Monday, 28 February 2011

Politics as Fun

Just to vary the diet a little, here's a little lunchtime reportage, in which our roving correspondent mingles with the customers.

I don't know how typical our university is, but I've been intrigued to watch the way Student Union elections have evolved over the years. Back in my day, student politics was a tribal affair, in which a "slate" of candidates for all posts was offered up by each broad alliance of smaller, politically-adjacent tribes, who had temporarily buried the hatchet (ice pick?) in order to seize or maintain power within the Union. Dirty tricks were -- ahem -- not unknown, and the whole affair was ruthlessly political, in that it was all about political positions that mirrored -- if a little grotesquely -- those in the wider world. A lot of those standing for election had their sights set on political careers.

I myself stood for election on a Broad Left slate for the august position of "Mr. Picture Fund" within our college Junior Common Room Committee. Unlike the movers and shakers, I was one of those who had greatness thrust upon me i.e. I was asked by the movers and shakers to stand. Our slate won, therefore I won. The next year, our slate lost, so I lost. A shame, as I had enjoyed buying and distributing artwork around the college, and had developed good relations with some stunningly-talented young women in the Ruskin School of Fine Art (Ah, Trebbe, where are you now? I still have your dreadful etching...).

But things are very different now, at least here in Southampton. Posts are contested by individuals, as individuals. It's not so much about politics, as branding. If these people have their sights set on anything, it's... Well, I have no idea what, really. Maybe just a bit of fun.

The first requirement seems to be to come up with a pun on your name, which will be used as your campaign slogan. This year I see "Be Terrible with Torrible", "The Jolly Dean Giant", "No Shane, No Gain", "Staff Only" (um, the candidate's name is "Staff", I presume), etc. This slogan will be painted onto a bedsheet or a large sheet of cardboard, and taped up prominently on campus walls.

The second requirement is to have a campaign colour and a vague theme. I see Shane's supporters wear white Smurf-style hats. God knows why. Capes and sloganised headbands in the right colourway seem the norm.

The third requirement is to have a team of campaigners who are prepared to dress up and paint their faces, and establish a campaign base in a tent erected on the SU plaza. Competing sound systems and chanting add to the tribal atmosphere.

Thee seems to be no requirement to have anything as dull as a platform of positions, though some candidates do have a stab at it. I can detect no real politics in most of these positions: "Extra bunfights throughout the year", "Value for money courses", "Shag events (sexual health and guidance)", huh? The serious-minded candidates -- Greens, mainly -- seem rather embarrassed by their own party-pooping earnestness.

Maybe elsewhere, away from the shouting and dressing up, some "real" politics (ballot stuffing, candidate intimidation, innuendo spreading, that sort of thing) is happening. Or maybe it's all on the Web -- some posters do have one of those mysterious square "QR codes" tucked away in a corner. But, as far as I can see, it's all rather amateurish and sweet -- much more reminiscent of some school "cutting and sticking" craft and project work, or maybe a slightly earnest rave, than anything that would count as a dress rehearsal for grown-up politics.

I suspect this is a reversion to what student politics was like in the days of Rag Days, pipe-smoking, and trad jazz. Who would ever believe, looking at these pictures, that this election is taking place in the very weeks when an unknown sort of revolution is rippling through the Middle East? You do have to wonder what our overseas students -- huddled in groups, passionately debating what I take to be real-life politics and not football (though I could be wrong about that) -- make of our young people, and their apparently politics-free politics?

Interesting times. "May you live in interesting times" was, of course, a curse, not a blessing.


Poetry24 said...

This reminds me of a time when I approached the President of the Student's Union, to comment on remarks made by one of his set. In short, he had no comment, and made it clear that the lad was on his own. He even supplied a mugshot for good measure. So much for rallying to the cause!

Mike C. said...


It's hard to fathom. Far-left factions aside, it's not as if mainstream politics has ceased to exist. Hmm, maybe I'll reconsider that statement.

But what a terrible piece of writing... Not an advert, really (unless he's an engineer, of course..)