Voter turnout undermines the very namesake of the SRC
We’ve hit that time again in the academic year when student elections have started to infiltrate themselves into our lives. When I began university, I knew next to nothing about the SRC (Students’ Representative Council) and, one year in, I don’t feel much wiser. My limited knowledge starts and ends at the secondhand bookstore and the understanding that the SRC aims to do what it says on the tin: represent the student body.
The only time the council aspect of the SRC crosses my mind is when election season comes about again, and I inevitably get an influx of emails telling me this is my chance to get my voice heard. To give a quick summary of this autumn’s election, there are 15 positions up for grabs. Candidates can nominate themselves for different roles in various departments within the SRC, ranging from the Gender and Sexual Diversity Officer to the Postgraduate Social Sciences Convener. These elections are an essential part of the SRC. You can’t run the council without allowing the student body the choice of who is going to represent them, and events such as the Heckling Meeting do offer students the opportunity to meet the candidates and ask them more personal questions about their policies and manifestos. They may be a necessary component of any democratic body, but I can’t help but ask: what impact do the SRC elections actually have?
I voted last year after a talk from Kate Powell urging people to vote for her as SRC President. After speaking to a few people, everybody I asked had said that they hadn’t voted last year and didn’t plan to in this election. The most common response was: “What’s the point?” To be perfectly honest, when I cast my vote, I didn’t know what Kate stood for. I voted for her because she asked us to, and, after speaking to someone about the elections, it was a sure bet that she’d win. As it turns out, it was a sure bet because she was running completely unopposed. Surely, then, the vitality of this “democratic” body is somewhat questionable when even the organisation’s president doesn’t have to fight for their role.
For a select few candidates, winning their desired position is pretty much a guarantee. This is often either because they’ve held previous roles, like current president Kate Powell who was Vice President in 2016, or else because they are relatively popular names on campus who are able to use their personal social network to encourage people to vote for them. These candidates, whether consciously or not, form a circle of “top dogs” within the SRC. This, in turn, results in cases where the majority of students who get involved will vote if someone they know or know of is nominated, but have no real desire to get involved in reading manifestos and reviewing each candidate’s campaigns.
It doesn’t surprise me that one of the main issues the SRC faces is a consistently low election turnout. It creates a dent in the shiny and polished image of the council being the be-all and end-all of student representation. The stark reality of voter turnout undermines the very namesake of the SRC and forces us to ask ourselves how representative a student body can be if a large majority of students don’t take part in the elections. The University of St Andrews holds the title of being the only UK students' union to have exceeded over 50% turnout in student elections. In 2012, they even went as far as to namecheck the University of Glasgow, citing our measly 15% turnout that year.
There is obviously a significant disconnect between the SRC and the students they stand to represent. This could be due to a number of reasons, but from my understanding it’s a combination of low interest, the top dogs dominating the game, and an uninformed student body. I don’t believe that the SRC elections are substantially impactful − in fact, some might go as far as to say that they are show elections. At best, these elections offer high-profile students an excuse to compete in a popularity contest, only to enter a student body that most of the student population remain disinterested in for the rest of the academic year.