Most students will be forgiven for never having realised that LUSU has a constitution, never mind the fact it is weeks away from being radically revised at the hands of a very small number of people. The supposedly democratic process for changing the constitution has so far involved very little democracy.
After the Thatcher government ripped up trade union laws in the '80s, all that was left for John Major to take aim at in the '90s was students' unions. The Education Act 1994 was designed to suppress the hotbeds of socialist dissent that could be found up and down the country in every university town. Among its provisions was a requirement for every students' union to have a written constitution and for it to be reviewed every five years and approved by its university. New Labour brought in additional regulatory burdens on students' unions, with the Charities Act 2006 requiring them to register as charities, legally restricting their ability to engage in campaigning and political activity.
LUSU's constitution was last reviewed in 2016. A year-long process, involving innumerable external consultants, including from the NUS, culminated in a survey answered by over 2000 students, many focus groups, and a review committee. Clearly determined to break with the stodgy system of "debate" and "voting", a radical vision was put forward.
That vision was an appalling mix of faux-democratic procedures combined with endless corporate bullshit. Gone was the 50-member elected Union Council, to which any student could turn up and speak. Now there was an Executive Committee, dominated by the sabbs, to which no students could turn up and speak other than its members. Elected student trustees abolished. Cross campus officers, other than a handful of liberation roles (they probably thought it would look bad to abolish the BME Students' Officer), lost. In came Student Juries and Scrutiny Panels. A new era of efficiency began at haste!
What once was an organisation with democracy and student representation weaved into its very soul, became in the course of a few months an organisation about as effective at representing students as University management itself. LUSU hadn't realised how fundamental bodies like Union Council were to its existence. Read half the documents currently on the website and they still makes reference to a body that hasn't existed for five years! But the biggest problem was, as subtext put it at the time, "Most of LUSU’s proposed constitutional changes give the Trustees a lot more power." It was as simple as that. The Trustee Board, about which no student had ever needed to care before, became the focal point of every important decision LUSU was to make for the next five years.
It didn't take long for things to go wrong. The Student Juries and Scrutiny Panels were all but abandoned within a couple years. LUSU was incorporated as a company, too, in 2016, adding another layer of bureaucracy. Students' discontent with their Union grew, and "LUSU" soon became synonymous with anti-democratic managerialism. But instead of responding to the substance of students' concerns, management just changed its name and branding in 2018. LUSU was no more! The Union was now called Lancaster SU. The logo and website were given an overhaul as well. But the failure of the 2016 system could not be avoided with a rebrand, and it boiled to the top with the attempted sale of the Sugarhouse.
A Trustee Board decision in January 2019 had gone unannounced until it was leaked in August 2019. It made the press in September. Students were in uproar. The Sugarhouse, one of the most important aspects of student social life, and certainly the best thing put on by the SU, was to be sold to a developer and knocked down to make way for student flats! An extremely popular petition against the sale led to the LUSU AGM being moved forward to October 2019. That AGM, attended by hundreds in person in the Great Hall, and with even more voting by proxy, exposed the Students' Union in the starkest way possible. A handful of elected student representatives were sat at the front, voiceless, as the unelected non-student vice-chair of the Trustee Board defended the sale over and over in front of despairing LUSU members wondering how it had all come to this.
A motion passed at the AGM, on Democratisation, was proposed by Oliver Robinson, now LUSU President. It called for LUSU to take a long hard look at itself and sort itself out. It proposed a Constitutional Convention, so students could really put their heads together and figure out a way out of LUSU's own internal democratic mess, so something like the attempted Sugarhouse sale could never happen again without students having a say.
In a normal students' union, the permanent staff are there to carry out the political will of the members. They pick up the slack when it comes to admin, or finance, or things that students and sabbs don't have the qualifications to run themselves. At Lancaster, this isn't the case. The staff and external trustees are usually more passionate student politicians than the students themselves. When it came to the Democratisation motion, and pretty much every other motion passed at the AGM, it was obstructed, ignored, forgotten about, and resigned to a traumatic period in LUSU's existence: the time when the students turned up and voted.
While it may have been easy to ignore a single AGM motion, it was harder to ignore the petition by Atree Ghosh (now Vice President Union Development) to establish a majority-elected Trustee Board. The petition triggered a referendum in November 2019 concurrently with the Save our Sugarhouse referendum (which had 26% turnout and was the nail in the coffin for LUSU's weird plans with the nightclub), passing with a resounding majority and turnout.
Moving with the speed and alacrity you would associate with such an "efficient" organisation, LUSU approved a plan at a Trustee meeting on 10th December 2019 to bring forward the 2021 Democracy Review to the first half of 2020. Rather than being a Constitutional Convention, as students had mandated, it would be outsourced to external consultants. Hooray! Months went by, and then the pandemic struck. Rather than seeing this as a wake-up call that, maybe, perhaps, students should lead the constitutional review, in May 2020 LUSU appointed CounterCulture to run the show. What followed were months of silence, until December, when another consultant was brought in to hold four focus groups with students in the week prior to concluding the Review. Now that's democracy. Palpatine eat your heart out.
The Democracy Review was not great, and in any case it definitely wasn't what LUSU President, Oliver Robinson, wanted. Robinson, who had proposed the Democratisation motion all those months ago (although it had mostly been written by someone else), had run for Vice President Union Development and lost before seizing his opportunity to become President in the summer 2020 by-election mired by electoral scandal. His manifesto both times had involved pledges to bring back Union Council, as an open, democratic, decision-making body for all students, and enact other democratic changes.
Robinson trashed the Democracy Review, not even publishing it. Months of work and thousands of pounds of expenditure consigned to the virtual recycling bin, students clearly too stupid to understand the big words included in it so they wouldn't even get to know the content of the review their money had been spent on. He drew up, over Christmas, his own "Majority Consensus Proposal." On 4th January 2020, the Trustees approved it in an emergency meeting. It was this proposal that went to LUSU's lawyers, and in return they created a set of draft Articles of Association (the pretentious name LUSU gives its constitution). Robinson then held two private hour-long Teams meetings with a small number of invited students to consult on the content of these draft Articles.
The draft Articles were tough. Entire sections were removed on JCRs, on student groups, on the Executive Committee, on Scrutiny Panels and Student Juries. Minor changes were brought in, i.e. lowering the quorum required for a referendum and the regulation of Trustee Board sub-committees in the bye-laws. One of the biggest changes was on the method of appointment of student trustees, restoring their election by cross-campus ballot, and their number, increasing from three to four. The number of external trustees was not to change, and nor would they be elected, despite Robinson's manifesto pledge to the contrary.
The other change was the introduction of a new 'Student Council', although details about its scope, operation, and membership were notably vacant. Following the invitational consultations, a few of the aspects of the draft Articles were changed, with Student Council becoming Union Council, with sections on JCRs and student groups added back in, and with a requirement for the external trustees to be ratified by an all-student vote before they could take office. Despite these changes being agreed, the pre-consultation original draft Articles were published on the website as the final proposal that would go to a referendum.
There was another problem. The way LUSU started talking about the upcoming Articles referendum was very misleading. Robinson, and the LUSU website, started talking about a "new FTO Committee," the changing of the VP UD role to include the Climate Emergency, a "directly-elected" Union Council, and a "new system for member-led campaigns." Very exciting changes, certainly more exciting than just saying "lower quoracy for referendums." But there was a problem. These changes weren't actually included in the draft Articles at all, neither the first or second draft. These were changes to be introduced in the bye-laws, and the bye-laws hadn't been written yet. Furthermore, bye-law changes aren't approved at referendum, but by a combination of the Executive Committee and the Trustee Board. Ergo, in theory, they would have to be subject to democratic scrutiny by elected representatives before being introduced. So none of these changes should have been presented as certainties. It certainly shouldn't have been stated that passing the Articles in this referendum would effect changes to the bye-laws!
The day before voting opened, the 'Yes' to the new Articles referendum campaign released their manifesto. It included such emotive phrases as "panoply of stakeholder engagement sub-committees." Someone call Orwell. The same day, the draft bye-laws, to follow on from the referendum, were released. 75 pages long, the bye-laws set out the new changes that had been clearly pre-determined without any student input in their formation. They left a lot to be desired.
Poor communication about what exactly was going on, and what had led to this referendum, presumably left a lot of students scratching their heads when voting opened at 10am on 3rd March. Fortunately for them, LUSU announced that evening, about 12 hours after voting opened, that they had published the wrong set of draft Articles (the first set, not the second set) on the website. For weeks, students had been scrutinising the wrong thing, and it turned out no one knew what they were actually voting for! It was a comic encapsulation of the whole process.
Voting reopened anew on 4th March, less than 12 hours after the correct version of the Articles was first published, and will continue until 13th March (far longer than the typical referendum voting period - the LUSU version of an essay deadline extension?). The referendum requires at least 10% turnout and 2/3 of voters in favour for them to pass. It will be a struggle, not least because a latent unofficial 'No' campaign began circulating a manifesto against the changes. A particular gripe, picked up by a former Students With Disabilities Officer on Twitter, was that the new FTO Committee / FTO Directorate / Student Directorate would exclude the voices of liberation officers. Robinson responded by saying that he'd "really appreciate a slightly less aggressive tone" when being asked about his proposals. Way to win over your critics. It remains to be seen whether or not this pushback, and the lack of understanding and interest, the poor communication and the technical failures, will mean that there is a vote of 'abstain', a vote against, or indeed simply a lack of turnout. If any of those three situations occur, it's probably LUSU's own fault.
75 pages of proposed bye-laws is quite a lot to scrutinise, and in time we will, but some things stand out. Union Council will have 33 members, 21 of whom will be directly-elected, across two elections - one electing 10 members and another electing 11. Unlike its pre-2016 predecessor, this Union Council will not represent colleges, faculty reps, societies, sports, student media, postgraduates, it won't even include the new elected student trustee positions. The election size is ridiculous - it could easily involve 50+ students running each time. Furthermore, none of these positions will have portfolios or specific responsibilities. Students will have no benchmark against which to judge who would be a good Union Councillor. The elections could easily result in a massive majority of white male FASS undergraduates, from the political societies, winning the seats. With no checks and balances, such as reserved seats for the interest groups that make up the Union, it will quickly devolve into farce.
The 21 directly-elected members belays a fundamental misunderstanding of what a students' union actually needs to run itself. It doesn't need a parliament. It needs a decision-making body that represents all the interests that make up LUSU, so that every voice is represented.
The new Student Directorate will exclude any non-sabbs, meaning that no decisions made by that committee will have been made by students. Why hasn't the possibility of a cut-down Executive Committee been considered? It could consist of the 6 FTOs and in addition include a couple JCR presidents and a couple members of Union Council, so that there is a check and balance on rampant FTO-headedness.
Conspicuously absent is any mention of the student representative on University Council. Robinson's AGM Democratisation motion explicitly called for this position, which previously went elected by cross-campus ballot, to be elected again (since 2019 it has been assigned to an FTO by the other FTOs). Instead, we find it missing from these bye-laws entirely. Why does this matter? The position is one of the most important in LUSU. University Council makes decisions that affect not only every student but also every staff member, whether that's on furlough, rent, capital expenditure, fees, or appointing the new vice-chancellor. In October, there was outcry after it emerged that the LUSU representatives on University Council had failed to opposed the appointment of a former Tory minister with historical links to a homophobic "gay cure" group as the new Pro-Chancellor. If students had the chance to elect their representative to University Council, perhaps this could have been avoided. The student representative role should be elected and should be held accountable, by sitting on Union Council.
There's much more to be said, and soon Spineless will say it, as over the next few weeks we plan to scrutinise every line of the proposed bye-laws. But if the Articles don't pass, there's no saying where LUSU will go next. Perhaps they will kick back, having "tried their best", and will not touch the constitution for the rest of the next year in office. Or maybe they will adapt the bye-laws and introduce them under the framework of the old Articles - very possible, but something they have been very afraid of doing since the AGM, far preferring to wait until new, and mostly similar, Articles were passed instead.
Whatever happens next, it will definitely be done poorly, it will be flawed, and it will surely be the crowning glory of the disaster show that has so far been LUSU's constitutional reform.