by Elliot Folan
For the last 3 years, I’ve sat on the UEA Student Union Council. Council has the power to set SU policy, call referendums, mandate Officers to take political stances and actions, rewrite the SU budget and elect members of various committees. In the last year, however, it has become clear that its ability to exercise these powers – and to represent the 14,000 students that make up UEA’s student population – has been hamstrung by various issues. A handful of councillors have blamed the rules of Council, but I strongly disagree: there are only a few rules that every councillor should know, and those can fit on one side of an A4 piece of paper. The rest are all rules that the Chair and Deputy Chair should know in intense detail, and interpret and explain for the rest of the meeting.
However, a political institution shouldn’t be dependent upon a single personality sitting in the Chair. It should be able to run smoothly and easily and be able to fix any issues that arise along the way. Currently, Council does not enable this, and as an institution it tends to produce bored councillors and frustrated attendees. We do need to change things, and in this article I’d like to give 5 simple ways that we can do that.
a political institution shouldn’t be dependent upon a single personality sitting in the Chair.
- Re-jig the agenda
A frequent complaint of councillors is that we take far too long to get to the reason people attend: the policy motions. Currently, we have approval of Societies; reports from Officers; reports from Trustees; reports from other Reps; and then, finally, motions. Council is about accountability for Union Officers, but the fact is people attend in order to vote through things they care about. This should be the top priority of a meeting – as Chair of the LGBT+ Caucus, I always aimed to put the most important items at the top of the agenda, so that people could get straight down to business. Council should do this too.
For this reason, the next Chair of Union Council should move policy motions to the top of the agenda, and put everything else after the first Access Break. The Chair should also push all visitors’ talks, Vice Chancellor speeches and visits from university officials to the very end of the meeting, after the issues of urgent concern to students have been discussed.
- Allow Councillors to properly hold the Chair to account.
As I know from my experience as Chair of the LGBT+ Caucus, a Chair holds an enormous amount of power, but it is very difficult to hold them to account for it. The only mechanism for removing a Chair is a “motion of no confidence”, a confrontational move that most people don’t want to use, in part because many people in the room will be friends with the Chair. That’s why the next Council should introduce an automatic vote, at the first Council of the Spring Term, on whether to renew the Chair’s term in office. This vote should be by a secret, paper ballot, with the Chair allowed to give a 2-minute speech on why they should stay in office (and anyone who wishes to argue the contrary would also have the right to do so).
- Increase support for the Chair.
Currently, the only politically accountable person running the meeting is the Council Chair. Support staff are restricted in what they can do, and it is highly inappropriate for the Chair to call on those staff (who are not politically accountable for Council decisions) to take over the Chair’s duties in areas that they should really be able to do themselves. This has happened too much recently and it needs to stop.
For this reason, the role of the Deputy Chair should be expanded from a substitute Chair role (stepping in when the Chair cannot run the meeting) to a supportive, co-Chair position. They should be up on the platform sitting next to the Chair, with a copy of the Council rules, helping to plan out debates, keep the Chair up to speed, and interpret the SU constitution and time speeches. The Democratic Procedures Committee should also act as a supportive body during Council meetings.
- Give every councillor a guide to the meeting’s processes and rules.
At the moment, the only people who understand Union Council’s processes are a small group who are absorbed in SU politics. While some councillors have assailed the rules, condemning them as “too complicated” for councillors to understand, I think this argument does a disservice to union councillors. Every councillor is perfectly capable of understanding the basics. The problem is, most of them don’t know where to find these basics.
That’s why the SU needs to provide every councillor with a concise, accessible guide to how they can use Council to make a positive difference. It should summarise the rules, how to make a policy and how to hold officers to account.
- Crack down on anonymous online abuse
In the past year, Union Council has had to confront a growing problem in the form of the anonymous social media application “Yik Yak”. Councillors have been subject to racist and misogynist abuse during and after Council sessions, which has left many feeling uncomfortable and unsafe being in the meetings or making their political opinions known during meetings. This has to change: union councillors should feel safe within a political meeting, and the debates should be about the policies and the ideas expressed, not personal attacks on individuals, especially marginalised students.
To this end, the Chair should take a zero-tolerance attitude to sexist and racist abuse online. They should make very clear from the start of the year that Council is a “Yik Yak”-free zone and that if it is used to attack individual councillors, then anyone found to have Yik Yak open on their phone during a council meeting will be made to leave the remainder of that meeting and not allowed to return unless they give an apology that is accepted by the meeting. If they refuse to apologise or explain what they were doing on the app, Union Council should be able to remove that individual from Union Council and ban them from further meetings until they do apologise.
The fact that Yik Yak is anonymous will always make it difficult to track down those engaging in online abuse, but the Chair can try their best to create an atmosphere in which online abuse is always considered socially unacceptable.
The next Chair of Union Council, when they’re elected in October 2016, has an opportunity, and a responsibility, to remake Union Council. I hope they do.