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Tension High at Working Class Officer Debate

Photo credit: York.ac.uk

Last night, I covered the official debate over the creation of a Working Class and Social Mobility Officer. It was the culmination of a first week of campaigning which has seen controversy throughout; controversy which carried into tonight’s discussion, with confrontational and hostile comments a theme throughout. It was chaired by YUSU’s policy co-ordinator, Jack Harvey, who said it was “the most enthusiastic I’ve seen. I hope that [the campaigns] will conduct themselves in a positive and supportive manner” – the campaign continues until voting closes this Friday.

The campaign leading up to the debate has seen its share of drama. ‘No’ campaign chair Jack Worrall resigned in protest of what he sees as “dirty” tactics and now calls for the student body to boycott the referendum. He described it as “an awful campaign” via his twitter account.

After a short delay, the debate began with what were initially calm and reasonable opening statements from each side. Michaela Tharby, current YUSU women’s officer, began by making an emotive case for the motion based on both her own experience of working class life at York, and also drawing on a survey conducted by the campaign on what it feels like to be a working-class student at York. It was a survey that they would draw on throughout the debate.

Following this, Dominique Samuels stepped up to the crease for the ‘No’ side, saying “I identify as working class” as well – indeed all speakers at the debate made the same claim. Her argument against was rooted in the description of the position of “working class” officer – which she and evidently others in the audience described as patronising, paternalistic and offensive.

The debate which followed produced fleeting moments of clarity, with no common ground identified. What few neutrals I could speak to after the debate said that they now lean slightly more in favour of rejecting the proposal – but were not sure yet. The debate centred around whether it was acceptable that the position and network of working class students should be self-defining, or not. The ‘no’ campaign saw problems with both and adopted the position that to introduce a definition of working class would create division among students, whilst to make it self-defining would leave the position open to capture by middle-class students.

In response, the ‘yes’ campaign argued that a self-defining position worked well for other liberation networks led by BAME and LGBTQ officers, as these networks were self-policing. It is worth pointing out that the motion would create a self-defining network, so to argue the merits of a network which does exclude students is somewhat moot.

Over an hour into the debate, and moving on to audience-chaired questions, the bitter comments that had become a theme of the campaign so far had taken over the hall. An argument broke out over whether any of the campaigns actually knew what the part-time officers did on a day-to-day basis, with one ‘No’ campaigner’s comment leading to a biting response from Tharby “good attempt at a smear, but not your best” – possibly referencing the ‘No’ campaigns’ attempt to smear a student leading the Yes campaign using Facebook posts he had made in the past.

Whatever your position on the creation of a working-class officer, it is a shame that the debate this evening descended to the levels it did – with little reasonable or meaningful discussion being given to serious questions such as the cost of the policy, or the successes of similar positions at other universities. In any case – it should be possible for you to vote in the referendum via the YUSU website as of 8pm yesterday evening. You may also abstain on the vote, if you have no position either way, but want to ensure that the referendum is quorate – 922 votes are required for the referendum to be deemed valid.