forced to acknowledge he would have to campaign for a Second Referendum if he won a campaign. On the whole, Bentley and Lunn seemed the most apt candidates with some clear policy differences that give students some real choice.

Academic Officer

The third debate was a four-way fight between Daniel Brookes, Matt Johnstone, Giang Nguyen and Christian Stickels. At this point in the evening the audience was seriously dwindling and the debate reflected the lack of passion in the audience with a serious abundance of empty platitudes among the candidates. Inclusivity, diversity, change, hope and representing student views were sentiments universally echoed by all candidates. One exception to this rule was Brookes’ argument that the marketisation of education actually provided students with real student power, while Johnstone countered that you can’t put a “price on education”. One question that really stumped the candidates was about how to improve BAME attainment at university. Johnstone committed a rather inane faux pas as well, stating that looking at his own January exam grades “you don’t need to BAME” to not do well at university. This problematic statement aside, there wasn’t really a clear winner in the Academic Officer debate, with all seemingly moderate on academic reform.

York Sport President

The debate for this role was perhaps the most policy-driven of all debates, with Maddi Cannell, Charlotte Elsy and Ellie Griffin all providing a series of ways to improve the performance and enjoyment of sport in York. All agreed on the importance of College Sport and planned a series of initiatives to directly improve York’s performance in the BUCS circuit. However, this debate was overshadowed by the rather inept interventions of the moderator supplied by the York Union. His lack of knowledge about what BUCS was (the organisation responsible for organising inter-university sports) provoked a series of shocked laughs from the audience and candidates, in part revealing the disconnect between students that do and don’t participate in sport at York. A far greater commotion was caused by the moderator’s reference to ‘Hockey Nazis’ in light of 2017 controversies regarding a hockey social. The statements were undoubtedly inflammatory – with the off-hand comment being explicitly called out in a question from the floor. Later, security officials present were seen to caution the moderator for the comments made and the other representative from the York Union publicly apologised for the comments at the start of the next debate. The ham-fisted nature of official YUSU debates came out quite explicitly in this controversy as the incident itself was never discussed in the debate, while the reaction by security officials seemed rather extreme for what was an off-handed if ill-timed comment.

Union President

The final debate for the presidency of YUSU took place between Connor Drake, Samara Jones, Naomi Karthigesu, Tim Nguyen, Chris Oldnall, Rohail Karim, Flavio Sansa (RON) and Chris Small. This debate was undoubtedly the most contentious of the lot, with actual debate over some policy ideas as well as the bellicose attitudes of Sansa, the candidate for the RON choice. Simultaneously, many candidates seemed less committed than previous debates, with them seemingly relying more on popularity than actual concrete proposals. Chris Small, the ‘joke’ candidate clung fiercely to his humorous policies but did so with such a nervous giddiness and constant repetition that after his opening speech, every joke came to fall flat. Rohail Karim seemed genuinely lost, preferring to speak about his time in Salvos, rather than actual proposals, and thereby quickly faded into the background of the debate. Samara Jones and Connor Drake both seemed experienced but due to the sparks flying on issues of opinion polling and the RON campaign could not really get their proposals through. Tim Nguyen’s campaign seems to rest entirely on the use of a YUSU app and opinion polls as the method to make the Union more representative. This notion was tacitly accepted by Chris Oldnall, who presented himself as a RON-light candidate, willing to concentrate on small achievable changes focusing on increasing student engagement, but in turn seemed not very different from all the other candidates, who all cited low turn-out in elections as something to work on.

Karthegisu, whose policies seemed the most activist, including the need for more pronoun sensitive language, ‘chill zones’ on campus and the need for a Union Council (an idea that would bring together society leaders, college representatives and YUSU staff into a common space to make decisions), came out as the most confident and knowledgeable of all the candidates. Her ideas may be too radical for some but she stood out as a real choice in the upcoming election. However, the most interesting debate of the entire night seemed to take place between the suddenly activist moderator Joseph Silke and Flavio Sansa, the Re-Open Nominations candidate. Silke repeatedly challenged Sansa’s angry radicalism who seemed hell-bent on making empty statements like YUSU lacking ‘weight’, attacking YUSU’s unelected CEO and even attacking the debate itself for not including enough questions from the floor. The debate even got rather personal at times, with Sansa’s calling out Oldnall’s entire campaign as “a pun” while referring to the nebulous unhappiness of College Heads and Society Presidents. On the whole, the RON campaign came out of the debate rather badly, seeming like a group of rather angry activists with no clear ideas of how their victory would change YUSU. Unfortunately however these tough questions were not asked by any of the prospective candidates, but by the moderator.