The tragedy and farce of Kent Union elections

By Daniel Esson 24 February 2021

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of InQuire Media

Image by Ainy Shiyam

I would usually start a piece like this saying that you’re probably all aware of the upcoming Kent Union elections, however, given the generally poor participation in these elections, a lot of us probably aren’t. In short, the time has come yet again where a new cast of characters seeking ascension into the professional middle class will assail you from all angles, promising this and that in exchange for your support. If the past few years are anything to go by, we shouldn’t treat this election as a serious opportunity for change, you’ll just end up disappointed.

Let’s first deal with the elephant in the room; hardly anyone except candidates and their friends really care about KU elections, and hardly anyone votes either. In the previous set of elections where the current Sabbatical Officers were elected, by KU’s own admission, turnout was a derisory 16%. This means if any of the officers were elected with just over 50% of the vote, they were in effect elected by under 10% of the student body. The results get even worse when looking at the turnout by year group, with only 1% of first-year students voting, and the highest turnout for a single year group being 20% of third years. This alone should worry Kent Union, there are failed states which can probably muster greater election turnout than this.

If the supposed organ of student democracy at UKC can’t even get one in five students to go and vote, students clearly don’t have much faith in KU. It would be an amazing twist if turnout is any better this year, given that you can only vote on one day, 11 March, “general election style”, rather than spread across a few days, giving more people time to remember to vote.

Some may remember that a few weeks ago InQuire ran an interview with Union President Josh Frost. In response to this interview, his predecessor as president, Sasha Langeveldt, released a statement on Instagram and as a comment on the Facebook post of the interview. In short, she criticised the fact that he has done almost nothing in his role, released his Officer Accountability Statement empty (which has seemingly been changed since) and is using the pandemic as an excuse for doing so little.

While I would say it’s surprising for any students’ union politician to criticise any other for achieving very little, the former President hit the nail on the head. According to Kent Union, the full-time officers are paid “circa £20,000 per year”, and this past year has proven beyond a doubt that in full-time officer roles you can get away with doing extremely little whilst still taking home this rather nice paycheque, and still get the CV benefit that comes from having held one of these roles. As such, the motives of anybody putting themselves forward for election should be treated as suspect at the least.

This already laughable state of affairs is made all the worse by the noticeable proclivity among candidates for campaigning on ridiculous promises. Take for example the Union President, his manifesto from the election he won promised to lower prices at the campus Co-Op (which naturally hasn’t happened). This could suggest a couple of things, perhaps he genuinely thought as KU President that he would be able to somehow lower the prices at the campus outlet of a national chain of retailers. We should certainly hope he didn’t believe this as it would suggest he really had no idea what job he was running for.

Alternatively, and more plausibly, it suggests he knowingly made a cynical and unfulfillable promise simply in order to get elected. VP for Student Engagement promised compensation to students affected by the strikes, only to quietly admit in his Accountability Report sometime later that this was “not within [his] remit”. This trend is once again in vogue for this year’s elections, with one already controversial candidate for the role of President – Samir Sadeghi, campaigning on policies of ending social distancing rules on campus, ending the provision of ‘mickey mouse degrees’, and introducing college uniforms. Absurd and cynical populist ploys as they may be, the fact that candidates can promise things which their position has no official power over is totemic of the farcical state of democracy in the students’ union.

The wonder of the digital age has further torn the veil from the democratic processes of KU, exposing the naked reality of the elections as glorified popularity contests. Aldo Manella, formerly the manager of the infamous Templeman Memes Instagram page, was elected as VP for Student Engagement in the 2019 election. Elected as a populist outsider, he was a roguish purveyor of memes, both light-hearted and savagely critical of the University and the Union, in a Machiavellian manoeuvre which worked on me and many others. He provided his endorsement to the then lesser-known manager of the UKC Bins page, Josh Frost, now President. The outsiders became the establishment, catapulted into these comfy positions because they had more Instagram clout than the rest.

These problems are certainly not unique to KU, I don’t think I’ve ever met a student who was satisfied with their students’ union, but just because most students’ unions are inept and alien from those they claim to represent doesn’t mean we should settle for it here. Aspiring students’ union politicians should be treated with at least as much scepticism and suspicion as real politicians, and while these elections don’t allow us to register spoilt ballots, I would recommend the next best thing: express your discontent by voting RON (Re-Open Nominations) for all positions.

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First published in 1965, InQuire is the University of Kent student newspaper.

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